From the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Mass.
Context.— Disputes associated with achieving recognition for work done may affect
both morale and subsequent resource allocation to medical researchers.
Objective.— To assess authorship disputes brought to the Ombuds Office.
Setting.— The Ombuds Office, Harvard Medical School, Dental School, School of
Public Health, and affiliated hospitals.
Main Outcome Measure.— Change in number of queries related to authorship between 1991 to 1992
and 1996 to 1997.
Results.— Disputes increased from 8 (2.3%) of 355 issues brought to the office
in 1991 to 1992 to 59 (10.7%) of 551 issues in 1996 to 1997. They also increased
from involving 0.06% of the total population of faculty, staff, and students
affiliated with the schools in 1991 to 1992 to 0.33% of the total population
in 1996 to 1997. Such problems appear to occur more often for women (53% of
complaints in 1994-1995 through 1996-1997) and for non–US citizens (21%
of complaints in 1991-1992 through 1996-1997).
Conclusions.— Authorship disputes are increasingly frequent. Institutions should increase
enforcement of published authorship standards and place more emphasis on managerial
skills for laboratory and research department heads.
CREDIT for one's research, ultimately through authorship, is extremely
important for a successful scientific career. It affects future research funding,
promotions, and recruitment opportunities. If allocation of credit is poorly
done, future research resources may in turn be misallocated. Authorship problems
have received considerable attention in medical literature,1,2
although most of the evidence has been anecdotal.3
Guidelines are available to help determine how attribution should be
However, they are applied ineffectively. According to a recent survey by Jones,7 only 25 (21%) of 119 schools reported having their
own authorship policies. Most institutions provide formal grievance procedures
when these issues arise, but the apprenticeship system that is used to educate
medical scientists makes confrontation with better-established people a risky
business, regardless of who is right.
As a confidential resource, the Ombuds Office for Harvard Medical School,
Dental School, and School of Public Health, Boston, Mass, hears about many
problems related to the ability to write about research. The office serves
approximately 18000 faculty, staff, trainees, and students hired or appointed
by the 3 schools. Created in 1991, it is a neutral, safe place to discuss
work and academic-related problems informally in order to help resolve conflicts.
Issues emerge through telephone calls, office visits, e-mail messages,
and spontaneous meetings. The office uses a simple checking system to keep
track of sexual harassment, discrimination, authorship, and intellectual property
and other career management issues. When problems fall into more than 1 category,
each category receives a check mark. We also record the caller's sex, ethnicity,
and job or academic position and where the problem occurred. We measure reports,
not incidence, and our methods are not intended for formal research. In many
cases, we are able to confirm the validity of the complaint. In some instances,
we mediate between the parties. The apparent trends we have observed over
6 years may be of interest to the medical research community.
The following are some typical authorship issues brought to the office:
(1) "Though listed as an author, I never reviewed the article, saw the reviewers'
feedback, or signed off on the final document," (2) "I was promised first
authorship when I completed a project. When the work was done, and without
informing me, the principal investigator added the work of someone else who
was made first author," (3) "A fellow is demanding first author position but
the contribution was primarily in implementing the experiments, not in creating
the design or writing," and (4) "After I left my lab, I got no credit for
the projects and articles that used my work."
From the 1991-1992 through the 1996-1997 academic years, queries relating
to authorship have grown as a percentage of the total complaints made to the
Ombuds Office from 8 (2.3%) to 59 (10.7%) (Figure 1). This also represents a growth from 0.06% to 0.33% as
a percentage of the population served by the office including all faculty,
staff, trainees, and students.
From 1994 to 1995 through 1996 to 1997, 61 (46%) of the 133 authorship
issues were from faculty and 45 (34%) were from postdoctoral fellows, interns,
or residents. Of these issues, 70 (53%) originated from female complainants
and 63 (47%) from males. However, the female complaints represented an average
of 0.35% of their smaller average population while male complaints represented
only 0.20% of theirs.
The total non–US citizen population of faculty, staff, trainees,
and students is not available. However, cases including acknowledgment through
publication have grown from 4% of the non–US citizen complaints in 1991-1992
to 21% in 1996-1997.
The increase in reported authorship disputes has been far greater than
the increase in either total issues brought to the Ombuds Office or in the
size of the population served. It occurred despite the Harvard Medical School's
school-wide guidelines. Females report more difficulties than males. Non–US
citizens may have similar problems coping with the credit assignment system.
With the absence of other similar published evidence, it is only a supposition
that similar phenomena are occurring at other medical research institutions.
My suggestions reflect an assumption that these problems are widespread in
the "culture of credit."3 Some suggestions
as to what would reduce the incidence and impact of authorship conflict are
Departments should establish their own detailed,
written guidelines on authorship practices and make them available to everyone.
These guidelines should be discussed both prior to the onset of a relationship
and regularly so that people are comfortable asking questions about their
work and how it will be credited.
It is unreasonable for institutions to promise
that they can protect individuals from retaliation for coming forward to complain
through formal grievance procedures. Therefore, informal confidential channels,
such as an Ombuds Office, can offer an important mechanism to encourage corrective
action by management without compromising an individual.
Discussions about achieving credit for research
are best done within the research unit. This suggests training department
heads to better manage the credit allocation process.
Wilcox LJ. AuthorshipThe Coin of the Realm, The Source of Complaints. JAMA. 1998;280(3):216-217. doi:10.1001/jama.280.3.216