This case discusses issues of assignment of authorship, mentor-student relationships, intellectual property and intellectual contribution, and the role of technicians vs. the role of graduate students.


Dr. Messelman Killinger is a cell biologist at Big University who has a policy about authorship that he discusses with each new member who joins his lab. He states that only those who have made a significant intellectual contribution to an experiment will be included on any paper. He also states that he is the final authority about what is defined as a significant intellectual contribution, should a disagreement arise. He further states that he will be included as last author on any paper that is the result of research done in his lab.

David Tonkyn is a post-doc in Killenger's lab and is working to characterize a novel organelle that has been identified in the protozoan parasite Entamoeba histolytica. Based on biochemical studies of the purified organelle, David suspects that it may be an as yet unidentified mitochondrion in this organism.

Haruko Tomonaga, a technician in Killinger's lab, has worked very closely with David on his biochemical studies related to this organelle. She has done most of the trouble shooting and optimization for the experimentation. She also developed a novel method of isolating organelles from the organism.

Benson Zophar is a first year graduate student who is currently doing a six-week rotation through Killenger's lab. Benson participates in the final experiment of this project, which shows that a protein normally targeted to mitochondria in other eukaryotes is targeted to this novel organelle in Entamoeba. These data suggest that the novel organelle may indeed be a mitochondrion.

Killinger encourages David to submit the data for publication as quickly as possible. David does the writing, gives the paper to Haruko for review, and then presents the data at the lab meeting the following week. Following the meeting, Killinger, David, Haruko and Benson discuss authorship assignments for the paper. David makes the point that since Haruko offered novel ideas to the project and helped in trouble-shooting and in the review of the paper, she should be included as second author. He further argues that although Benson assisted on the last experiment of the project, he did not contribute intellectually and therefore should not be listed as an author. David states that Benson should be included in the acknowledgements for his contributions to the project. Finally, David states that Killinger should be included as last author on the paper since the work was done in his lab and supported by funds from his grant. All present are in agreement with David's decision, and the paper is submitted.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree with the order of authorship that David proposed? Why or why not?
  2. Is it ethical to include Haruko (the technician), but not to include Benson (the graduate student) on the list of authors for this paper?
  3. Does it matter that Benson was just rotating through the lab and not (as yet) a regular member?
  4. What constitutes a significant intellectual contribution? Who should decide?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 6, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2002.

. . Authorship. Online Ethics Center. DOI:

Conflicts about authorship generate many of the cases in scientific research ethics. These problems often arise in a lab or research group where there are no announced policies regarding authorship. The cases do not often deal with questions of authorship regarding contributions of graduate students rotating in a lab and even less frequently address authorship issues regarding the contributions of technicians.

This case features a lab director who discusses his authorship policy with each new member of the lab. Because a technician and a rotating graduate student contribute to the research under consideration, the question arises whether they should be included among the authors, and, if so, in what order.

Dr. Messelman Killinger, the lab director, has fulfilled the responsibility to devise and announce his authorship policy for lab members, and he permits discussion of authorship assignments. He allows all the interested parties to participate in, or be present at, the discussion. These policies contribute to predictability and fairness in authorship assignments. Whether Killinger encourages or allows discussion of the policy itself we cannot tell. Discussion of local policies is another aid to creating a research environment that supports responsible conduct.

David tries to apply Killinger's stated policy in circumstances that raise questions about what counts as a significant intellectual contribution to an experiment and who counts as a member of the lab. Presumably, the technician and the rotating student have to rank as members of the lab to be included as authors.

The instance depicted in this case is the kind of concrete example that can be used in Killinger's lab, and in other research groups, to clarify what counts as a contribution meriting authorship. It may not be possible to cite necessary and sufficient conditions for authorship, but Killinger and other research group leaders can use particular instances, such as the authorship discussion in this case, to explain minimum requirements for authorship. For instance, it may be worthwhile to discuss whether and why a researcher's important contribution to an experiment should justify authorship when the researcher makes no contribution to writing the paper. Killinger is entitled to make the final determination of the criteria and to decide when they are satisfied. By explaining those decisions with reasons, he may head off disappointment and dissatisfaction.

