A student’s death has highlighted Iran’s dubious publication ethics

Students often have no choice but to include professors who have had no input into papers as co-authors, says Roohola Ramezani

三月 7, 2023
A crow perched on a sign in Tehran, symbolising stolen authorship
Source: iStock

The recent death of a PhD student in Iran was a shock for the whole Iranian academy. News reports said that the student threw herself down the stairs at the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the University of Tehran. She passed away in hospital the next day due to the severity of her injuries.

A lot about this death is still unclear. However, the news reports highlight a disagreement over authorship. According to those reports, the alleged self-harm took place after the student had an argument with her professor concerning the authorship of a paper that had been accepted for publication in a high-ranking international journal. Against her will, someone else’s name had been added as a joint author.

Whatever the truth in this case, this sad story as reported is all too plausible when seen in the right context. Postgraduate life in Iran can involve a lot of mental pressure. Students are expected not only to write a dissertation but also to publish papers in peer-reviewed journals. But their undergraduate years do not prepare them well for such tasks, while scholarships are very rare and the financial stress is only added to by the sense that the longer one studies, the harder it becomes to find a good job outside academia. The increasing rate of suicide and self-harm among postgraduates is gradually bringing this long-ignored malaise to public attention.

What this recent death particularly highlighted was the problem of academic publication. The legal and ethical aspects of academic authorship are not clearly defined in Iran, so it is often not clear to Iranian scholars if someone’s name can or should be mentioned as the (joint) author of an academic work. In practice, though, students often have no choice but to share authorship with professors, even when the professor has made no substantial contribution.

It is often argued that authorship should be shared with the supervisor when the paper is related to the dissertation because the supervisor has made a contribution to the dissertation. But even when students recognise that contribution (and often they don’t), most don’t accept it as a good reason for joint authorship. In the wake of the recent student death, many Iranians educated abroad have pointed out that such obligations for co-authorship are not common in the world’s top universities. 

Even when papers are entirely unrelated to dissertations, students are often forced in other ways to share authorship with a professor. For instance, many Iranian journals don’t accept papers authored only by students, so even doctoral students have to share credit with a professor.

Only a few professors have candidly criticised that plain injustice, but that is unsurprising given how many benefit from it. Indeed, this co-authorship requirement can be taken as a systemic form of corruption, reflecting the power professors have over journals.

Unfortunately, I once experienced this injustice, too. I submitted a paper to an Iranian journal when I was a PhD student. The journal told me it could not be refereed unless I added the name of a professor as co-author. So I called a professor in my department and asked to add his name. And when he accepted, I had to thank him, even though he didn’t even read the paper before its publication – and maybe not even thereafter. This is tantamount to the form of misconduct known as guest authorship.

Nor did the injustice end there. When I was finally given a course to teach as a postdoctoral researcher, a professor suggested that I be his research assistant. What he actually meant was that I should write papers and share the authorship with him. I was able to find a way out of that, but many in similar situations might think they have no choice but to comply. And even when no direct pressure is applied, many students might still feel obliged to share authorship with their professors out of courtesy. That amounts to a related form of misconduct called gift authorship.

Buying and selling authorship – known as ghost authorship – is also a big black market in Iran, and it is no longer shocking to see street advertisements for dissertation and article writing services. 

Iranian academia has a long way to go before it becomes a fully fledged scientific community, but it needs to call out the indefensible practice of obligatory publication for postgraduate students, especially when those students are not properly funded by their institutions.

Iranian academics should also demand that assessment, for purposes of recruitment and promotion, be based on quality of publications, rather than quantity. No doubt unscrupulous professors would still try to force their way onto the authors’ lists of higher quality papers, but they would at least have to engage with those papers to verify their quality. Moreover, they would have a harder job because students who write high-quality papers are often more defensive about their authorship rights – the deceased student being a case in point.

Iranian journals, universities and scientific societies should also introduce explicit authorship policies forbidding authorship misconduct. And last but not least, instructive programmes are required to help define and inculcate fair authorship criteria, not only for students but also for professors.

Until such things happen, talented and hard-working junior Iranian researchers will continue to be subjected to the agony of having the credit for their work stolen by those who have had no meaningful input into it.

Roohola Ramezani has a PhD in philosophy from Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. He has been a research fellow at the IFK International Research Center for Cultural Studies in Vienna. His research interests include various topics in science studies, social epistemology and Iranian studies.



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