Authorship Credit in Science: Junior Physicists' Perceptions

By Eugen Tarnow

Eugen Tarnow
Eugen Tarnow

Research scientists attempt to discover, describe, and understand phenomena of nature. The information that results is published in books and journals. These books and journals are continuously appended with new information that slowly replaces or enhances what was there before. It is one of the most successful endeavors of humanity.

One of the reasons for the success may be the immediate feedback given in the publication process: scientists are rewarded by being listed as authors on the publications. This simple device, authorship, also allows the funders of the scientific endeavor a basis for decisions about which scientists should be given resources to perform future research.

The current scientific work on the designation on authorship is limited to four statistical studies covering various academic disciplines. This is not very many, considering the importance of authorship to careers in science. INSPEC, an online database covering physics and engineering since 1990, shows not one article about the ethics of authorship out of a total of 1.2 million articles. MEDLINE, covering the health sciences, includes about 100 opinion articles by journal editors and letter writers corresponding to 0.006% of all articles.

This article is one of the first inquiries into how authorship is distributed in every-day research collaborations. Our investigation focuses on perhaps the most important class of all research collaborations: junior scientists in non-permanent positions (postdoctoral associates or postdocs) supervised by senior scientists. The results are based on the postdocs' interpretation of the situation.

A questionnaire was distributed in 1996 which examined the process leading up to authorship assignment as perceived by physics postdocs (see APS News, May 1996, page 4). It consisted of respondent background information, information about the immediate research group (including, e.g., the postdocs' perception of the importance of recommendation letters from the research supervisor, and of published papers), and whether the postdoc had seen the APS ethical statement regarding authorship. Using this ethical statement as a reference, the postdocs were asked about the appropriateness of the authorship assignment on the last five papers the postdoc authored in his/her present position, as well as how much authorship decisions were discussed with the supervisor.

Two groups of postdoctoral associates were sampled: 99 randomly picked from a mailing list of all postdocs at a very large national laboratory, and 92 randomly picked from a list of university physics postdocs. The respective return rates were 59% and 47%, including incomplete questionnaires. For example, questions eliciting authorship details were answered by 65-70% of the returned surveys, giving an effective return rate of 34-37%.

The APS ethics guidelines give "minimal standards of ethical behavior" that are important for the creation of an environment of "mutual trust" in which physics is "best advanced." [APS Guidelines for Professional Conduct, /statements/91.8.cfm] The sentence relating to authorship reads, "Authorship should be limited to those who have made a significant contribution to the concept, design, execution and interpretation of the research study." The results were based on the postdoc's interpretation of this ethics statement.

The survey results indicate that 26% of respondents have seen the ethical statement above, but the majority have not. Moreover, there is sometimes little agreement among respondents as to what the APS ethical statement means. For example, the postdocs were asked, "Do you consider, according to the ethical statement above, that obtaining grants and other funding for a project qualifies as a 'substantial contribution' that warrants authorship?" Forty-nine percent of the respondents answered affirmatively, while the rest are of the opposite opinion.

Respondents reported publishing an average of two papers per year. Guided by the APS ethical guidelines, in 14% of papers with the supervisor as an author, respondents indicated that the supervisor should not have been listed. The supervisor was an author on 92% of all papers the survey respondents authored. Similarly, in 33% of papers with authors in addition to the supervisor or the postdoc, one or more authors should not have been listed as such. Forty-six percent of all postdocs answering the question reported that at least one paper on which he/she was an author had at least one inappropriate author; 22% of postdocs reported that at least one paper had the supervisor as an inappropriate author. In 1% of all papers, respondents indicated that they were themselves inappropriate authors.

In 75% of postdoc/supervisor relationships, authorship criteria had never been discussed: in 61% of relationships the criteria for the postdoc's authorship were not clearly agreed upon, and in 70% the criteria for designating others as authors were not clearly agreed upon. Reasons cited for the inappropriate attribution of authorship fell into four categories: relationship building, minor contributions, previous or expected contributions, and crediting staff that are close in a social sense, for example, part of the same research group.

