In science, correctly stated co-authorship is essential. Being transparent about who did what can be said to belong to the documentation of the research. Incorrectly stated co-authorship does not only give a distorted picture of the research, however. It also creates injustice between researchers and unfairly affects who gets employment or research grants. This also affects which research will be conducted and by whom.

There are internationally recommended rules for what counts as co-authorship, for example the Vancouver rules for medical publications. Despite the importance of correctly stated co-authorship, and despite international guidelines, several studies show that deviant practices are common. One way to deal with the problem is, of course, educational efforts. Doctoral students at medical faculties in Scandinavia increasingly receive instruction in publication ethics, and thus in these rules. Are the efforts effective?

Recently, results were published from an online survey aimed at people who have recently obtained a doctorate at medical faculties in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The aim of the study was to explore experiences of and attitudes towards handling of authorship. Almost half of the respondents stated that the Vancouver rules were not fully respected in at least one of the studies included in the thesis. About a quarter of the respondents reported inappropriate handling of authorship order in at least one study. Nevertheless, the majority (96.7%) stated that it is important that the Vancouver rules are followed.

The study’s conclusion is that despite increased educational efforts in publication ethics at Scandinavian universities, the handling of co-authorship continues to be a problem in medical research. One can ask why the problem persists despite the efforts, and despite the positive attitude towards the authorship rules among the vast majority of respondents in the study.

In the discussion of the results, the authors suggest that it is probably not the doctoral students themselves who transgress the authorship rules, but supervisors and other more senior researchers, to whom the doctoral student is subordinate. The educational efforts thus miss a very relevant target group. The authors therefore mention a new trend at medical faculties in Sweden to introduce compulsory teaching in research ethics for supervisors of doctoral students. At the same time, they doubt the effectiveness of increased educational efforts alone, since authorship can be considered an academic currency. As long as authorship functions as a kind of career capital for researchers, deviant practices will remain common.

If you want to know more, read the study here: Misuse of co-authorship in Medical PhD Theses in Scandinavia: A Questionnaire Survey.

Then you can also read about another important result. A larger proportion of women responded that authorship order did not correctly reflect contribution in their thesis. A greater proportion of women also emphasized the importance of following the authorship rules. This may indicate that women are treated worse than men in matters of authorship and therefore place more importance on fair action, the authors suggest.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Helgesson, G., Holm, S., Bredahl, L., Hofmann, B., Juth, N. Misuse of co-authorship in Medical PhD Theses in Scandinavia: A Questionnaire Survey. Journal of Academic Ethics (2022).

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