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Navigating Authorship Conflicts

There are clear guidelines outlining what “counts” as authorship. While all disciplines have their own nuances in culture, the International Committee of Journal Medical Editors (ICJME) provides a reasonable set of authorship criteria:

  • Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  • Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  • Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  • Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

Note the “and” in those statements. Other contributions can warrant acknowledgments but not rise to the level of authorship. So much can be at stake with authorship – it is our currency in academia and how we establish our contributions in many sectors. The NIH Collaboration Guide recommends negotiating authorship well in advance of writing, and documenting decisions (e.g. who will be first author, who will be a contributing author) in email at least.

However, we know that things may not always go as planned. People move, experiments don’t work out, reviewers ask for additional work, projects stall out, contributions shift.

When these challenges arise, we heard suggestions from a panel of senior faculty and Chuck Sloane and Emma Williams from the UW Office of the Ombuds. These tips include:

  • Speak up. If something feels unfair or not right, get curious. Call a meeting with your PI (or whomever is making the authorship decisions) and ask about what change or decision has occurred. Seek to understand first.
  • If you have a different understanding of fair contributions in a given paper, request a meeting with all the relevant people involved. Using the authorship guidelines or your prior publication agreement as a starting point, ask about changes that have occurred and propose an alternative solution. Justify your position by referencing guidelines, journal practices, potential negative outcomes (if you think there are some) of certain choices. It can help to have an open conversation with everyone regarding what’s at stake with a given publication and authorship choice.
  • Prepare for these conversations by seeking a safe conversation partner first. You can talk through your position with a trusted peer or senior colleague (or the Ombuds or UW Office of Postdoctoral Affairs) first. It will help you let out some frustration and gain a calmer perspective before you approach your co-authors. This preparation can also help you map out the best approach to the discussion, including time, place, who is involved, and what rationale makes the most sense for your position.

Recommended Resource: Who’s on first? Nature (2012)


Originally posted on July 7, 2016.