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Good practices

How to prevent authorship disputes

Cardiologist Mike Lauer, deputy director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the biggest biomedical research funding agency in the USA, published a set of recommendations on the institution’s website for preventing a highly common source of conflict in laboratories and universities: disputes over the authorship of scientific articles. These disagreements generally stem from one of a few common issues. Lauer highlighted that junior researchers not included as authors often feel like their contribution was important and deserved to be recognized—or they feel aggrieved at the inclusion of scientists who contributed little to the work.

The order of signatures is another source of dissatisfaction. The first and last authors are usually those who came up with the idea for the study, produced the data, and wrote the manuscript, but the other positions on the list often provoke competition and demand for recognition. Sometimes, researchers listed as authors ask for their names to be removed after the paper has been published, even though they actively participated in the study, because they do not agree with the conclusions or were not consulted about the content. “Sometimes disagreements cannot be avoided,” the deputy director wrote. “They can be handled thoughtfully and appropriately. When they are not, they may lead to serious consequences for the people and research involved.”

Lauer’s recommendations include the proposal that every laboratory, department, or research group should have its own publication committee in charge of defining and negotiating authorship rules in advance. “These committees could also address issues that come up due to changing circumstances once a project is under way. When one of the project members drops out, for example,” he said. Another suggestion is to create a manual for authorship policies and procedures. “These policies could be revisited over time as personnel and circumstances change,” he said. A third recommendation is to ensure that all scientists involved confirm that they agree with what is being published—and with the list of authors. “A manuscript should only be submitted if everybody agrees. Institutions could set up policies and procedures to assure that all researchers understand and abide by this requirement.”