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Authorship-related Publication Issues and Relevant Resources

Info: 5216 words (21 pages) Dissertation
Published: 9th Mar 2021

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Primer on authorship-related publication issues and relevant resources: A guide for trainees and new researchers by an early stage researcher.

Abstract: In most disciplines, it seems academics tend to learn early the value of publication for their professional advancement. Unfortunately, the road to publication has many challenges including the nuances of formatting, navigating abstract submission websites, and responding to reviewer comments within allowed deadlines. Beyond these practical challenges, are ethical ones, including many authorship related concerns. The primary purpose of this review is to serve as a primer on important authorship related ethical and related issues that may arise (e.g. identifying co-authors; delinquent authors; plagiarism; etc.). The secondary purpose is to highlight relevant resources designed to help avoid these issues altogether or address them in the event that they do arise. While other papers on publication ethics exist, most are focused on only a single authorship related issue. This manuscript adds to the existing literature by providing a broader overview of the diverse types of authorship-related ethical issues. Further adding to the novelty of this manuscript is its perspective, being written by an early-stage investigator and directed at trainees and other early-stage investigators with a special focus on providing tips to avoid, detect, and address issues.

Keywords: publications; ethics; authorship; authorship dispute; authorship issues; byline; responsible conduct of research; plagiarism; self-plagiarism; resources

1. Introduction

  1. Note about Vocabulary

This primer will build on fundamental vocabulary related to the responsible conduct of research and authorship ethics. Key terms throughout this review will be used without definitions. Definitions for key terms are provided below in Table 1.

Table 1. Glossary of Key Terms Related to Ethical Authorship. Definitions were amalgamized from multiple sources, including those published by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), part of the Executive Office of the United States government.

Term Definition Note
Authorship An individual meeting professional and journal-specific criteria for inclusion on a research deliverable, especially a manuscript or chapter. Typically involves a significant role in the planning and/or execution fo the resaerch as well as the creation of the deliverable. There are different criteria for authorship in different circumstances. Authorship shoudl be discussed in advance whenever possible.
Conflict of Interest Competing obligations/interests that may affect content of the paper. Often, athough not necessaraly, related to financial gain by the author(s). Should be disclosed by authors consistent with discipline- and journal- specific guidelines. Additional details can be found in secton 2.5 of this review.
Contributorship Individuals who have made important contributions to the completion of the work, as consistent with professional- and journal- specific guidelines. Some journals require specific contributions of each individual listed in the bylines to be included with the manuscript. This may help to identify omitted writers (e.g. ghost writers may be identified when no individual is listed as drating the manuscript).
Deliverables Any academic product(s) that result from a research study (e.g. posters, podium talks, manuscripts, etc.). Deliverables should be discussed and agreed upon in the planning stages of resarch whenever possible or otherwise as soon as responaby possible.
Errata Corrections that are appended to a manuscript or chapter after publishing. Papers may be cited prior to an errata being issued; if the references from papers citing the original document are read and cited it may compound scentific misunderstanding. For additional details, see Section 3.
Fabrication The recording and/or reporting of made up results. One of the 3 key types of research misconduct defined by the OSTP.
Falsification Manipulation of research equipment, materials, methods, data or results to misrepresent key findings. One of the 3 key types of research misconduct defined by the OSTP.
Ghost Authorship An individual who would meet the criteria for authorship is missing from the byline (e.g. the list of author contributions list does not mention who performed a key role like preparation of the first draft). Sometimes ghost authors are paid to write on the behalf of another. Disciplines/publication outlets may have different norms regarding ghost authorship. For more information, see Section 2.4.
Gift Authorship Inclusion of someone as an author on a submitted/accepted publication despite that individual making little-to-no contribution to the deliverable (i.e. authorship given to someone who fails to meet criteria). Also referred to as honorary authorship; guest authorship; usually given to senior investigators. For more information, see Section 2.4.
Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) A document that delineates responsibilities of all relevant parties regarding a research project or the associated deliverables. Check with your institution or online for examples of MOU that can be adapted for your needs.
Plagiarism Plagiarism is the misattribution of another’s ideas and work as your own. One of the 3 key types of research misconduct defined by the OSTP. Several specific types are defined in Section 2.1.1 of this review.
Retraction A removal of a scientific paper from the literature or flagging of pubished papers as having been recanted/disavowed. Websites that curate and publish retracted papers/lists can be found in Table 3 of this review.
Salami Slicing Fragmenting a scientific project into as many deliverables as possible, typically to boster the publication record of the investigator/team. A form of duplicate publishing described in Section 2.1.2.
Self-Plagiarism Reusing significant portions of ones own work without citation or attribution. Also sometimes referred to as recycling fraud. Described in additional detail in Section 2.1.2.
  1. Overview of the Problem and Purpose of this Review

