Up until 1955, sole authorship was the norm (Von Bergen & Bressler 2017). Much has changed since then. Now, a debate is raging in scholarly circles regarding authorship ethics, author inflation, and what type and level of contributions should be required for you, as a researcher (student or faculty) or research assistant, to become an author on a manuscript or publication. There are solid arguments on both sides of the fence. Although it is likely that author inflation is an issue to be taken seriously, we cannot assume that every student researcher or prolific author is engaging in unethical authorship practices.
Although it is important to think about authorship and potential contributors at the start of every research project, the primary investigator (PI), or primary author, might not know who has contributed enough to actually gain authorship on a potential manuscript until the project is completed. That being said, the PI should communicate authorship expectations clearly at the start of every project. If you are not the PI, you can, and should be expected to, request authorship expectations early from the PI or your supervisor.
But don't worry, as Chris Papasian (2017) reminds us, "if you find yourself struggling to decide who should or shouldn’t be included as an author of a manuscript, you’re not alone"—there are guidelines available. Opinions abound regarding faculty as authors on student papers and order of authorship—view the video linked on this page for further discussion.
The Ethics Education Committee of The Academy of Management. [Academy of Management]. (2011, October 19). Ethics Video Series: Authorship [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3wEmi1rMeQ
Author inflation “involves attaching numerous authors to a single paper, some of whom have done little to no work on the paper itself” (Von Bergen & Bressler, 2017, p. 3). Von Bergen and Bressler (2017) base their arguments on two assumptions supported by existing research. The first premise is that author inflation is due to the significant amount of pressure placed on faculty to:
Their second assertion is that author inflation in academia is an ethical issue at the core of scholarship and researcher integrity that must be recognized and confronted as it raises concerns of both:
Flanagin, et al. (1998) and Huth (1986) reported 2-3 decades ago that honorary authorship is present in 17-33% of articles (as cited in Von Bergen & Bressler, 2017, p. 7). Honorary authorship may be used to grant a gift out of respect, reciprocate a favor, or increase an article’s value and likelihood of being published with or without the added and esteemed author’s permission. Rahman and Muirhead-Allwood (2010) and Bebeau and Monson (2011) reported that the current trend in multiple authorship—though varying somewhat across disciplines—is not waning; and Papatheodorou, Trikalinos, and Ioannidis (2008) stated that it is actually not due to more interdisciplinary or complex research projects (as cited in Von Bergen & Bressler, 2017, p. 5).
A lack of consensus among researchers regarding authorship criteria gave rise to the creation of authorship rules by organizations such as the International Council of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Council of Science Editors (CSE). The ICMJE authorship guidelines utilized by many journals are not easily enforced, stipulating that minor contributions like editing and drafting should be acknowledged in notes; not in authorship (Von Bergen & Bressler, 2017).
Many faculty and journal editors deem honorary authorship to be deceitful and unethical because it may over-represent a given author’s knowledge and skills (over others who did not engage in unethical authorship practices), and they may be expected to perform at a higher level than they can achieve—yet, some researchers adopt the “utilitarian ethic,” deeming “that the end justifies the means” (Von Bergen & Bressler, 2017, p. 8). Similarly, a counter-argument found by Athanasoulis (2000) states that the non-author responsibilities of colleagues pave the way for researchers to complete their research, justifying a “passive contribution” and therefore, authorship (as cited in Von Bergen & Bressler, 2017, pp. 8-9).
Von Bergen and Bressler (2017) propose these solutions to author inflation: