Awareness of Authorship Criteria and Conflict: Survey in a Medical Institution in India

Upreet Dhaliwal, MS; Navjeevan Singh, MD; Arati Bhatia, MD


December 12, 2006

In This Article


The questionnaire was designed to study the relationship of awareness of authorship criteria to conflict. Ability to correctly identify criteria for authorship and acknowledgment among the respondents did not vary significantly at the 3 levels of awareness. Our results confirm the suspicion of others that there is an intuitive understanding of authorship and acknowledgment criteria among all researchers.[9,10] Our study suggests that the devil is in the details. It is clear that unless there are a set of well-defined criteria, including minor issues, uniformly acceptable to the group and universally applied, conflict will continue. None of the issues listed as authorship conflicts in the questionnaire qualify a person for authorship, yet many of the respondents reported such conflict. Broadly, these were conflicts over ownership of data, pressure for gift authorship, and other issues such as academic competition, personality differences, and intellectual passion.

Only 7% of our respondents limited themselves to the authorship criteria recommended by the ICMJE; 49% respondents were more generous and included several additional criteria of their own, generally including as authors those who should simply be acknowledged. Of interest, the 7% who were able to identify the ICMJE criteria for authorship would acknowledge a head of department, others who had a personal relationship to the chief investigator, those with similar field of interest, and those working in the same unit or department. A comparable level of ignorance of published authorship criteria, and where they could be sourced, has been reported by others.[7,11] As the criteria for authorship and acknowledgment are clearly and unambiguously listed in the source documents, it is obvious that either the respondents did not care to revisit the source while filling in the questionnaire or deliberately sought to deviate from the published criteria. Similar indifference and disdain might be operative when these authors actually write the byline in a scientific paper. Willful disregard of the criteria or disagreement with an accepted set of rules foisted on potential authors by an outside agency has been described earlier.[12] The authors suggest that information gathered from membership surveys can be useful in constructing meaningful prototypes.

Perceptions of ownership of data vary greatly. In a large retrospective study, it is absurd to include as authors or acknowledge all those who may have provided care to patients over the years. Providing case data for routine examination and tests that would have been sent even if the case-series analysis was not to be carried out is not participation justifying authorship.[13] Nevertheless, we have often experienced conflict on this issue.

A second aspect to ownership of data relates to gift authorship and, importantly, misappropriation of authorship by senior faculty.[9,14,15] Gift authorship was reported as a cause of conflict by more than one third of the respondents (Tables 3 and 4). It is often given to please someone for benefit, or reciprocity, or from servility or obligation to persons in charge of institutions, departments, services or disciplines[5,7] -- the very individuals who are in positions to make or mar the research climate at ground level.

Half of all conflicts were related to academic competition, personality differences, intellectual passion, and order of authorship. Very little literature is available on the subject, and the ICMJE document does not elaborate. We believe that these represent the reprehensible underbelly of the research environment. Constant low-intensity conflicts can result in severe emotional stress and academic fatigue.

To educate and to promote research and publication integrity is a laudable concept.[16] The purpose of education is to equip a person with the ability to distinguish between right and wrong and good from bad, with general knowledge and powers of reasoning and judgment. But there is a need to distinguish between education and training, for our education system seems to focus almost exclusively on the 'training view' of education.[17] A change in mind-sets to eliminate inappropriate academic practices and inappropriate behavior in administration could be the means to reduce conflict. This change cannot be enforced or legislated on such a group -- we must develop a culture of conscience.[18] It was no surprise that respondents were unaware of institutional guidelines for authorship of scientific papers; The University College of Medical Sciences has no such guidelines in place. Nor does the medical curriculum envisage the need for training in responsible authorship practices. If such guidelines are instituted, are widely disseminated, and are part of continued medical education, it could level the playing field and might create a congenial research environment free of conflict.

Limitations and Strengths of the Study

One of the limitations of the study is that the sample size is small, limiting subgroup analysis. Had a previously validated questionnaire been available, or a survey design professional been recruited, it could have added to the strength of the study. Anonymity removes perception of threat, stigma, and social pressure.[19] To enhance response rate we used an anonymous questionnaire, but that made it difficult to verify the accuracy of responses.

The fact that we are working in the setting of one center might impact the generalization of our results. However, in common with other teaching institutions worldwide, the members of the faculty of our institution have diverse educational and training backgrounds. Their responses reflect a global malaise with wide-ranging implications.[14,20]

Conclusions and Recommendations

Poor awareness of criteria for authorship and acknowledgment in research publications, and conflict in the research environment, are causes for concern. Conflict occurred regardless of the extent of awareness of published authorship criteria, suggesting that poor understanding of other factors, possibly ethical and moral, may be responsible.

The academic environment in any institution should be conducive to research. Institutions need to clearly identify the guidelines to be followed on publication-related issues. This information must be widely disseminated among the faculty to lend transparency to functioning. A system for resolving conflicts specifically concerning authorship issues should be put in place. These measures may contribute to an environment conducive to responsible research and rational publication practices.


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