The Write Thing to Do: Ethical Considerations in Authorship and the Assignment of Credit

The ACS Committee on Ethics (ETHX) partnered with the Division of Chemical Information (CINF) to present “The Write Thing to Do: Ethical Considerations in Authorship and the Assignment of Credit.” This half-day symposium, organized by Judith Currano of the University of Pennsylvania and Pam Mabrouk of Northeastern University, aimed to highlight ethical issues that affect authors. The organizers were pleasantly surprised when the ACS Committee on Patents and Related Matters expressed great interest in the topic of the symposium and quickly broadened the scope to include two papers that expanded on the ethical considerations put forth for authors, placing them in the context of patent inventorship.

Lida Anestidou (National Academy of Sciences) was to have begun the session with a presentation entitled, “Authorship issues in academia of low and lower middle income countries” (CINF 88); unfortunately, an unanticipated business trip meant that she was unable to present her paper. She did, however, send slides and notes to the session organizers, who were able to present an abridged version of the talk. Since 2011, the U.S. National Academies, including the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, have sponsored a program entitled “Educational Institutes in Responsible Science.” The Educational Institutes incorporate active learning techniques to teach responsible conduct of research (RCR) in the Middle East, Northern Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Many of the countries in these regions lack formal definitions or regulations surrounding the responsible conduct of research, and the absence of ethical standards makes it extremely difficult to navigate the morass that is authorship and the assignment of credit. The goal of the National Academies’ program is to create a network of researchers who can teach RCR in an interactive way and who consider the principles taught to be central to the professional conduct of science. To date, these programs have reached almost five hundred participants and have awarded fifty-one grants for further work.

Heather Tierney (American Chemical Society) followed this talk with her presentation, “What constitutes authorship? Guidance from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)” (CINF 89). COPE was established in 1997 as a small forum of medical editors to discuss ethical issues. It has since expanded to include physical and life scientists, but it is not and never has been an adjudicating body. On its Web site, COPE includes guidelines and discussion documents on many subjects in the realm of publication ethics, including one entitled “What constitutes authorship?” The definition of an “author” varies from community to community, but it usually involves being the creator of an idea or the individual who writes the idea in tangible form. The medical community has an extremely detailed definition with four key requirements: contribution to the design or data analysis of the study, writing the paper, approving the final version, and maintaining accountability for the final piece. The physical sciences, on the other hand, require only that one “make a significant contribution” to the science. Heather presented four basic problems surrounding authorship: individuals who are not authors of papers believe that they should be listed as such; individuals who have not made a significant contribution are granted “gift authorship;” authors dispute the ordering of authors on a paper; and authors wish to be removed from authorship of a paper for a variety of reasons. COPE stresses that editors should not be adjudicators and that authors in conflict should work with one another and their institutions to resolve the issue.

Now that some of the basic ethical considerations for authorship had been highlighted, Judith Currano (University of Pennsylvania) discussed some of the problems that students have understanding these ethical norms in her paper, “Teaching students where credit is due: Attribution 101 for the mash-up generation” (CINF 90). She began her presentation with a picture of the world of today’s students, in which musical variations, mash-ups, and shares and retweets of anything that one finds interesting are the norm. This forms a stark contrast to the world of scholarly communication, in which the reuse of information is governed by strict rules, and students do not always understand what they need to do to be ethical authors. In particular, Judith noted three cases of the reuse of published information that frequently cause students problems: the appropriate reuse of written material, the reuse of previously-published images, and the reuse of material that one has written one’s self. At the end of the talk, she suggested two lesson plans for teaching correct attribution to undergraduate students and graduate students. At the undergraduate level, she recommended teaching why, what, and how to document previously published work, and at the graduate level, she recommended going in detail into the duties and responsibilities of an author of a scientific journal article, indicating the most common ethical pitfalls and holding group discussions about how to surmount them.

Following on the theme of authorship and undergraduate and graduate education, Amy Andes, an undergraduate from Northeastern University, presented a paper that she had coauthored with Aneri Pattani and Pam Mabrouk, entitled “Influence of Graduate Students on Authorship Decision-making in Undergraduate Research Partnerships” (CINF 91). Research on the subject of what undergraduates know about authorship has been sparse, and the authors sought to remedy this. In order to do this, they instituted a study of undergraduate students performing research and their faculty and graduate student mentors. They learned that graduate students actually have a great deal of influence when mentoring the undergraduates, so, they expanded the study, to examine the relationships between all three groups in responsible authorship practices. In particular, they sought to learn what responsible conduct of research (RCR) training each group received, what influence each group had on the authorship of a paper, and what possible barriers exist and must be removed before they could put responsible authorship into practice. Through the course of interviews with each party in the triad, they learned that there was little consistency in definitions of authorship and decision trees for who was an author; and RCR training, while desirable, was uneven, to say the least. The authors recommended having authorship checklists for everyone, as well as train-the-trainer sessions in RCR for the graduate student mentors.

