When Authorship Turns Sour
The Research Ethics Blog by Bernard Lo, MD
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A friend e-mailed me about a difficult authorship dispute he was having – a research collaboration gone sour. Being an author on a paper in a major journal can provide tremendous satisfaction and prestige, but authorship can also produce painful disputes over responsibilities and positions in the list of authors. Dilemmas over authorship are common, can cause great emotional pain, and require huge time commitments. Imagine such a situation: A group of investigators has completed a project on a predictive model of genotyping cancer specimens. The team (in order of authorship) consists of:
- A medical student
- A former industry scientist, now at the FDA
- A biostatistician
- A programmer
- An associate professor who is the corresponding and senior author, has mentored the medical student, and led the project. She requested the consultation.
The senior author describes the second author as demanding and persistent in his opinions. Revisions have been a “marathon” because the second author is accusatory and insulting when others do not accept his suggestions.
The second author, after discussing the paper with several colleagues, wants to reframe the paper to give more attention to advances in predictive modeling. The senior author wants to get the paper published somewhere, and quickly. She wants the medical student to have a publication to mention in his/her internship applications. The senior author thinks that the suggestions of the second author will improve the paper. She knows that she will be doing the lion’s share of the rewriting. She would like to minimize the time and hassle she needs to spend on this project and to move on to other projects. The medical student, biostatistician, and programmer are willing to do anything the senior author proposes. They do not want to get involved in more unpleasant discussions with the second author.
The senior author proposes the following: After one more round of discussions, she will revise the paper extensively. At that point, the other authors will have the option of accepting the final draft or withdrawing as an author. Is this an acceptable and optimal approach to this difficult situation? What about the criteria for authorship?
To earn authorship, a researcher should have made substantial intellectual contributions to a project. Major medical journals require that every author contribute to each of three major stages of a project:
- Make substantial contributions to the conception and design of the project, data acquisition, or data analysis and interpretation AND
- Draft the article or revise it critically for intellectual content AND
- Approve the final manuscript
The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors published a comprehensive list of recommendations for authorship.
Thus, all authors need to approve the final manuscript. If the second author does not agree with the decisions about the paper made by the other authors, he cannot in good faith be an author. If this occurs, his contributions to the paper need to be recognized in an acknowledgment. However, having spent considerable time and effort on the paper, he may be unwilling to withdraw as an author. An option that sometimes is useful when authors cannot agree among themselves on the analysis or interpretation of the data is to present the minority views, labeled as such. For instance, the paper might say, “An alternative interpretation would be …One author favored this approach because… However, the other authors did not accept this approach because …” The merit of this approach is that it allows readers to consider alternative interpretations, to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of each, and to decide for themselves.
Address emotional issues directly.
In many group projects, interpersonal issues and group dynamics can have more impact on the project than the technical aspects of the work, such as collecting the data and carrying out the data analysis. Investigators who spend time and effort on the research may develop strong feelings about how the findings should be presented and interpreted. Feelings can run high on both sides. Different people may interpret the situation radically differently. One may feel that he has been slighted and unappreciated, while another may feel that she has gone many extra miles to accommodate what seem to her to be unreasonable demands.
Often it is useful to address the emotional and interpersonal issues directly, rather than letting them fester under the surface. Authors might draw on their other experience as physicians to consider the value of addressing emotions directly. In clinical care, physicians commonly encounter “problem patients” who seem demanding, uncooperative, and difficult to deal with. Experienced physicians recommend eliciting the “problem patient’s” emotions and addressing them directly, starting by asking open-ended questions.
Elicit the problem author’s emotions: “I sense that we both are frustrated with the process of writing and revising this paper. Can you tell me your experience of this situation?”
Acknowledge the problem author’s emotions: “I can understand that you feel angry (frustrated, upset, etc.) about what has happened.” The senior author in the case described earlier might feel that she has already spent more time than she wants listening to the second author. Moreover, she may feel reluctant to give attention to a person who has already caused her distress. However, it may well be a fruitful strategy to invest additional time up front in order to save even more time and trouble later.
At this stage, it is useful to address the emotions and not the substantive issues regarding specific revisions. The goal is to listen to the other person’s concerns and expectations and to give him the sense that his concerns and emotions have been heard and understood. Often being heard initiates a process, in which an author is more willing to listen to the perspectives of the other authors. After being heard, the person may also be willing to find common ground with the other authors.
Express your own emotions as “I feel …”: It may be appropriate and therapeutic for the senior author to express later her own emotions and concerns. “I also feel frustrated …” It is useful to frame these statements as “I feel frustrated (angry, disappointed, taken advantage of) …” rather than “You are demanding (insensitive, selfish) …” or “You have been …” These latter constructions are usually interpreted as accusations and commonly elicit defensive reactions or counterattacks rather than focus on solving the problem at hand.
Set boundaries: As in patient care, it is useful to set limits on what you are willing to do. “My goal is to get this paper resubmitted in the next three weeks… After that, I’m going to have to move on to other projects. I just can’t keep putting in the time it’s taken to do these revisions.” It is important to be certain that you are willing to live with the implied threat – that you and the other authors will abandon the project if the limit is violated.
Try to find common ground: “We have a problem …” It is useful to try to reach an agreement on goals for the project. “I think we all want to have as strong a paper as possible, and I think your suggestion on discussing advances in predictive modeling will improve the paper. But we need to finish this project in a reasonable period of time and not have it eat into other projects we all are doing. Let’s face it; it hasn’t been accepted by a top-tier journal, and we need to get it into press.”
Get agreement on process: With this background, the “problem author” may likely agree to a process of limited revisions and conference calls, as proposed by the senior author. Moreover, it is important to reach agreement on roles. For example, if there were residual disagreement, the senior author could have authority to decide on wording.
Involve a neutral third party: Many universities offer a mediation service in which a neutral, third-party mediator assists the parties in the disagreement reach a mutually acceptable agreement. Mediation can relieve the stress of the conflict, help people to assess their opinions realistically, and improve understandings of opposing perspectives.
So how can similar problems be prevented in the future? Because authorship disputes can become bitter, it is important to try to prevent them and address them when they become apparent rather than hoping things will work out later by themselves – they generally don’t. It is a good idea to clarify authorship at the beginning of a project. Sometimes friends decide to do a joint project, without specifying who will take the lead and be first author and what each person will contribute. Although it may seem inconsistent with friendship to make these expectations explicit, it is usually better in the long run to agree in writing at the onset of the project on roles, expectations, and deadlines. If there are signs that the authorship arrangements are not working, it is better to address the problems directly when they arise than to delay addressing them and hope things will work out. Bringing up concerns early can prevent future problems by clarifying expectations, setting realistic deadlines, and agreeing explicitly on how roles will change if someone cannot meet a deadline. What do you think? Have you had similar authorship experiences? What suggestions do you have for working out authorship disputes?