Friendship vs. Authorship


This case discusses issues of authorship in a lab or research group setting, the problems that occur when policies regarding collaborations are not in place and a faculty member's responsibility to students as a mentor.


Dr. Jane McDonald is a psychology professor at a university in Texas. Her good friend and colleague, Dr. David Woodford, is a psychology professor at a university in Alabama. Both Jane and David are members of a professional psychology association that has requested the assistance of its members in conducting a large national survey. Although Jane and David are not teaching at the same university, they went to graduate school together and thought it would be fun to collaborate on this study. After some discussion and planning, they informed the professional association that they would be happy to conduct the study. During the planning stage, they agreed that since Jane would be doing more of the logistics of the study, she would be listed as first author and David would be listed as second when it came time to publish.

Jane approached one of her graduate students, Mark Dunn, and asked him if he would be interested in taking responsibility for the logistical aspects of the study, such as mailing the surveys and data entry. Mark was informed that he would not be responsible for the new data analysis or final report since David would be doing these tasks. However, Jane did not discuss the issue of authorship with Mark. Mark, new in the psychology program, was flattered to be asked and agreed to participate.

Eight months later Mark completed his portion of the study and sent the data to David for analysis. Several weeks later Jane approached Mark and told him that David had not completed the data analysis and it needed to be done. Furthermore, she needed to have the data in a final report format so that she could present it at a conference in two weeks. Mark spent most of the next two weeks conducting the data analysis and writing the final report. Jane expressed her gratitude to Mark for his commitment to the project and asked if he would be interested in collaborating on the final paper for publication. Mark agreed.

Two months after Jane and Mark had this discussion, Jane handed Mark a final draft of a manuscript that was to be submitted the next week for publication. Never in the previous two months had Jane asked Mark to help with writing the paper. Furthermore, although David had not contributed to writing the paper, he was listed as second author and Mark was listed as third. Mark approached Jane and expressed his confusion as to why he was not asked to participate, and why David was listed as second author. Jane stated that she was too busy to collaborate and that it saved her time to write the paper herself. Furthermore, she and David had an agreement about authorship from the beginning, and nothing could be done to change the arrangement.

Discussion Questions

  1. Since Mark was not included in the planning stages of the study, should he be included as an author?
  2. Should participation in some parts of a study have greater weight in determining authorship than participation in other parts?
  3. Although Jane and David reached an agreement at the outset of the study, should David be included as an author?
  4. Did Jane let her friendship with David get in the way of doing what was right with regard to including Mark as second author?
  5. How could Jane have handled this situation in a way that was fair to her?
  6. How could Jane have handled this situation in a way that was fair to Mark?
  7. Did Jane deceive Mark when she failed to collaborate with him in writing the paper?
  8. What can Mark do to ensure that he receives proper credit for his work?

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

The lab or research group is the setting for many, if not most, of the cases in research ethics. To avoid problems highlighted in the cases and to promote predictability and fairness, leaders of research groups need to make policies explicit and discuss their rationales. Among the specific arrangements that policies must address are collaborations, in all the variations that can occur within research groups. However, as this case illustrates, collaborations can encompass other contexts that are beyond the scope of the research group's policies, indeed are not covered by any explicit policies. Nevertheless, certain principles -- openness, explicitness, honesty, fairness and consistency -- that underlie appropriate policies within research groups should carry over to other contexts.

In this case, Dr. Jane McDonald and Dr. David Woodford, professors at two different universities, have agreed to collaborate on a research survey for a professional association of which both are members. Previously together as graduate students, they are now good friends. Since there is no mention of funding, it seems reasonable to assume that the professional association does not provide significant funding for the survey. The two professors have agreed to respond to their professional association's request for help, thinking it would be fun. Evidently Jane offers to handle the logistics, with the idea she can get help from a graduate student if necessary.

In due course, Jane enlists the help of a new graduate student, Mark, but apparently without initiating a conversation about authorship. If she has not already oriented this student to her policies regarding authorship, it is time to begin when she approaches him for help on a project that will lead to a paper. She should also inform the student about the authorship arrangement she has made with David, even though he is not a member of their research group. Explanation of her authorship policies would fit very naturally with information about how she and David plan to divide the work.