“Publish or perish” the academic adage goes; a phrase commonly uttered by researchers and (as of 2017-11-25) referenced in the title of 107 PubMed entries. This single sentence that acknowledges the pivotal need for academics to publish to fulfill crucial aspects of their professional role, while completely ignoring the complexities of publication. There is a multifaceted process that for many academics includes one or more of the following:  (a) identifying a topic to write on based on interests, goals, existing data, calls for special issues, etc.; (b) assembling a team of co-authors and having discussions related to authorship (order; contributions; etc.); (c) outlining; (d) writing; (e) editing and sending to co-authors to provide feedback/approvals; (f) formatting; (g) navigating manuscript submission websites; (h) revising; (i) resubmitting; (j) and checking proofs. This complicated process must often be navigated in the context of issues related to funding, employer’s expectations for publications, and other work-related roles (e.g. administrative, clinical, etc.); past publications have explored the link between these external pressures and misconduct related to research and publishing [1].

While often the authorship-related tasks outlined above are executed without incident, there are also times when one or more steps are complicated. In fact, when I saw this call for the special issue of MDPI’s Publications journal on the topic of scientific ethics on November 16th and noticed its deadline of November 30th, my thought process went from “a discussion of authorship-related ethics that would have been helpful to me as a trainee…” to “two weeks might not be enough time to have the appropriate authorship-related conversations with co-authors, write the draft, and give my collaborators time to provide edits.” Resultantly, I decided to write this manuscript individually, despite my general preference to work collaboratively. This strategy negates the need for conversations around authorship and avoids the possibility for authorship-related disputes; however, it also comes at the expense of mentorship (which is especially valuable for an early-stage investigator) and diversity in perspective. Still, as one who sees the value in collaborative and transdisciplinary authorship, I was motived respond to the call through the generation of a summary of authorship-related problems (e.g. identifying co-authors; delinquent authors; plagiarism) and curation of a list of resources that I have found helpful so that other trainees and junior faculty can use them to avoid/mitigate these issues in our own careers. My perspectives as an early-stage investigator add to those already existing in published literature on publication ethics, such as the vantage points of publishers [2], editors [3,4], and graduate students [5]. This primer broadly covers the diverse array of ethical considerations related to authorship and contributorship and adds to existing resources aimed at trainees and early investigators regarding manuscript writing and publication [6].

  1. Overview of Resources for Trainees and New Investigators

In my experience, the most valuable source of information about all issues regarding the responsible conduct of research broadly, and authorship/contributorship specifically, have been the individuals in my professional network including my peers, mentors, alumni, professional society leadership, and indirect contacts. Having multi-disciplinary senior-, peer-, and other- mentors, each of whom has their own network of professional contacts, can also be an indispensable source of support regarding ethical publication. Likewise, institutional resources including training, networking events, workshops, seminars, etc. are another valuable resource for trainees and new investigators.

2. Overview of Authorship- and Contributorship Related Ethical Issues

I entered academia as an undergraduate student in 2005 and in the subsequent years I have both  directly and indirectly been made aware of various author- and contributor- related issues from several sources, including but not limited to: (a) unpublished experiences of myself, my mentors, my peers, and other means (e.g. friend of a friend; responsible conduct of research training, etc.); (b) published literature delineating cases of publication misconduct [7,8] as well as those published scholarly papers that are currently listed as “WITHDRAWN” in PubMed [9–14]; (c) cases highlighted on research misconduct websites (e.g. the Office of Research Integrity’s case summaries page [15]) and (d) other relevant committees (e.g. Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) [16]). COPE is an international committee comprised of scientific journal editors and other individuals committed to promoting ethically-published literature. Part of COPE’s efforts include maintaining a database of court cases related to publication ethics that also contains advice from COPE as well as updates on case resolutions when they become available [16]. Since 1997, over 500 cases (n=570 as of 2017-11-25) have been added to the COPE database; of these, 129 cases include 1 or more ethical issues related to authorship (n=125) and/or contributorship (n=20), including 5 open cases [16]. Notably, many of the cases include two or more types of ethical issues specific to authorship/contributorship such as: disputed, questionable, change-in, ghost, gift, or other/not otherwise specified (see Figure 1).

