Sunday, June 5, 2011

Food For Thought Academic Authorship: A Growing Trend Towards Gift Authorship

Dr. Vikneswaran Nair
Associate Professor / Director, Research & Development
Taylor’s University

“Publish or perish” or in a positive tone, “publish and flourish” refers to the pressure to publish work constantly to gain peer recognition or sustain a career in academia. A published paper is the culmination of a finished research project or other scholarly activity in recorded form. In most universities around the globe, there is increasing pressure on scholars to publish new work frequently as high impact publications. It is in fact, the single most important key to advancing individual research careers.

Hence, it is also one of the primary sources of academic authorship conflict and fraud. This age-old issue of “academic authorship” has been debated in many forums yet the prevalence of very dubious claims to authorship continues. Universities and research institutions very often neither possesses the resources nor the time to investigate, which is a lengthy process, when complaints by aggrieved parties emerge and are brought to their attention. Who constitutes an author? This seemingly simple question is fraught with conflicting answers in its application particularly in a university setting when authors can emerge from several different situations coming into play.

Authorship is the most visible form of academic recognition and credit. However, because credit for publication is also important in disputes and allegations of research misconduct, it is worth considering why authorship credit is more than a matter of personal gratification. How do we decide then, who can be rightfully termed as an author particularly when promotions are based on the quantity of high impact publications emanating from an individual academic? Admittedly, it is quite difficult to gauge the quality of books but scientific articles published in high-impact journals are assumed to be of a certain desired quality because articles published in most journals go through a stringent process of reviewing and editing.

According to seasoned publisher, Ms. Sumangala Pillai who is currently the Head of Taylor’s Press, and was previously the Head of UPM Press and the Head of Knowledge Management in MIROS, there may be many different situations that may or may not be conducive for academic authorship. Can the academics in the following scenarios claim authorship?

1. The academic who carries out research, writes the report according to scientific conventions of reporting and sends it off to a publisher for publication consideration.
Yes, he/she can be rightfully termed an author.

2. The academic who carries out part of the research and assigns a part to a junior colleague who does some of the work and writing of that part of the report. Can the first academic claim sole authorship?
No, this is unethical and this report has to have two authors.

3. A senior professor who comes up with an idea, plans the chapters, gets the funds and gathers junior staff around him to write a manuscript. Can he claim authorship?
Yes, with the proviso that he checks the work and ensures coherence, cohesion, continuity and clarity. But he has to be magnanimous enough to place himself as the last author.

4. A senior academic who works on a manuscript with a junior colleague and then accords co-authorship to another senior colleague.
This is a serious breach of academic integrity and the aggrieved party can lodge a formal complaint to the university authority in charge of academic affairs.

5. The lab assistant who patiently carries out the experiment over several months in a row, come rain or shine, based on the instructions of the academic. Can he be considered as one of the authors?
No, his place is in the acknowledgements.

6. The dean or head of department in a university who has not made any contribution to the report or in planning or carrying out the experiment or in writing the manuscript. Can he claim authorship or be placed as the last author?
No, it is unethical. If he insists, he is guilty of a serious breach of academic integrity and university authorities must not take a benign view of such unhealthy developments among the academic community, if it is brought to their attention.

7. A senior lecturer who hires an undergraduate who faithfully downloads material from all possible sources on the subject and gives it some semblance of a manuscript.
No, neither the lecturer nor the research assistant is entitled to being an author. No, even the report does not merit the status of a manuscript!

Despite a clear definition of authorship, the concept has come to be understood differently; very often leading to disputes, misunderstandings, and lingering feelings of unfairness concerning which contributions do and do not merit authorship. The publication number game in the academia has resulted in “tag-teams” of authorship for publications. As a result you have many “ghost” authors who are riding on the lead researcher. Author status has been awarded to many who are not able to defend the contents of a manuscript!

There are already some journals that have resorted to resolving issues of authorship ambiguity by adopting a mandatory convention wherein each author’s actual contributions are succinctly and explicitly stated in the publication, perhaps in the acknowledgments section. Authors are asked to fill out a form stating the extent of contribution from each author in the preparation of an article or manuscript, e.g. Author 1- 30%; Author 2 - 40%; Author 3 - 30%. Such a form is also extremely useful when calculating the quantum of royalties payable to each author (for book publications) and in gauging output of academics being considered for promotion.

The publication numbers game in the academia has resulted in “tag-teams” of authorship for publications. For example, Dr. X, Dr. Y and Dr. Z may be working together in three publications with Dr. X as the lead author in one publication and joint author in the other two. The same goes to Dr. Y and Dr. Z. Hence, each one of the researchers only needs to focus on one publication and in return he or she gets three publications to his/her credit. It is a good model provided that all the three projects are working in a field that is relevant to all three authors. Unfortunately, that is not the case in many co-authored publications. It has become a numbers’ game which is critical for promotions. As a result you have many “ghost” authors who are riding on the lead researcher.

The most extreme practice is “honorary authorship” or “gift authorship” where, for example, a head of a department is automatically granted authorship on all papers that emanate from that department. In some cases the research supervisor is made the first author in all students’ publications. In terms of academic integrity, research studies that have some support from the supervisors or heads of departments can be captured in the acknowledgement section of the publication and need not be accorded co-authorship. Let us not give a dubious definition to academic authorship. Authorship is a serious issue that comes with responsibilities. The overriding aim of authors should be to contribute to the corpus of knowledge rather than chalking up numbers.

This unethical practice in the academia needs to be checked before it becomes an acceptable culture. Researchers who are unable to defend a particular publication, not wholly but at least partly, cannot be regarded as a co-author. The concept of translational research must be emphasized more that doing research for the sake of promotion.

Hence the target set by the Ministry of Higher Education in the Malaysian Research Assessment Instrument (MyRA) which is very much Key Performance Index (KPI) driven whereby the quantity of high impact indexed articles are valued more than the Key Intangible Performance (KIP), has to be relooked if we want to discourage these unethical ways of achieving the KPI.

Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) is one university that has been emphasizing the concept of translational research which supports the KIP more than doing research for purely promotional purposes. Let us hope that a greater focus on KIP gains momentum in all the public and private universities in Malaysia. Only then we can be proud of our research output in contributing towards the knowledge economy and our move up the value chain.