Jane should realize that Mark may be too diffident, or may not know enough, to ask about authorship. Flattered to be chosen to participate, he probably does not think about how one gets appropriate credit or even consider whether he will find the work itself interesting. This situation is a template of a not uncommon experience for graduate students. Advisers and research group leaders should be alert to the possibility of causing reactions like Mark's, which make it all too easy for senior investigators to take advantage of graduate students.

As far as we can tell, Mark completes his tasks in timely fashion. Apparently, Jane cannot count on David to come through with his analysis and final report in time for her to present them at an upcoming conference. She, therefore, enlists Mark to perform the data analysis and produce the final report. To be accurate, honest and fair in her conference presentation, Jane should acknowledge Mark's work. She would deceive her audience if she led or allowed them to believe that she performed the data analysis and produced the final report herself.

It appears that Mark has completed most, if not all, of the work to which Jane had committed herself and has completed David's share as well. Before proceeding with the paper, Jane has a duty to review the authorship agreement with David and with Mark. The division of labor has not turned out as planned, which is not unusual. The changes require modification of the original agreement between Jane and David regarding authorship. If David does not contribute to producing the paper, there is no basis for including him as an author. David should be fully informed about Mark's handling the logistical aspects and stepping in to perform the data analysis and prepare the final report as well. If David is available for advice and consultation while Jane prepares the paper, she can add an acknowledgment regarding his support.

Jane and David should have learned such practices for dealing with authorship and giving credit when they were graduate students together. Moreover, Jane should be aware that by her conduct she conveys to her students standards for research and authorship in her field, not least in undertaking research for her professional association.

Jane's treatment of Mark in connection with writing the final paper, as described in the case, is inexcusable. She invites him to collaborate in writing the final paper, he agrees, and then she writes it alone in a two-month period, without informing him about what she is doing. If she is under an unanticipated time constraint and concludes that collaboration will take too long, she is obligated to let Mark know. Surely there is time for that. Perhaps Jane has made the invitation out of a momentary sense of indebtedness. Ethically speaking, she cannot use the invitation as a way of thanking Mark. Because Jane has led Mark to expect that he will be involved in writing the paper, she must follow through with collaboration or inform Mark why she cannot. She has a moral duty to respect his interests and must not use him merely as a means to her own ends.

Is Jane merely careless and not well organized? Does she have a problem with being forthright when she has to deal with developments that may disappoint colleagues or students? We do not know the answers to these questions. In any case, these are personal traits that interfere with responsible dealings with colleagues and students, causing avoidable harm, especially to students not in a position to defend their interests.

Can Mark be faulted for not raising questions and looking out for his interests along the way? After completing work on the logistics, Mark is entitled to ask whether he will receive some kind of credit - an acknowledgement, perhaps. After another two weeks or so devoted to data analysis and preparation of the final report, Mark should have questions about criteria for authorship, and he should feel justified in raising them. By this point, he should have a sense of the importance of credit and authorship, and he should not be diffident. Graduate students should not remain passive, expecting others to look out for their interests. We should note, however, that first year students often need prompting or support to ask the questions they need to have answered.

The title of this case, "Friendship vs. Authorship," suggests that the author views Jane's failure to revise the authorship assignment as attributable to Jane's relationship with David. As noted above, Jane has no justification for listing David as an author. Even if David is unaware of Mark's contributions, he should not accept listing as an author. David knows how little he contributed to producing the paper. When colleagues who are friends list each other as co-authors on papers without actually collaborating, both are culpable. Such behavior corrupts the process and does damage to any who are unjustifiably denied authorship. When the behavior comes to light, it provokes resentment and fosters cynicism.

This case shows how damaging unethical handling of authorship can be. The graduate student does not get appropriate credit for his contribution. Finding himself listed as third author though playing no part in the writing process, he is likely to be confused about what authorship signifies. Moreover, he undoubtedly realizes that he has come up with publishable findings that he cannot now publish. As the author of the case and commentary suggests, the best way for students to extract something positive from such predicaments is "to take responsibility for becoming informed about how best to handle issues of authorship in the future."

Author: Vivian Weil, Illinois Institute of Technology.

