Options and Strategies

How to Resolve an Authorship Dispute

While more can be done to prevent authorship disputes, it is important that there are ways of resolving these when they do arise.

One option is to try to resolve the dispute internally.

While this is not without its challenges, it is generally a good option. If this is not possible, there are a few options that can be explored.

1. Talk it out

Many authorship disputes arise because colleagues rarely have frank discussions about what constitutes and who deserves credit. This can lead to misunderstandings about what is involved in a given project, as well as feelings of injustice when someone’s claim for credit is not honoured.

There is a clear need for discussion and education around authorship practices within research communities, starting as early as undergraduate training (e.g. via involvement in professional societies, conversations with peers and colleagues, or formal training from institutional Research Integrity Offices). A greater awareness of the range of common practices can reduce conflict and improve the quality of science.

It would be unethical for scientific communities to be unable to resolve conflicts and disagreements. Alternative dispute resolution methods are therefore crucial to avoid the kind of “scorched earth” solutions that result in retracted papers and can damage scientific reputation. Alternative dispute resolution strategies include mediation, arbitration and med-arb (a combination of these) that help participants reach a mutual agreement, bypassing litigation [80, 81]. More work is needed on how to support such interventions.

2. Try to resolve it internally

Currently, the research community does not have any norms or processes for helping individuals who get caught up in authorship disputes. This has corrosive effects, both for individual researchers and for communities.

A big part of the problem is that what one person perceives as their contribution carries more weight than another’s. This can create huge power differentials, especially between trainees and senior faculty. Some people even suggest that editors should resolve these disputes, but this would greatly expand an editor’s responsibilities and unfairly privilege the powerful.

It is better to discuss among collaborating scientists at the outset of a project how credit should be apportioned. This helps avoid the kinds of conflicts that lead to disputes. It can be helpful to set up a meeting for this purpose. It is also important to record the minutes of the meeting for future reference. Having clear communication with the team members ensures that everyone is aware of the role to be played by them.

3. Mediate

If internal discussion fails to resolve a dispute, some experts recommend mediation, like in a court case. The mediator could be an experienced colleague, a research ethics consultant, or someone from the institution. [31] This approach may feel more like a contract than the usual ways of settling conflicts in science, but it can prevent future problems from unresolved disagreements about authorship order and responsibilities. Conflicts over credit can damage lab and department relationships, hurt individual researchers’ careers, and lead to publication delays. In some cases, they even end a project and derail future collaborations.

But, unlike Hollywood screenwriters, scientists do not have a unionized organization that can mediate their disputes. An alternative solution could be to make it a condition of publishing in a journal that authors agree to mediation or arbitration when a dispute arises. This would be similar to agreements that authors already sign when they submit a paper, including copyright transference and payment of page charges and/or open access fees.

4. Take legal action

As a final option, authors may have to take legal action. While this is generally not a recommended course of action, it is sometimes necessary when a dispute over authorship is unresolved by other means.

Having the support of an independent body could also encourage more transparent record-keeping and, perhaps, less ego-driven decisions about who should appear on a publication’s authors list. A system like this would increase transparency and prevent conflicts that result in a loss of credibility for the scientific community as a whole.

While existing guidelines for determining authorship credit recommend that authors work out disputes among themselves, this is often difficult in practice. Large power differentials can emerge, and institutions are unlikely to have a say in the matter if collaborators come from different departments or colleges. In some cases, ombuds offices or research integrity committees could act, but these options are not available to everyone. Having no way to resolve these disputes has corrosive effects on individuals and research communities.

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