Authorship is a noun, a goal, and broadly defined. It is the state of fact of being the writer of a book, article, or document. Single authorship of a book gives it a uniformity of style and a proper balance between chapters. Multiple authors shower complexity over simplicity. In practical terms, authorship is the occupation of writing.

Yes, indeed—there are ethical considerations inherent in authorship. “Ethical concerns regarding authorship have been present since antiquity. Isocrates, a Greek philosopher and contemporary of Plato based his teaching of rhetoric on concrete thoughts rather than metaphysics, dogma, and mysticism. He railed against unoriginality and plagiarism. However, his personal conflicts of interest may have been an important factor in his views, as he strongly protected his and his school’s reputation so as to maintain its profitability. In the Middle Ages, publishing was difficult, often performed in monasteries and largely ignored. Roger Bacon, the 13th-century Franciscan monk, began to question the deductive reasoning of Aristotle but was not originally allowed to publish his work. However, his brilliance was recognized, and eventually he was asked to submit a treatise to the Pope. For this effort, he was banned, imprisoned, and largely forgotten until four centuries later.”[1]

Fast forward to 2023 and we’ll see an uptick in authorship, publication, and ethical challenge. Authorship of scientific articles based on current research can presage unique ethical challenges. In every college, university, and research center in the country, would be authors are eager to publish. Without publication, jobs may be scarce and personal gratification postponed. That’s because little has changed in the last two centuries—publish or perish is alive and well in the academy. Financial challenges abound. Prestige seems hard to come by. Research funding is often a bitter fight. All of this can and will lead to ethical lapses.

Arguably the core ethical abuse is the failure to meet the strict criteria for authorship. “Authors may be included who do not meet criteria for authorship, and conversely collaborators who fulfill criteria for authorship are occasionally excluded. Senior authors may place themselves as the primary author ahead of the author who contributed the most to the study. Ghost authorship is a second problem, especially seen in clinical trials or with new technology, where industry representatives write and submit manuscripts in physicians’ names.”[2]

Ghosting is widespread in academic circles. “Ghost authorship is essentially the opposite of honorary authorship, entailing a significant contribution to a manuscript without acknowledgment of that contribution. The most well-known scenario involves a professional medical writer or an industry researcher who drafts an article on behalf of a pharmaceutical company but is not credited for this work. These ghostwriters may be concealed to obscure industry backing for research, improving the apparent objectivity of a paper while maintaining the company’s control over its content. This concealment is often coupled with guest authorship, the practice of adding a reputable academic researcher’s name to a manuscript to increase its credibility, despite little to no actual involvement. In other cases, a scientist may employ, but not acknowledge, a ghostwriter to overcome an obstacle to publication, such as poor writing skills, limited time, or a lack of familiarity with journal requirements.”[3]

Gift authorship is a first cousin to Ghost authorship. Gift or guest authorship happens when someone is added to the list of authors but was not involved in writing the paper. Data fabrication is falsification. And basic honesty comes into play when competing interests, such as doubtful research funding hamper publication efforts.[4]

Authorship credit is a second cousin. It reflects an individual author’s contribution to the finished product. An author is considered anyone involved with initial research design, data collection and analysis, manuscript drafting, or final approval. However, the following do not necessarily qualify for authorship: providing funding or resources, mentorship, or contributing research but not helping with the publication itself. The primary author assumes responsibility for the publication, making sure that the data are accurate, that all deserving authors have been credited, that all authors have given their approval to the final draft; and handles responses to inquiries after the manuscript is published.[5]

Does it matter whether the order is alphabetical, age-related, power driven, or ranked by contribution? “The ‘first author’ is a coveted position because of its increased visibility. This author is the first name readers will see, and because of various citation rules, publications are usually referred to by the name of the first author only. In-text or bibliographic referencing rules, for example, often reduce all other named authors to “et al.” Since employers use first authorship to evaluate academic personnel for employment, promotion, and tenure, and since graduate students often need a number of first-author publications to earn their degree, being first author on a manuscript is crucial for many researchers, especially early in their career. The last author position is traditionally reserved for the supervisor or principal investigator. As such, this person receives much of the credit when the research goes well and the flak when things go wrong.”[6] The last author may also be the corresponding author, the person who is the primary contact for journal editors. The first author could, however, fill this role as well, especially if they contributed most to the work.

At least from an ethical perspective, authorship as a discipline must take reputational damage into consideration. “Authors’ reputations can be damaged if their names appear on a paper that they do not completely understand or with which they were not intimately involved. In a notable case, American stem-cell researcher Gerald Schatten had his name listed on a paper co-authored with Hwang Woo-suk. The paper was later exposed as fraudulent and, though Schatten was not accused of participating in the fraud, a panel at his university found that “his failure to more closely oversee research with his name on it does make him guilty of ‘research misbehavior.'”[7]

Co-authors are assumed to have made reasonable attempts to check findings submitted for publication. In some cases, co-authors of faked research have been accused of inappropriate behavior or research misconduct for failing to verify reports authored by others or by a commercial sponsor.[8]

Finally, the ethics of authorship may include author declarations and warranties by publishers. “By submitting any research article for the purposes of publication by Dove Medical Press Limited the authors must certify and warrant that: The submitting author has been authorized by all co-authors to submit the research article . . . The research article is original, has not already been published in any other journal (medical, or otherwise) or is not currently under consideration for publication by another journal, and does not infringe any existing copyright or any other rights prescribed by law; The article contains nothing that is unlawful, defamatory, or which would, if published, constitute a breach of contract or of confidentiality; Due care, diligence and all other requisite investigations were carried out in the preparation of the research article(s) to ensure its accuracy. To the best of their knowledge all statements contained in it purporting to be factual are true and correct.”[9]

Authors who defy these ethical conventions may find themselves in need of Attorneys.


[2] Ibid.





[7] Holden, Constance. (2006.) Schatten: Pitt Panel Finds “Misbehavior” but Not Misconduct. Science, 311:928.



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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