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Case study: unjustified authorship

This situational case study is designed to aid researchers to reflect on situations that would pose challenges to research integrity and ethics.

Sam is nearing the end of his PhD study period. After a very frustrating start to the project, his research is now going well and he now has some decent results. One of his supervisors, Professor Jones, says his results could be very important.

Sam and Professor Jones have written up the work, and plan to submit the main results to an important and highly respected journal in their field.

A small part of the project involved working with a research group in another institution. Two researchers there helped get some of Sam’s samples ready for analysis using very sensitive and sophisticated equipment they’d built. Sam has included both researchers in the acknowledgements of their paper. Professor Jones suggests he send them the draft paper, both as a matter of courtesy and so they can confirm that Sam has got all the technological details of sample preparation and the equipment correct.

When the researchers return the draft manuscript to him, Sam is very surprised, and more than a little upset, to find that they have taken their names out of the acknowledgements and added them to the author by-line. Although he’s a junior and inexperienced researcher, he’s fairly sure that their contribution doesn’t warrant authorship.

The more he thinks about it, the more unjust it seems, and he also starts to become concerned that the perception of his contribution to the work in the paper will be greatly diluted. He knows, however, that he will need to use the researchers’ equipment again to finish the analyses he needs to complete his PhD, and he’s concerned that if he alienates the researchers they won’t allow him to do this. He goes to Professor Jones to discuss what’s happened and to ask her for advice.

Questions for discussion

  1. Do you think the researchers from the other institution warrant being authors on this paper?
  2. Should the fact that Sam will need to use the researchers’ equipment again make any difference?
  3. What do you think Sam and Professor Jones should do next?
  4. Why is it important to get the authorship issue resolved before the manuscript is submitted?

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