Working with advisers and other faculty on research studies is an integral part of the graduate school experience. It is an excellent opportunity for students to be mentored and guided as novice researchers. As we all know, the dissemination of study findings through publications and presentations is key to the success of labs and departments in most academic settings. However, professors and students often find themselves grappling with the rules, or lack of rules, when it comes to authorship. The purpose of this case study is to generate discussion about the typical pitfalls that both students and professors encounter in sorting out issues of authorship.

Although authorship is the key to academic success, it is rarely discussed during the planning stages of a study. When is the best time for researchers to discuss this issue? Jane and David discussed it at the outset of the study. During the planning stages they divided their responsibilities and decided that Jane would receive first authorship. This approach could avoid problems at the closure of a study when it is time to publish and both researchers may feel they deserve first authorship. Jane and David had an understanding at the beginning that David's contributions would be less than Jane's, and therefore she would be listed as first author.

The most obvious disadvantage to having a discussion about authorship at the outset of the study played out here in this case. David didn't follow through with the original plan that he would conduct the data analysis. In fact, his contributions to the study were minimal, at best. However, he and Jane had already agreed that he would be second author. How should Jane have handled this situation? Although not legally bound to include David as a second author, is she bound professionally to honor the agreement originally made? Was David ever told that Mark stepped in and completed his work? Mark was not told whether Jane informed David that a third party was brought in to do his work. Furthermore, Mark was never informed whether David insisted on remaining second author. It's hard to speculate about Jane's motives here. Why would she choose to jeopardize the integrity of her relationship with Mark in order to keep peace with David?

Friends collaborate daily in academic settings, and this scenario is not unusual. Professors, like students, seem to be unsure about how to handle the issue of authorship, especially when collaborators fail to do their part. Jane and David handled it well by discussing authorship early in the research process, but they failed to continue the discussion throughout. Unfortunately, Jane chose to handle the situation by avoiding it. She went so far as to exclude Mark from the writing of the manuscript in order to justify his placement as third author. How could Mark possibly argue that he deserved second authorship when he didn't contribute to the manuscript? Did Jane deceive Mark by excluding him from the writing of the manuscript? Absolutely. Regardless of her intentions, she failed to inform Mark that she would be writing the manuscript without him. Furthermore, Mark's contributions in the data analysis earned him the right to publish his findings. Even though Jane originally offered him the opportunity to do so, she failed to keep her word. The price that Jane paid here to avoid confrontation with David was considerable and unnecessary.

The second issue of this case is who should be included in the discussion of authorship. Jane approached Mark at the beginning of the study and asked him to participate. She was very clear with Mark regarding his responsibilities; however, she failed to inform him that an agreement had already been made regarding authorship. Mark might not have agreed to work on the study had he known that he had no chance of being listed as first or second author. Fortunately, for Jane, Mark was the typical graduate student who was flattered just to be asked.

Why wasn't Mark included in the discussion? The answer to this question brings up the issue of those responsibilities that lend themselves to receiving credit through authorship versus those that do not. It is common knowledge that some responsibilities, such as survey development and data analysis, are typically considered to be more important than other responsibilities, such as mailing surveys and keying data. Mark may not have been included in the discussion because he was originally responsible for mailing surveys and data entry. Jane and David may not have regarded his contributions to the study as significant.

The final issue in this case is Mark's responsibility to himself. Should Mark accept what his adviser tells him, or can he take further action to ensure that he receives proper credit for his hard work? Mark is in a difficult situation because he is not considered to be a colleague or a peer, but a subordinate. He was hired to do a job, not to be a collaborator or a major contributor on the project. If he chooses to confront his adviser, who is in a position of power, he may have difficulty throughout the remainder of his graduate school career. However, Mark should take responsibility for becoming informed about how to best handle issues of authorship in the future. Although Jane did not bring up the issue of authorship when she asked Mark to work on the study, perhaps Mark should have. There are no rules that say students can't ask. Students have a responsibility to themselves to become informed about university and department policies regarding ethical conduct in research, including authorship.

The Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (1995) recommends that frank and open discussion regarding the division of credit within a research group occur as early as possible in a study. Furthermore, they suggest that authorship criteria be explicit among all collaborators, as well as giving students and research assistants appropriate credit if they make an intellectual contribution to the research project. Jane was faced with a few situations here that required open and direct communication. Unfortunately, she missed a valuable opportunity to teach her student the best way to handle some tough issues with regard to authorship.


  • Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1995.