Credit where it isn't due on rise

November 23, 2007

Anecdotal evidence points to senior academics unjustly demanding co- authorship of junior researchers' papers, writes Tariq Tahir. Cases in which a senior academic takes credit as a co-author on a junior colleague's research paper should be defined as plagiarism if he or she has not made a significant contribution to the work, it was argued this week.

The call was made by both a senior academic at Durham University and the general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee.

Co-author credits for research team leaders and senior staff are common and accepted practice where there is clear teamwork, but growing anecdotal complaints of abuse are expected to rise still further as journal citations become more important as measures of the quality of an academic's output.

Robert Watson, professor of finance management at Durham Business School, has called for clear guidelines to be brought in to guard against abuse.

In a document prepared for a special board-of-studies meeting that sat earlier this month, he said that during his time as chair of the research and doctoral sub-committees concern was raised about co-authorship.

His proposals, which have been seen by The Times Higher , call for "a set of guidelines and procedures for supervisors and PhD students that clearly lay out what is and is not acceptable behaviour in relation to joint publications stemming from the student's PhD thesis."

Professor Watson's proposals follow the suspension of another professor at Durham Business School, Tony Antoniou, who now faces disciplinary action after an investigation into allegations that he plagiarised a journal article.

Professor Antoniou stepped down as dean of the school when the allegations first surfaced in September. He was last week stripped of his PhD by York University after it investigated separate plagiarism allegations. The allegations investigated by Durham and York do not refer to issues of co- authorship, but to material taken from peers in the wider field without acknowledgement.

Professor Watson writes that the definition of plagiarism should include insisting on co-authorship of a postgraduate's paper without actually doing any of the work.

He says: "In no circumstances can it be proper to have the member of staff as the first named author on a paper that relies on the data, results or text from the student's PhD.

"Indeed, I would advocate a system whereby staff have to receive a written invitation from the student to contribute to each individual paper."

Duncan Connors, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, said abuse of co-authorship was a rare - but nonetheless growing - problem.

"There should only be co-authorship of papers if someone has made a substantial contribution. Some academics are building their reputations on the backs of their postgraduates."

"I think there is a low level of coercion to accept citations from academics who haven't actually contributed to the project.

"There is a culture of being beholden. Some people who are only 21 or 22 feel that they have to conform to a rigid standard in the department, and they are the ones who get done over."

Mr Connors said the move towards a bibliometric system of assessing research had the potential to encourage more abuse.

"If you have a peer-review system you can weed out these co-authorship problems because you know whose work is where."

A Durham spokesman said: "The university expects all its academic members to be responsible and fair-minded when managing the co-authoring of academic papers and to follow the established practice in the worldwide academic community that anyone listed as a co-author on a research output has made a significant contribution to the work.

"Any attempt to unfairly claim ownership of someone else's research would be treated as research misconduct and dealt with under established procedures.

"With increasing use of bibliometrics to determine research funding, the issue of co-authorship of research outputs needs to be examined carefully, and Durham University would welcome a broader, high-level discussion on this matter."

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