Two main conclusions of this study stand out. First, the distribution of authorship is a relatively undefined undertaking. It is typically not something that postdocs and supervisors have discussed or agreed upon. The single ethical statement available to the community - the APS Guidelines for Professional Conduct - has not been seen by a majority of postdoc authors. Furthermore, these guidelines allow broad interpretation. For example, the statement on authorship does not clearly indicate whether obtaining funding for a research project qualifies a person for attribution as author, since half of survey respondents believe that it does, while the other half do not.

Second, using the existing APS guidelines as a standard, postdocs perceive there to be a substantial amount of inappropriate authorship. The supervisor, a joint author in 92% of the papers, is inappropriately given authorship in 14%. In 33% of papers with additional authors other than the supervisor, one or more authors were perceived as inappropriately listed. In contrast, the postdoc was an inappropriate author on only 1% of all papers.

There are considerable forces acting against addressing the issue of assignment of authorship among postdocs and senior scientists. For example, one postdoc who held an elected position with the APS told me that the present study was "offensive," a "hot issue," and that he feared "isolating himself" should he bring it up in an APS committee meeting. Second, a committee that was to create the authorship guidelines for the APS some years ago worked in an "atmosphere of hostility," according to one former committee member. The guidelines brought difficult issues to the table, including due process, defamation of character, deprivation of rights, whether an individual accused would have the right to face his/her accusers, and other legal ramifications. The proposed guidelines had to be "watered down" before the current version was approved.

Although legal issues influence the scientific community with regard to procedures for assignment of authorship, there are at least three other relevant factors. First is the desire to avoid a process that could involve conflict. A second factor is that postdocs generally believe their supervisors' recommendation letters are very important for future job prospects. Accordingly, fear of obtaining bad recommendations may prevent postdocs from raising the topic of authorship with their supervisors. A third factor is that the power to legislate the rules of authorship is in the hands of more senior scientists. At this stage in their career, senior scientists may not perceive the issue as important - for example, no supervisor exists who can easily appropriate authorship from them - or, they may see authorship as an entitlement of their senior status.

There is also a relative absence of efforts with respect to authorship in the scientific community beyond just physics. The 1995 report from the Commission on Scientific Integrity (, perhaps the largest attempt by the government to deal with ethics in science, said little about designation of authorship. It is also noteworthy that a common standard of scientific misconduct promoted by the National Academy of Sciences - fabrication, falsification and plagiarism - does not include the bulk of possible misconduct relevant to the designation of authorship.

Future Action
If one believes that authorship, in particular accurately assigned authorship, is important to the scientific endeavor, one must ask whether there are useful ways to better define and operationalize the procedure of authorship assignment?

One possible option is to follow the patent authorship model and have an attorney or another disinterested party inquire into the research work and, according to existing legal standards for patent authorship, write down the list of authors. A second option would be to more accurately assign authorship by adding a section at the end of each paper explaining what each author contributed. Both approaches would counteract major reasons that underlie honorary authorship found in this study - relationship-building, social closeness, previous and expected work - in the first instance because of the participation of a disinterested party, and in the second because of the public disclosure of what each person actually accomplished. The latter procedure might also respond to concerns about minor contributions, since the extent of these would be clearly stated.

To date, the scientific community, has not adopted formal procedures with respect to inappropriate authorship. The impetus to enact such may come from single institutions that take it upon themselves to protect the work of young scientists and/or the American judicial court system which can require the scientific community to do so.

Institutions may start to compete for the limited pool of young scientist applicants not just with the strength of its brand name but also by adopting standards of authorship that promise to protect their intellectual work. This way, a less well-known institution that protects the intellectual work of their junior workers would be able to attract junior scientists more so than a more well-known institution which does not have such protection in place. If one university starts the cycle, another may follow and so on.

The future may also hold a recasting of inappropriate authorship in terms of theft of intellectual property. I am hopeful that a cause of action for such theft will be recognized in American jurisprudence because these cases involve real injury to real parties which deserve redress.

Finally, I would like to challenge the APS leadership to take action in the area of authorship by adding one word to the Guidelines (see above). Authorship in physics should explicitly promote original thinking rather than, for example, the ability to get grants. The APS should require that the "significant contribution" necessary for authorship be a "significant intellectual contribution."

Eugen Tarnow is a scientist with Avalon Business Systems Inc., in Riverdale, NY. A more detailed article based on this survey was published in Science and Engineering Ethics, Vol. 5, January 1999, page 73.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette

April 1999 (Volume 8, Number 4)

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