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Scientists pressured to falsely credit co-authors

Scientists need to publish to get research grants - and established scientists are demanding to be cited as co-authors on younger scientists' work. Experts say it's time for more rules

To have your name included as one of the authors of an academic paper is so desirable that some scientists are willing to go to great lengths to be credited as co-authors.

Younger scientists are being pressured by their seniors to include them as co-authors, says Peter Sandøe, Professor of Bioethics at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), and jointly responsible for PhD courses in good scientific practice at the Faculty of Science, as well as Vice President of the University’s Practice Committee, which deals with issues of good scientific practice.

“There is no doubt that a large amount of those credited as co-authors of academic papers ought to be on the ‘acknowledgements’ list instead, as their contribution has consisted of little more than giving good advice,” says Sandøe.

Negotiated authorship

“I am told that PhD students are told that it’s the norm, or that ‘this is the way we do things around here’, or that it would be smart do so to establish an academic network. So in most cases they don’t even question it,” he says.

Both parties can have an interest in the practice: The established scientist has their credentials boosted, and the young scientist has their name seen alongside a well-known scientist, and gets a partner that can help get the necessary research grants to further their career.

In other cases, co-authorship is negotiated as ‘payment’ for allowing a colleague to use one’s research data in their paper.

Knowing the rules

The rules on what constitutes co-authorship are actually quite clear. The editors of a number of renowned scientific journals have established the so-called Vancouver Protocol, which states that for anyone to be credited as author, they have to have been involved in all three of the following:

1.  Conception and design, or analysis and interpretation of data
2.  Drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content
3.  Final approval of the version to be published

But only approximately 6,000 of 26,000 journals worldwide formally implement the Vancouver Protocol: In order to do so, all of the authors of a paper have to sign a declaration of authorship, where they clarify how they have contributed to the paper. The idea is to make scientists aware of the rules – and it is a bigger transgression to have cheated if you have to sign a declaration saying you didn’t.

One in five has ‘cheated’

According to Jacob Rosenberg, the scientific editor of Ugeskrift for Læger (Weekly for Doctors – a Danish journal that follows the Vancouver Protocol) the rules are simple to uphold:

“Either you meet the criteria of co-authorship or you don’t,” he says. “Once scientists have signed the declaration we believe them, but we don’t really know if they are lying, so it’s hard to say whether it has an effect or not. They at least cannot claim that they didn’t know the rules.”

In the few existing Danish and international surveys on co-authorship, one in five scientists say they have offered colleagues unwarranted co-authorship, and an equivalent amount received unwarranted offers to have their names included on a paper.

Co-authorship as currency

There is also a growing trend of more and more co-authors for each scientific paper, which could be a sign of cheating. According to lecturer Claus Emmeche, Theoretical Biologist and Director of the Centre for the Philosophy of Nature and Science Studies at UCPH, there are both legitimate and illegitimate reasons for this:

On one hand, it is increasingly complicated to conduct bioscientific and medicinal research both because large amounts of funding often has to be raised for expensive equipment, and because scientists with different academic backgrounds need to come together from different fields of research.

On the other hand, there is a risk that co-authorship is becoming a form of currency, and is used a favour between friends – a pseudostrategic tool, says Emmeche, in the tough competition to get research grants and funding.

Unwitting accomplices

“The problem is essentially built into the grant system,” says Emmeche. “The Head of Research has to secure the funding needed to keep the department running, so he has to spend more and more time fundraising and doing admin work, and less and less actual research. Ultimately, he might not be in the lab at all, but is still included as a co-author, because he has to have more papers on his cv to compete for funding.”

The increasing amount of co-authors, too, is a problem in the world of science, he says. The controversial case of neuroscientist Milena Penkowa shows just how little transparency there is in terms of seeing who contributed with what to a paper. The panel of experts that investigated her research spent over a year doing so, in part because the panel had to contact many scientists, listed as co-authors, to clarify which work was hers and which was theirs.

In this way, it can be risky to be an unwarranted co-author – one can unwittingly become a ‘partner-in-crime’ if one’s partner commits scientific fraud, says Emmeche.

‘UCPH rep. at stake’

Peter Sandøe, who himself has processed many applications for funding, believes it is a problem that co-authorship might encourage cheating, because it can give access to funding.

“It won’t do just to write a good grant application – you also have to demonstrate your academic clout – and that’s typically based on the quality and amount of papers on your cv. A Penkowa-culture has emerged, where more means better, but we have to stop favouring super-human cv’s, even if it means less grant money in the short-term,” he says.

He reckons that it’s time that UCPH’s rectorate formally implements the Vancouver Protocol, and that the Practice Committee comes up with clearer guidelines on co-authorship, so that UCPH can develop a uniform culture of co-authorship. Otherwise the University’s reputation is at risk.

Times have changed

Prorector Thomas Bjørnholm says that the Vancouver Protocol is sensible, but that he doesn’t believe that UCPH ought to introduce standardised guidelines on co-authorship, as there has to be room for doing things differently. Furthermore, this isn’t a problem unique to UCPH, he says:

“It’s an international problem, so nothing is gained by going solo. The journal’s have the key to solve this – the requirement for authors to sign a declaration stating who did what can create a collective change in behaviour among scientists,” says Bjørnholm.

He adds that it is hard to assess the scale of the problem. Research has changed so that it’s now normal for scientists to collaborate much more than it was in the past, and that will automatically lead to more co-authorship of scientific papers. There is a good reason for the amount of co-authors to have risen, he says.

Thomas Bjørnholm hastens to add that the Practice Committee of UCPH is welcome to pursue the matter.

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