Because these issues are complex and remain relatively common they warrant further discussion since awareness of common problems can lead to strategic planning efforts to avoid the issues entirely (ideally) or mitigate the effects of these issues with thoughtful response. A summary of several authorship related problems will be described below by category, with relevant references noted. Briefly, topics covered in this primer include: (a) attribution-related issues (e.g. plagiarism; self-plagiarism; duplicate publications; etc.), (b) issues related to co-authorship and/or unmerited authorship (e.g. gift authorship; ghost authorship; etc.), (c) issues related to changes in authorship (e.g. byline list; order), (d) other questionable authorship practices (e.g. contingent authorship), (e) conflict of interest, and (f) issues related to consent for publication. A discussion will follow along with a summary of relevant resources.

2.1. Issues Related to Attribution and Duplicate Publication

Attribution-related issues include plagiarism, self-plagiarism, publishing one paper in two or more languages, and other forms of duplicate publishing (e.g. salami slicing; copy; aggregation). These issues will be described briefly below. First, a brief overview of tools to identify plagiarism will be provided.

There are currently a number of free and licensed software programs aimed at detecting plagiarism so that corrective action can be taken [17–19]. Authors can utilize such software to identify areas where text in their manuscripts overlaps with published literature so that edits can be made prior to submission. Many research settings (e.g. colleges, universities, industry companies, etc.) have enterprise licenses that provide employees and trainees access to plagiarism software. Researchers are encouraged to check with relevant representatives at their institutions (e.g. research librarian; information technology (IT) specialist; administrators) to find out what software is available and for additional mentorship and support in avoiding plagiarism [20–22]. Each type of software is distinct in the features offered and algorithms used so results may vary slightly. In addition to available software, guidelines have been published to assist authors in avoiding plagiarism [23]. Similarly, a series of diverse plagiarism cases (e.g. duplicate publication; unauthorized translation, etc.) encountered by a research integrity officer have been published [24].

2.1.1. Plagiarism

Plagiarism is the misattribution of another’s ideas and work as your own, including, but not limited to, quotes without attribution, figure re-use, conceptual theft, or plagiarism of sources [8,25,26]. Although an intent to deceive was initially included in the definition of plagiarism [27], it has subsequently been removed from the Office of Research Integrity’s definition due to the challenges involved in proving intent [28]. As a result, both intentional and unintentional plagiarism [29,30] have gained international attention as a problem worthy of discussion [31–35] which likely occurs at higher rates than other related issues (e.g. fabrication and falsification [36]). Interestingly, a recent meta-analysis of survey data revealed that self-reported plagiarism is declining over time, while endorsement of knowing a scientist who has plagiarized has increased [36]. Thus, in addition to our obligation as authors to use due diligence to avoid committing intentional or unintentional plagiarism, we have a responsibility to act on plagiarism when it is detected. An example of an email to the editor-in-chief of a journal was previously published [31] which may be helpful to researchers who identify plagiarism when reading published literature or peer-reviewing unpublished manuscripts.

2.1.2. Self-Plagiarism, Publishing One Article in Two or More Language, and Other Duplicate publication issues.

Like plagiarism, self-plagiarism has become a widely discussed topic in literature related to research ethics [26,37–39]. Like plagiarism, authors caught self-plagiarizing may admit it was intentional or maintain that it was unintentional [40,41] Unlike plagiarism, self-plagiarism has been more hotly debated, including its nuances [42] and the appropriateness of consequences such as retraction [43]. Self-plagiarism is problematic in that it results in further overtaxing of publication peer-review systems (e.g. editors, peer-reviewers, and other staff), can be accompanied by infringement on the original copyrighted publication, and may result in punishment (e.g. retraction, tarnished reputation for the parties involved, other sanctions) [44,45]. Examples of self-plagiarism are varied and include: one or more verbatim paragraphs (e.g. text is recycling of methods), data augmentation (e.g. addition of new data and republishing), unattributed reuse of figures or conceptual frameworks [44]. The most extreme cases involve duplicate publication of an entire manuscript in two journals, despite most current journals requiring authors to certify that the manuscript has not been published and is not under review in another journal (described in detail in the next paragraph).

