Ethics In Authorship Of Scientific Publication # 1 : How Are The Rule Of Thumbs?

Say no to ethically incorrect authorshipOne day one of my colleagues got really mad and the one causing his madness was because one of his graduate student published part of the student’s PhD dissertation on his own and without putting his name, as the one sponsoring the student research and as the PhD supervisor, in the published manuscript. He was angry because the research that was used by the student to write dissertation was actually a research project that the supervisor was coordinated under the support of funding agency. My colleague claimed that at least he entitled to have his name in the publication or even more than that.


The other time, I have an imaginary talk with disappointed graduate student about the way his PhD supervisor’s handling of scientific publications. The student’s claimed he has worked very hard in putting together the PhD research for his dissertation. He alone executed the running of the experiments and collecting the necessary data. Although the research that the student did was actually the supervisor’s pet project, the student claimed that the supervisor was actually just gave the money and did not even get the time to organize the activity. The graduate student was disappointed because all scientific publications resulted from his PhD research were written with his supervisor name as a senior author and the student was just the secondary one. The student claimed that he deserved to be a senior author in a couple of the publications.

Are you familiar with such cases? Or, have you actually experienced such stories like that yourself? If you answer yes to any of these two questions, you may actually run into a case about ethics in authorship of scientific publications. You may also want to completely read this posting.

Let’s consider the following case #1: a PhD supervisor (si-A) granted a research project funded by Ministry of Education to answer a number of research objectives. As part of the grant’s requirement, “si-A” is required to invite graduate student into the project. So si-A invited si-B (graduate student) into the project to do part of the project activity and use part of the project as si-B dissertation research project. To cut the story short, si-B successfully implemented the dissertation research with the funding support from si-A project and si-A got part of the grant project objectives achieved. Moreover, 3 scientific publications were written from the dissertation research. The questions then – who should be the senior author for the 3 scientific publications?”

Let’s consider the following possibilities :
(1) Si-A is senior author for all 3 publications. The reasoning for this is si-A feel that it is his ideas, his research fund, and his project. Although si-B was actually the one executed the whole works and implementing the whole research activities, he was only secondary authors for all 3 publications. Such conditions would be very satisfactory to si-A and most probably would be disappointment to si-B. Si-B feels that he deserved more than just junior author for the 3 publications since he who made the data realized through his PhD dissertation research activities and one who wrote the manuscripts.

(2) Si-A is senior author for 1-2 publications and si-B is the junior in some and senior author in the others. Similar reasoning were proposed as in point (1) above.

(3) Si-B is senior author for all 3 publications and si-A is the junior author. Although, si-A is a junior author, si-A is the contact person for communication about all of the publications.

(4) Si-A is senior author for all 3 publications without si-B name at all in them (single author) or si-B is senior author for all without si-A name at all in them (single author).

Using the specific cases in point (1) to point (4) above, here are my opinions about the authorship rules in scientific publications :
(1) In point (4) above, in my opinion – both si-A and si-B are considered unethical. In fact, both are considered as ‘pelanggaran akademik’ (breach in academic rules).
(2) In point (3) above, in my opinion – is the best scheme for deciding who should be the author in scientific publications.
(3) In point (2) above, in my opinion – is the acceptable alternative for authorship in scientific publications.
(4) In point (1) above, in my opinion – is the least acceptable scheme for authorship in scientific writing. Even if si-A is the one who get the funding and initiate the main idea, contribution of si-B in the whole processes can not be denied. Therefore, it is reasonable to give credit for si-B and let si-B be senior author in at least one of the publications.

Well then, of course any one entitles their own opinions. You may disagree with my opinions above and that is OK. At the end, however, whatever your opinions are – you have to accept the consequences embedded within your preferred opinions. It is ethically incorrect if you have decided in one thing about scientific publication authorship and receive the negative consequences because of that decision – you feel uncomfortable with those consequences. It is ethically correct to choose authorship option point (3) above and face minimal ethical consequences rather than point (1) or more extremely point (4) and may face negative consequences because of litigation from disappointed parties.

To close this writing, I remember what Prof. Mantovani of Lavall University said about ethically proper authorship as follow: ‘It is important to give proper credits in scientific publication authorship, otherwise we will demotivate the affected parties.’ I hope this writing and opinions have any positive impact to all of us in the area of scientific publication authorship. Any comment and suggestion about these matters are welcomed.

About PMB Lab: Prof. Sudarsono

This blog is dedicated as a communication media among alumni associated with PMB Lab, Dept. of Agronomy and Horticulture, Fac. of Agriculture, IPB, Bogor – Indonesia. It contains various information related to alumni activities, PMB Lab’s on going activities and other related matters.
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