Abuse of authorship is increasingly common in higher education. For example, too many academics are either listing the names of people on papers who have not contributed to those papers or they are not including the names of those who have.
As a result, authorship has become a false signifier of intellectual productivity and authority. And if we allow such authorship abuse to continue unabated, we are abdicating our responsibilities as scholars, furthering distrust in educational institutions and delegitimizing our ability to make knowledge claims that can enable us to effect change.
Simply put, an author is a person who has contributed real and identifiable intellectual labor to earn their position on a paper. Giving credit to those who do not deserve it -- or, equally problematic, not crediting those who have done work -- compromises the trustworthiness of our research and our honor as scholars. The perversion of authorship is being reproduced through unreflective practice, apprenticeship into inappropriate practices and, at times, outright dishonesty, facilitated by the growing use of problematic metrics of scholarship.
Over the past century, authorship has come to matter enormously in higher education. Getting and keeping a faculty position relies on it. Salaries depend on it, as scholars' annual evaluations focus on "productivity" measured in manuscripts. Program ratings are linked to it. Quantitative measures of the impact of authorship drive how our peers, institutions and funding agencies value our work. The desire for status, power and resources has added to perversions of authorship for students and faculty members.
Perhaps the most well-known form of authorship abuse comes from using power to insert oneself as an author on a paper. Informal and formal interactions with colleagues at conferences, dissertation proposal hearings, and reappointment and tenure meetings have revealed how networks of collaboration, reciprocity and bullying shape decisions about who becomes an author. The story of advisers who insist on being listed on students' papers without contributing directly to the work has been repeated so much as to have become a trope.
Abuses of power are not required, however, to gain unwarranted authorship. With increased pressure for doctoral students to have publications before going on the job market, it is not uncommon to hear students making quid pro quo arrangements in which one will list another on a paper and expect the same in turn. We need to ask ourselves: What do we want our students to learn about authorship?
Ironically, scholars' efforts to be "nice" or "generous" can also lead to problematic authorship practices. "Gift authorship," defined as authorship given to a person who has not contributed significantly to the production of a manuscript, is a particularly insidious form of authorship abuse in this respect. Listing someone on a paper who has not contributed significantly to its development may seem like a pro-social activity, a gift, but authorship is not meant to be determined by niceties.
We need to be aware that niceness is a discursive strategy that defends the status quo while cloaking itself in morality. The desire to be nice in situations that depend upon honest assessments is especially worrisome as it inappropriately serves to uphold powerful social networks, which in academe tend to be dominated by white men. The combination of niceness and the maintenance of those social networks thus carries the strong possibility of reproducing and furthering inequities related to race, gender, sexual orientation, class and place of origin.
Fighting a Hydra-Headed Problem
What are we as an academic community to do about proliferating authorship abuses? To avoid situations where we are making subjective decisions based on sympathy or generosity, we should rely on published guidelines for authorship. Our common sense cannot be the sole basis for such decisions. Whom we view as making a significant contribution, whom we think is deserving of the "gift" of authorship, or whom we think could benefit us in the future is shaped through implicit biases and stereotypes based on characteristics including a person's race and gender. In short, inequity begets inequity.
To fight the hydra-headed problem of authorship abuse, we do not need to develop new standards and procedures; we have them. For example, organizations including the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors have provided nearly identical guidance when it comes to determining who is an author, who is not and who deserves formal acknowledgment. Journals also refer to such authorship guidelines on their websites and publications. Tools have also been developed to determine how to apply those standards in real-world, complex situations. Steadfastly following the standards and guidelines can help us treat people fairly and protect those who are most vulnerable from harm.
We need, however, to move beyond compliance with standards and towards the cultivation of a greater sense of ethical responsibility. Authorship abuse is not only about the quality of our research -- it is also about the quality of the researchers doing the work. Ignoring that is one possible reason why the abuse has become increasingly pervasive. The knowledge about how to avoid authorship abuse exists, but it seems that we are not using this information systematically -- or, more troubling, we may not have the will to do so.
As a step toward developing a stronger ethical sense towards each other and our research, we must be willing to engage in some hard conversations about authorship. Our conversations should be rooted in the published standards of our respective fields but also explore sensitive areas of ethics, values and power. These conversations should include not only emerging scholars but also senior faculty members and administrators.
We need to have these explicit discussions in our classes, at faculty meetings, in our editorial board meetings and at conferences. They will be uncomfortable conversations, for fear of not seeming "nice" or being too untrusting. They will also be tough conversations if we are honest about our own potentially questionable authorship practices. We should embrace this discomfort, however, as these conversations could go a long way in terms of promoting greater transparency and accountability in authorship.