Some duplicate cases involve an author submitting the same manuscript to an English-language journal in addition to a journal in their native language [46]. Another type of duplicate publications is referred to as salami slicing which involves fragmentation of a dataset into the minimal publishable unit; salami slicing and related problems (e.g. copy, aggregation) are gaining attention as an important issue in publication ethics [10,47–50]. Issues related to duplicate publication tend to be more nuanced than some of the other issues outlined in this review (e.g. plagiarism; delinquent authors). Detecting duplicate publications tends to be complicated when compared to detecting plagiarism and other misconduct (e.g. figure manipulation [51]); standard plagiarism software only sometimes detects duplicate publications and may even erroneously assume duplication has occurred (as in the case of interesting findings from a pilot study being followed up on in a larger independently recruited sample). Still, the increased attention being paid to duplicate publications is important for supporting the best possible research practices. A recent study of Korean medical journals suggested that duplicate publications decreased from 5.9% in 2004 to 1.2% in 2009 [52]. Another study of 40,000 researchers who published at least 2 papers indexed in the Web of Science between 1900 and 2013 found that while changes in authorship norms have occurred (e.g. increase in the average number of co-authors) the overall publication rate for researchers did not appreciably increase; the authors suggest these findings counter the fears of some that publication misconduct (e.g. salami slicing, duplicate publishing, etc.) is rampant [53].

Consequences of duplicate publishing include an inability to draw conclusions due to fragmentation of the data set, distortion of the literature with repetitive findings, corruption of the scientific record, undeserved career advancement, and reduced reader confidence [54–57]. A past publication outlines examples that do and do not constitute duplicate/salami publishing with rationale that may be especially helpful to trainees and new researchers [58]. Other publications have explored the nuances of duplicate publications and provided practical guides for using the same dataset for multiple publications [59,60]. Numerous colleagues of mine have been contacted by so-called “predatory journals” and a search of the Beall’s list and DOAJ saved them substantial efforts and publication fees.

2.2. Selection of a Journal

Selection of an appropriate journal can be one of the most challenging aspects of authorship for trainees and new investigators. It can be argued that ethical publishing involves an effort to connect the research deliverable to the appropriate audience to maximize the impact of the work. However, considering the huge and ever-expanding list of scientific journals, this seemingly simple task can be rather daunting, especially for trainees and new investigators.

Beyond discussion with mentors and others in the professional network described in Section 1.3., there are resources available to assist new investigators. First, searching relevant databases using key words (e.g. PubMed, EMBASE, Web of Science) may be helpful in identifying journals that may be interested. Journals that seem appropriate based on name can be followed up on by examining the journals scope, types of papers accepted, readership, and upcoming special issues on the journal’s home page. An inquiry letter can also be sent to the editor. Most major publishing companies also offer some form of search engine that matches author-entered key words to appropriate journals run by that publisher. Another helpful resource is the Journal Author Name Estimator (JANE), which was funded by the Netherlands Bioinformatics Centre (NBIC) developed by Martin Schuemie a PhD-prepared computer scientist, and copyrighted [61]. Authors can enter a set of keywords or an abstract into the search field and then use the search buttons to find relevant journals, articles, and authors. A related resource is Journal Guide, which is hosted by Research Square [62]. Recently, open access and other fee-for-publication journals are emerging, and not all are equally reputable [63–65]. Additional websites like Beall’s list [66] (and associated literature [67]) along with the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) [68] may prove helpful. The resources described in Section 2.2 are summarized in Table 2.

Table 2. Overview of Key Resources for Finding an Appropriate Non-Predatory Journal

2.3 Selection of Co-Authors

Selection of co-authors is a critical step in the authorship process. It is imperative that the author team has the appropriate expertise to complete the research, analyze the data, interpret the findings, and write up the paper in a way that all parts are valid and consistent with the state of the science. Beyond utilizing your professional network, mentors (and their professional networks), and institutional resources as described in Section 1.3 there are other strategies that may prove useful to identify co-authors. Notably, while JANE’s primary intention was to find authors to cite or to serve as reviewers, it could be used to contact individuals about potential collaborative opportunities.

2.4. Unmerited & Omitted Authorship

Unmerited & omitted authorship is a complex issue that is thought to be among the most common type of authorship-related misconduct [5,69,70]. The too-common occurrence and negative consequences (e.g. reinforced hierarchy and status of senior researchers [71]; confusion for readers regarding key players) have led to increased efforts to understand and address unmerited authorship [72]). One study explored the link between culture and unmerited authorship credit [73]. Several types of unmerited authorship have been identified in the literature, including gift authorship [16], ghost authorship [16], and contingent authorship [16].

2.5. Further Questionable Authorship Practices

Other questionable authorship practices exist, including: (a) making authorship contingent on completion of activities not related to the project/deliverable [16]; (b) omitting authors that should be included based on the criteria for authorship; (c) changing authorship order without notifying all co-authors; (d) failing to notify co-authors that a manuscript has been submitted (especially considering many manuscript submission systems require the corresponding author to testify that the work submitted had been approved by all co-authors). Another problem is when an author agrees to participate in the manuscript but becomes delinquent at some point, either failing to fulfill their writing responsibilities or even simply failing to provide final email or submission website approvals, delaying progress toward publication.

