Observations Ethics Man

The dilemma of authorship

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39500.620174.94 (Published 28 February 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:478
  1. Daniel K Sokol, lecturer in medical ethics and law, St George’s, University of London
  1. daniel.sokol{at}talk21.com

Adhering to authorship criteria in research while maintaining good relations with colleagues may be difficult, but it is an ideal to which we must continually aspire

As a graduate student in the humanities I remember being surprised at the tales of bogus authorship recounted by my counterparts in the sciences. One person would do virtually all the work, another would give useful feedback, another would glance at the final version, while yet another would be just someone who worked in the same department—and all would be coauthors of the published manuscript. “It happens all the time,” the scientists would say. I nevertheless ascribed such practices to a pocket of ambitious, amoral scientists in the cut throat environment of a major research institution.

With time I discovered that this was not at all unusual in science and indeed in other disciplines. In the months leading up to the UK Research Assessment Exercise, whose outcome determines a department’s academic reputation and share of government funding, I heard of academic ethicists adding the names of struggling colleagues to their publications. Thus I cannot but look on multiauthored publications with suspicion, despite the authorship criteria …

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