Jeffrey Seeman (University of Richmond) presented the results of a fascinating survey of academic chemists in his paper, “Authorship issues and conflict in the U.S. academic chemical community” (CINF 92). He began his talk by discussing the claim of plagiarism that Corey made against Woodward in the 2000s, stating that he, and not Woodward, had originated the Woodward-Hoffmann rules. This led to a discussion of the importance of a good and complete literature search, with the author’s opinion being that repeated failure to perform one constitutes misconduct. Jeffrey’s survey gathered about six hundred responses from American academic chemists on questions involving authorship and the assignment of credit to others, and it unveiled some rather surprising trends. More chemists were willing to give credit to their own students than to individuals outside of their research groups, despite the fact that the “rules” and norms of responsible authorship state no context dependency. The survey results reveal that chemists would give their own students coauthorship in situations where they would only grant acknowledgement to a student from a different lab. The older the chemist, the more likely he or she was to assign credit to someone else, and individuals were more likely to give credit based on their feelings or on things that they learned from other people.

Cory Craig (University of California, Davis) presented a paper with a slightly different spin. Rather than focusing on the rules involving the assignment of credit, she talked about “ORCID iDs and project credit: contributor badges and getting credit for your work” (CINF 93). She began by explaining what an ORCID is and what one can do with it. The ORCID is a unique author identifier that “unifies the ‘beyond the pdf’ aspects of your scholarship,” allowing individuals to direct others to their complete body of publications through such diverse means as Twitter, an e-mail signature file, and from a publication itself. Individuals establish an ORCID profile at and then can apply their ORCID to all of their publications. She then introduced CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy), a project of CASRAI (Consortia Advancing Standards in Research Administration Information). Under CRediT, there are fourteen different roles that an individual can have in a project, and each has a badge assigned to it. Authors can apply a badge next to their name and ORCID on a journal article so that readers can know the exact contribution of each author. Currently, Cell is using CRediT. Cory closed with a reminder to all authors to hold discussions about the expected contributions of each researcher prior to the commencement of writing.

At this point, the symposium shifted in focus from authorship to inventorship. Xavier Pillai (Leydig Voit Mayer) spoke about the importance of accurately assigning inventorship to a patent in his talk, “Do not lose your invention by improperly naming inventors on the patent” (CINF 94). If all inventors are not listed on a patent, any “undocumented” inventor could grant permission to another body to use the invention. Since one inventor cannot sue another over patent rights, the documented inventors will have little legal recourse in such a situation. Xavier presented an interesting case study of Burroughs Wellcome vs. Barr Labs and Novopharm. In this case, six patents on areas related to the use of AZT for HIV treatment were challenged. Burroughs Wellcome had sent some substances to NIH for testing without telling the NIH scientists what they were. As soon as they had the NIH test results, they filed an application for a patent. According to the U.S. Code, an inventor is defined as the one who conceived the invention and completed the mental picture of it. It is not necessary to complete the work in order to be the inventor, provided one has a complete mental picture of the invention. The defendants held that the NIH employees should have been inventors on the patent and therefore had the right to license the technology to others, but the courts ultimately decided that, since the first draft of the patent had been written by Burroughs Wellcome before any of the NIH scientists began work on the project, the NIH scientists did not qualify for inventorship.

The second inventor-related presentation, and the final talk of the session, was “Hey – You stole my invention! Avoiding ethical pitfalls in determining inventorship, authorship, and honoring Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) obligations” (CINF 95), delivered by Justin Krieger (Kilpatrick Townsend). Justin began his talk with a comparison of authorship to inventorship, building on points made by previous speakers. He then presented an interesting case study, a mechanism for performing an “anti-gravity illusion” that was patented by Michael Jackson, Michael L. Bush, and Dennis Tompkins for use in one of Jackson’s music videos. After a rigorous examination of the requirements of inventorship, which involve both conceiving the idea and developing a method of putting it into practice, Justin determined that Jackson should not have qualified for inventorship unless his contribution to the project went beyond merely identifying the problem: “Hey. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could lean way over and then right myself without falling!” This led to a discussion of joint inventorship and what individuals must contribute in order to be considered joint inventors. Justin closed his presentation with a discussion of non-disclosure agreements, again returning to Michael Jackson’s “anti-gravity” stunt. He presented a hypothetical situation in which Jackson enters a NDA with Velcro, during which he asks them to create closures for the boots that he was to wear during the stunt. During the course of discussions between the two parties, Jackson discloses the details of the trick and the two parties discuss the desired properties of the boot closures. Justin’s talk closed with a discussion of what patenting rights Michael Jackson and Velcro would have over their respective technologies as a result of the non-disclosure agreement that they signed.

Many of the speakers were able to remain for the entire session, and the presiders spent the last slot of the session moderating a lively question-and-answer forum. Audience members asked questions of individual speakers and of one another, and many volunteered information from their own experience. This was a wonderful close to the afternoon, especially as more questions arose during the various presentations than their presenters had time to answer. It is to be hoped that the audience (and speakers) left the symposium with a high level of knowledge about ethical issues in authorship, and, even if they did not learn the answers to all of the questions, at least they had an extensive collection of questions to ask.

Judith N. Currano
University of Pennsylvania