We do not know whether Killinger discusses his authorship policy with technicians and rotating students when they join the lab. If he does, he treats them appropriately as regular members of the lab, as far as authorship is concerned. They could then expect to be included among the authors when their contributions warrant it. If he does not make it a practice to discuss his authorship policy with rotators and technicians when they join the lab, he should. This case shows that he must be prepared for the possibility that a rotating student or a technician will make a contribution important enough to merit authorship.

Without knowing more about the criteria for a significant contribution, we cannot be sure whether David's recommendation to list Haruko but not Benson is justifiable. Clarification of the criteria for authorship would help to settle any question about whether Benson is denied authorship on the basis of having made a minor contribution or rather on the basis of being a very temporary and therefore lower-status participant in the research. Such clarity might also assure that Haruko is included because she has made an appropriate intellectual contribution and not merely because David feels indebted to her. Clarification is important because it allows students and technicians to form appropriate expectations, reduces the chances that they will feel unfairly treated, and thus eliminates opportunities for friction and conflict to arise in the lab.

The final decision about what counts as a significant intellectual contribution to an experiment rests with Killinger; he is the lab director and presumably the Principal Investigator for the funded research. A final authority is required, and the lab director is the appropriate person. At the same time his policy of making himself the last author on any paper resulting from research done in his lab is open to question.

Killinger might answer that by virtue of having acquired the funding for the research, he automatically makes the required contribution. That response adds a criterion for authorship that applies only to him and rules out the possibility of differentiating instances when he contributes significantly to the research from instances when he contributes little or is not involved at all. These considerations may matter enough to members of the lab to lead to friction and conflict.

Moreover, the practice of listing the lab director last in order to send a coded message to those outside the lab is problematic. It uses authorship to provide other information in an uncertain "system" of informal understandings. It conflates credit for winning funding and directing a lab with credit for research findings. It allows a question to arise about who takes responsibility for data provided and claims made in the paper. To announce who takes responsibility is one of the fundamental purposes of listing authors. In addition, Killinger's policy, as stated, has a very wide reach. It seems to apply to any paper resulting from research in the lab without qualification, paying no attention to how much the research in this lab contributed, whether the researcher has left the lab, and how long a time after completion of the research the policy applies.

In light of all these considerations, Killinger's policy of automatically listing the lab director as last author is not easy to defend. If particular circumstances justify the practice in this lab, he should explain them, and he should make clear how far the policy extends. It is not easy, practically speaking, to devise a situation that invites or prompts the lab director to explain the practice. To question this practice is to challenge the lab director on a policy he devised that gives him recognition. Even if he would defend his policy on the ground that it gives good visibility to his students and post-docs, credit to him remains an issue.

The practice of awarding automatic or honorary authorship needs full discussion in labs, departments, professional societies and other venues. Journal editors have spoken out on this issue and have proposed arrangements for authorship, or "contributorship," that rule out honorary authorship and make it unnecessary to decode what a place in the list of authors signifies. A leading recommendation is to provide a byline consisting of a very short list of those who made substantial contributions, to make clear who of them guarantees the paper, to list at the end the names of all other contributors and their contributions, and to include other sources of funding in acknowledgments.(1)  Perhaps by bringing up such proposals for discussion in their labs, lab members can begin to refine their local policies regarding authorship.

  • (1)The Council of Science Editors has created an online bibliography,Selected References on Authorship, at For an example of a set of guidelines, see the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors' Uniform requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals, updated October 2001 at Veronica Yank and Drummond Rennie are co-authors of "Academia and Clinic," Annals of Internal Medicine 130 (1999): 661-670, which discusses the recommendations summarized above.

Author: Vivian Weil, Illinois Institute of Technology.

This case has been designed as one in which there is no defined conflict. However, any situation in which many individuals are involved is certain to have any number of possible outcomes. This case is no exception. The purpose of such a case is to spark discussions that most often begin with, "what if. . . ."

This case primarily concerns the assignment of authorship, but discussion is certain to encompass many other areas including relationships, intellectual property and intellectual contribution, the role of technicians vs. the role of graduate students, and many other issues.

