“Ethical co-authorship is rarely discussed by authors and publishers, and even more rarely by research ethics committees. Yet co-authorship is notorious for unethical practices such as plagiarism.”[1] There are deeper ethical concerns including ghost writing, guest offerings, and gift issues. What happens when two authors claim authorship in a single piece of work? Are both authors claiming full copyright when one is only engaged has a work-for-hire writer under copyright law? Are co-authors fact-checking one another, or is the relationship one of trust and hope? Is the assumption of truthful recording and faithful reporting equally shared by “co-authors?”

Some co-writers have blogged about the core ethical issue. “It is . . .  important to work ethically. This means discussing . . . the right approach for you and the task before any writing begins – be clear about who is to do what, and make an explicit agreement about how potential problems are to be addressed. Ideally, author order should be negotiated at the start – and those with seniority and power need to initiate this, and be generous to more junior colleagues.”[2] So, add clarity, agreement, power sharing and generosity to the ethical imperative list.

When two authors propose to write scientific or research papers together, they often recognize constantly increasing specialization, and marked changes in the institutional incentives for publication. The goal for those writing for scholarly publications is publication that advance STEM disciplines. Co- authorship melds into a proxy for assessing research collaborations at micro, meso, and macro levels. It also raises issues of publication integrity, such as ghost authorships and honorary authorships.[3] Now, let’s add publication integrity to the list.

Claiming co-authorship has two prongs. Benefit and responsibility. That you allow your name on a publication implies three ethical norms: First, you have contributed substantially. Second, you are familiar with the content of the paper. Third, you have checked the accuracy of the content as best you can.[4] Now we can add self-assessment to the list.

Last, but not least, co-authors of research papers face extraordinary ethical challenges simply because the basic notion of “authorship” is at risk. Authorship is increasingly complicated because, as research collaborations proliferate, “the importance of citations for tenure and grants persists, and no consensus on a definition is reached. This issue is fraught with ethical implications because clearly conveying who is responsible for published work is integral to scientific integrity.”[5]

One response to the conundrum of “authorship” by many contributors is the guidelines posted by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. The ICMJE identifies four criteria that each author should meet. 1. Significant involvement in study conception/design, data collection, or data analysis/interpretation. 2. Involvement in drafting or revising manuscript. 3. Approval of final version of manuscript for publication. 4. Responsibility for accuracy and integrity of all aspects of research.

If we add up the ethical norms cited by the experts, we have seven ethical norms: “Clarity, Agreement, Power Sharing, Generosity, Publication Integrity, Self-assessment, and Responsibility for the Published Work. We could call it the Seven Deadly Sins of Co-Authorship because if one or more coauthors fail to comply, all may share fame or infamy, depending on the validity of the work.

[1] https://www.socialsciencespace.com/2021/04/quick-tips-on-being-an-ethical-co-writer/

[2] https://patthomson.net/2016/12/15/co-writing-strategies-or-what-could-possibly-go-wrong/

[3] Sameer Kumar, Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur 50603, Malaysia; sameer@um.edu.my; Essay—“Ethical Concerns in the Rise of Co-Authorship and Its

Role as a Proxy of Research Collaborations.”

[4] https://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006508#sec011

[5] https://www.aje.com/en/arc/ethics-manuscript-authorship/

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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