AUTHORSHIP AND OWNERSHIP: WHAT ARE THE GROUND RULES?
Joan P Schwartz
Publication of scientific work is one of the most critical components of being a scientist--it brings recognition for scientific advancement and publicly demonstrates that research funds have been well used. Perhaps because of its importance, publication often leads to disagreements about authorship, and most scientists--at some point in their careers--will be touched by an authorship dispute. What are the ground rules for decisions about authorship? Can they be improved so that disputes can be avoided?
The NIH Intramural Research Program recognizes that authorship issues are an important concern for the ethical and optimal conduct of science. An entire section of the Guidelines for the Conduct of Research in the Intramural Research Program at NIH is devoted to authorship. These guidelines state that "for each individual the privilege of authorship should be based on a significant contribution to the conceptualization, design, execution, and/or interpretation of the research study, as well as a willingness to assume responsibility for the study." The guidelines go on to specify that "individuals who do not meet these criteria but who have assisted the research by their encouragement and advice or by providing space, financial support, reagents, occasional analyses or patient material should be acknowledged in the text but not be authors."
Joan P Schwartz
Most scientists would accept this definition of who should be an author and who should merely be acknowledged but might differ on what constitutes a significant contribution. This difference of interpretation is at the crux of many authorship disputes. Consider, for example, the varying views that might emerge in large labs and branches where a postdoctoral fellow, who may have minimal contact with the lab or branch chief, might believe that the chief's contribution is insufficient to warrant co-authorship. Our senior investigators, who function as mentors and who train fellows in good scientific thought and method, may have minimal "hands-on" input into a specific set of experiments, but their conceptualization of the field may well have established the scientific framework necessary for the work. A key question here is about the origin and development of the ideas and experimental design that contribute to the success of a scientific study--would the work have been done without the supervisor's input?
Another issue with comparable potential for generating disputes is that of "ownership"--of ideas, of a scientific problem, or of a set of reagents--and here the distinction between legal requirements and ethical rights is important. Many fellows do not realize that at NIH--which is, after all, an agency of the federal government--all research carried out in the intramural program is the property of NIH. Thus, laboratory books remain at NIH when a fellow leaves, and reagents may not be taken unless the lab or branch chief has given prior approval. When a scientist departs for a job in industry, reagents may only be taken after a Material Transfer Agreement has been negotiated. These are clear legal requirements.
Beyond these requirements, ethical rights that go to the heart of scientific collaboration also come into play in ownership disputes. For example, all collaborators on a project have an ethical right to examine the original data when a manuscript is being prepared for publication. And all the people involved in the project, including the lab and branch chiefs, have the ethical right to present the data in public forums, provided proper acknowledgment is given to all co-workers. Finally, fellows, visiting scientists, and other investigators who are transiently affiliated with an NIH lab do not have an eternal right or claim to ideas and experiments. Once they leave our labs, the issue of how much longer their contributions must be acknowledged on subsequent communications emerging from their former labs becomes a matter of negotiation.
The timing of agreements about authorship and ownership can significantly reduce the likelihood of disputes. For example, determining the order of authorship on a paper should be done as early as possible to avoid misunderstandings. Agreements made before a paper is written, or before a scientist leaves NIH, are less likely to lead to complications than those attempted after the fact.
These are the general guidelines, but as with all empirical formulas, it is their specific application, interpretation, and embodiment in common practice and standards that really matters. Are the guidelines realistic? Are they useful? Do they bear any resemblance to the way we actually do things at NIH? And finally, is there a better way to approach ownership and authorship issues? As always, this column welcomes instructive examples, questions, and other feedback from the NIH community.