Discussion Question:

  • Do you agree with the order of authorship that David proposed? Why or why not?

The order of authorship for papers is often a subject of great debate, and authorship practices vary from discipline to discipline and among labs of particular disciplines. Since no set standard crosses disciplines, it is most often left to the PI of a particular project to make the final decision. David's authorship proposal was based on the rules that were stated by Killinger upon David's arrival, as is done with each new member of the lab. In this way, all members of the lab are informed in advance of the authorship guidelines. It is easy to agree with the order of authorship that David has proposed. It seems most logical that the individual who is responsible for the actual writing of the paper and who has contributed most to the project should be included as the primary author. Since this project was David's as a post-doc, and most likely his original research idea and design, it seems reasonable that he should be listed as the primary author. It is also almost incontrovertible that the individual supplying the money and/or research space for a particular project should be included as an author (listed last in many disciplines). Such is the case with Killinger, who served as the PI for the project and provided the money and space. The uncertainty concerns the technician and graduate student.

A technician's role in a research laboratory varies from lab to lab. In some labs, a technician may be a scientist with years of experience and many publications as primary author who provides intellectual contributions through trouble shooting in addition to being an expert on certain techniques used routinely in the lab. In other cases, a technician may perform a specific procedure for all other members of the lab, without any additional intellectual contributions to those projects. As a result, it is difficult to make a blanket statement about crediting a technician on a publication. In this case, Haruko has worked closely with David on many aspects of his project. The case tells us that she has done a great deal of the trouble shooting with David in addition to developing a novel technique for isolating organelles. David has therefore decided that she should be included as the second author on the paper.

While there may or may not be a technician in a lab, there are almost always graduate students. Many schools rotate graduate students through several labs before the students choose an adviser and become full-time members of a particular lab. During these rotations, which may last several weeks, but usually not much longer, the students work with current members of the lab to get a feel for the types of research that are being conducted, and to get acquainted with the personality and atmosphere of the lab. While graduate students most often assist the current lab members with their respective projects, they rarely make any significant contributions due to the short amount of time that they are involved. In this case, Benson is in Killinger's lab for only six weeks. He has helped on a final stage of the experiment, but primarily to learn and not as a contributor. As a result, David has decided that he will be acknowledged in the paper for his efforts on the project, but will not be listed as an author.

All of these authorship decisions were based on the rules stated by Killinger. This case is certainly one in a vacuum because there was no disagreement from any of the persons involved, and the situation was resolved smoothly.

What if Killinger had stated different rules? What if Killinger informed each new member of the lab that he would be listed as primary author on all research that was conducted in his lab, whether or not he had any contribution other than providing the money and space? In that case, Killinger would be listed as primary author followed by David and finally Haruko. Would this practice be ethical?

What if Killinger told every new member of his lab that all papers coming out of his lab would have only his name on them, even if he only supplied the money and lab space for the project? Would David and Haruko have reason to feel slighted if that were the case? If Killinger has made this rule clear before each person decides to become a lab member, is he being unethical? He is not lying or being deceptive. If prospective lab members agree to these guidelines, then Killinger cannot be held at fault for any wrongdoing, right? Or, is there something inherently unethical about such a mandate, regardless of who may agree to abide by it?

Discussion Question:

  • Is it ethical to include Haruko (the technician), but not to include Benson (the graduate student) on the list of authors for this paper?

This issue has been examined to some extent in the discussion following Question 1. In this case, Killinger has stated that those who have made "a significant intellectual contribution" should be included as authors on papers coming out of the lab. David based his authorship assignments on this ruling. Since Haruko actually designed experimental methods as well as trouble-shooting during the project, she was considered to have made an intellectual contribution adequate to merit inclusion as an author. Benson, on the other hand, was not included because he participated only in the last experiment of the project, apparently to a minor extent, and as such did not make an intellectual contribution significant enough to merit authorship.

What may be of interest here, however, is the possibility that Benson may see his contributions in a different light. What if this final experiment lasted for Benson's full six weeks? What if during that six weeks, Benson recorded data and analyzed those data for David and Haruko? Would that have made a difference? Would that be considered as a "significant intellectual contribution?" What if Benson decides that the authorship decision is unfair, and takes the data he has collected with him to a different lab and publishes the work in a different journal? Would he be justified in doing so?

Discussion Question:

  • Does it matter that Benson was just on a rotation through the lab and not (as yet) a regular member?

This question certainly ties into Question 2. Should regular members of a lab be given more priority than a student who is just on a rotation through the lab? Or do the same rules apply? Basically, does the fact that Benson is not really a member of the Killinger lab make it less likely that he would be included on a paper, regardless of his level of contribution? In this case, David has decided that Benson's intellectual contribution on the last experiment was not significant enough to merit authorship. Would it matter if Benson were a senior graduate student who had been in Killinger's lab for four years, and did the same amount of work as described in the case study? Theoretically, it should not, but practically speaking, it very well may. For instance, David probably knows Benson only slightly, due to the short time he has been working in Killinger's lab. If Benson and David had been in the lab together for four years, it is possible that David's decision about intellectual contribution may have been swayed. Would that be ethical?

Discussion Question:

  • What constitutes a significant intellectual contribution? Who should decide?

While no authorship standard crosses disciplines, one phrase seems to stand out - "significant intellectual contribution." What exactly is a significant intellectual contribution? An intellectual contribution would be the giving of one's original thoughts. What makes such a contribution adequate to merit credit for authorship? A number of papers have been written on this topic. In the Author Instructions section of the Journal of the American Medical Association, for example, all authors are advised that each should be able to take public responsibility for the content of the paper. The instructions further state that all of the following conditions must be met in order to be included as an author.

Discussion Question:

  • There must be substantial contributions to conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data;
  • drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content;
  • and final approval of the version published. (International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, 1997)

Syrett et al. also stated the same three conditions in their article, Authorship Ethics (Syrett et al., 1996). If these conditions are applied to this case study, it seems evident that David and Haruko should both be included as authors, and that Benson should not be included. It is not quite as clear, however, whether or not Dr. Killenger's contributions merit authorship. In fact, Syrett, et al. state that fund acquisition and data gathering do not merit authorship. Should a PI be included as an author on a paper, even if he only contributed funds and lab space?

Even if these three conditions are met, there is still room for debate about authorship. Condition 1 states that there must be a "substantial" contribution. So who should decide what constitutes a "substantial contribution"? Should the PI decide? After all, it is his lab, and the research is most likely being done with funds he has acquired. In this case study, Killinger advises each new member of his lab that he is the final authority on the decision about what constitutes a "substantial contribution." What if this practice were not stated up front? Should the majority rule?

There are certainly no easy answers to the questions posed by this case study, but these questions will stimulate discussions about the problems the case presents. Included below is a list of articles for further reading. These articles should be reviewed by discussion leaders to familiarize themselves with the current views on authorship ethics.


  • International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, "Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals," JAMA 277 (1997): 927-34.
  • K. L. Syrett and L. M. Rudner, "Authorship Ethics," Practical Assessment, Research and Evaluation 5 (1996): 1-4.

Further Reading

  • American Chemical Society, " American Chemical Society Ethical Guidelines, 1996,
  • Brunner, D.D. 1991. "Who Owns this Work? The Question of Authorship in Professional/Academic Writing," Journal of Business and Technical Communication 5(4): 393-411.
  • Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy, National Research Council. On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research Authorship Practices, 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1994.
  • Cooper, D. "Unethical Scholarship Today: A Preliminary Typology." Paper presented at the Humanities, Science and Technology conference, Big Rapids, Mich., 1988.
  • Culliton, B. J. Authorship, Data Ownership Examined. Science 242 (4879, 1988): 658.
  • Dunkin, M. "Some Dynamics of Authorship." Australian Universities' Review 35 (1, 1992): 43-48.
  • Kassirer, J., and Angel, M. "On Authorship and Acknowledgments" (correspondence). New England Journal of Medicine 326 (16, 1992): 1085.
  • Kassirer, J., and Angel, M. "On Authorship and Acknowledgments" (editorial). New England Journal of Medicine 325 (21, 1991): 1510-12.