Short-term research authorship & ethics

Written by Amy Jasani, BA, Neuroscience; MPH, Health Behavior, University of Alabama at Birmingham and participant in the 2019 Institute for Public Health Summer Research ProgramPublic & Global Health Track

When I entered the grand auditorium and took my seat, I expected to hear a lecture on modern bioethics cases or the ugly history of unethical medical research in our country. Instead, James M. Dubois, DSc, PhD and director of the Center for Clinical Research Ethics, pulled up his title slide Challenges in Short-Term Research Relationships. While surprised, I found the interactive ethics presentation quite useful and applicable to my and my colleagues’ research experiences in the past, present, and future.

Dr. Dubois began by posing the questions—how many of us knew what authorship is for a paper? Who expected to earn authorship this summer? There was confusion and mixed answers around the auditorium as Dr. Dubois transitioned to explain how one receives the chance to earn authorship. He posed four scenarios of people who made different contributions to a research project. For each, we openly conversed whether the person’s actions warranted authorship. There was frequent disagreement among audience members. Dr. Dubois then explained the Washington University in St. Louis authorship criteria, founded on scholarship, authorship, and approval. Scholarship is described as the contribution to conception, design, execution, analysis, and/or interpretation of the data. Authorship is drafting, reviewing, and revising the manuscript for intellectual content, while approval is consent for the final manuscript to be published. Per WashU guidelines, to be an author, all three of these standards should be met. In addition, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors adds a fourth criteria: authors should be held accountable for the integrity and accuracy of the work.

Dr. Dubois shifted to how, as student interns, we should  handle questions of compliance or ethical violations. We used a hypothetical scenario of a foreign research student who decides to fabricate data to obtain results desired by her Principal Investigator (PI). The PI questioned the student’s intelligence and data skills with a threat of firing her. We pointed out alternative routes she could have taken such as contacting the Institutional Review Board (IRB) or the university’s relevant authorities; or, first checking her data analysis with another person.

We recognized that emotional strain and fear can cloud judgement, and we deliberated over how to actively balance those feelings. Dr. Dubois described his remediation program for PIs who have committed ethical violation(s) and, despite some recurrent attendees, its overall success . Ultimately, for our current work and future careers, this seminar was quite insightful for considering authorship and ethical decisions in the context of public health research.