2.6. Additional Authorship- and Collaboratorship-Related Issues

Additional authorship- and/or contributorship-related issues surround conflict of interest (COI). Possible COIs include factors like relationships and financial gain that has the potential to lead to a motive for bias that would affect the deliverable. For any manuscript, it is possible that one or more authors will have a COI. COI are gaining awareness as a problem of scientific integrity that is linked to publication bias and other sequelae [74,75]. A related issue surrounds consent for publication as eluded to above in Section 2.4 when referring to delinquent co-authors. All authors have to consent to the final version of the manuscript which may lead to some level of dispute and a need for careful communication to resolve the issue in a way that all parties are satisfied with. One helpful resource is the Form for Disclosure of Potential Conflicts of Interest, which can be downloaded from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) website [76]; this form contains detailed definitions, instructions, and prompts that can help authors to identify and report COIs associated with their deliverable(s).

3. Punishment for Authorship Misconduct

Authorship misconduct can result in tarnishing of the professional’s reputation. In some cases, disciplinary action at the author(s) institution(s) may occur. Within the literature itself, sometimes the paper in question is formally modified (i.e. errata) or pulled altogether (i.e. retraction). Some organizations track retractions and publish them as part of a curated website or list, such as those described in Table 3.

Table 3. Overview of Resources that Track/Report Authorship Misconduct

4. Discussion

Beyond one’s professional network, mentorship from senior scientists/peers, responsible conduct of research literature and training are relevant sources of additional information on authorship ethics [80]. This article served as a primer on the topic broadly, but is not intended to be a fully comprehensive review. Interested readers are encouraged to do additional reading and pursue additional training on the subject; a curated overview of additional readings and training opportunities is summarized in sections 3.1 and 3.2, respectively.

4.1. Further Reading

Readers who found this primer on the diverse array of ethical issues related to authorship/contributorship useful are encouraged to peruse the full-text versions of the publications cited in this review and other published literature. Notably, the literature (including some of the citations in this manuscript) is largely limited to short review papers, opinion pieces, letters to/from the editor, and similar types of communication. In preparing this primer, one integrated review was identified that may be of interest to readers, as it summarizes published data-based studies on ethical issues related to authorship [81].

A good starting point is the criteria for authorship outlined by the ICMJE [82], though it has been acknowledged that these guidelines may have limitations in certain contexts [83]. To date, broad reviews are available that are specific to business/economics [84], basic sciences [85] and clinical research [3,35,86–88]. Additionally, detailed reviews on several germane topics have been published, including but not limited to: (a) plagiarism [89–91], ghost authorship [92], COI [93], etc. Similarly, reviews aimed at elucidating issues relevant to specific types of authors have also been published, with existing papers targeting: (a) contract research workers [94] and (b) research partnerships between low- and middle-to-high income countries [70]. Likewise, reviews are available which highlight issues specific to particular disciplines (e.g. radiology [95]; neuroscience [96]) or certain categories of research studies (e.g. industry-sponsored clinical trials [97]). The roles and responsibilities for scientific journals in providing clear guidelines for authorship, both broadly [98,99], and for specific discipline(s) [100] have also been explored.

4.2. Training and Other Resources

This section adds to the resources outlined in Section 1.3 that may assist trainees and new investigators in avoiding, recognizing, and mitigating authorship- and contributorship- related ethical issues. First and foremost, interested readers are encouraged to explore and utilize institutional resources germane to the responsible conduct of research broadly and authorship/contributorship ethics specifically. Beyond institutional opportunities there are publicly available web-based resources that can supplement one’s training related to ethical authorship, such as those outlined in Table 4. Another valuable resource is the Office of Research Integrity website which hosts a number of infographics that may be of interest to trainees and new investigators [101]. Similarly, COPE, ICMJE, and similar organizations publish resources for authors, such as forms to help investigators navigate important authorship related conversations and disputes and relevant templates of useful forms (e.g. Memorandum of Understanding).

Table 4. Resources for Additional Training on Responsible Authorship.

5. Conclusion

Authorship is one of the main forms of professional credit for researchers and as such can be a major source of intense pressure and subsequent ethical issues [104,105]. Authorship related ethical issues are complex and influenced by a multitude of factors including but not limited to: discipline- and department-specific norms [106], culture [73], gender [107], and generational differences [108]. A role for effective and ongoing communication between all concerned parties has been acknowledged [109].

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