Six Tips for Avoiding Authorship Conflicts

How to avoid disputes, seek resolution

Photo by Shironosov/iStock

Authorship is designed to provide appropriate credit for intellectual contributions and can be a source of personal satisfaction, prestige, and a stepping stone toward academic career advancement. In theory, assigning authorship is a straightforward process; however, in practice, it can sometimes produce painful disputes over authorship order and responsibilities.

Considering these challenges, it is not surprising that authorship disputes were the subject of frequent questions brought to the HMS/HSDM/HSPH Ombuds Office last year. 

What’s at stake in these disputes?  Fair credit, collegial relationships, future collaborations and reputations, among others.  Visitors often report that discussions and decision making didn’t occur until incompatible assumptions had been formed and deadlines for submission were looming, increasing the challenges of these conversations.  So what can you do to avoid such conflicts?

  1. Familiarize yourself with the HMS Authorship Guidelines and encourage the same of your colleagues and collaborators.  If you oversee a lab, provide authorship guidelines to all newcomers to the lab and a description of the lab’s usual ways of deciding authorship and authorship order.

Key Definitions and Responsibilities of the HMS Authorship Guidelines include:

  • An author should have made a substantial, direct, intellectual contribution
  • The funding and provision of technical services, patients, materials alone are not sufficient
  • Everyone making a substantial intellectual contribution to the work should be an author
  • Everyone making other substantial contributions should be acknowledged
  • All authors should review manuscript drafts and approve the final version
  • One author should take primary responsibility for the whole work, including compiling a concise written description of everyone’s contributions that all authors have approved  and filing it with the sponsoring institution
  • Authors should describe each author’s contributions and how order was assigned to help readers interpret roles correctly
  1. Talk early and often about authorship and authorship order for each project’s manuscript(s)
    • the specific criteria to be used for your project
    • the decision making process—who provides what input, how decisions are made, who has final say if a consensus agreement is not reached
    • how to address disagreements if they arise
  2. When gathering input about contributions, ask everyone to put in writing and share:
    • her/his contributions
    • what s/he thinks every other author contributed (this can reveal misunderstandings and provides the opportunity for clarification)
  3. If authorship determination seems straightforward, set forth authorship designations but with a caveat that this could change if contributions change significantly
  4. Create a culture of transparency and collaboration and revisit the issue of specific authorship periodically in case contributions or assumptions about contributions have changed
  5. If a disagreement arises, make every effort to resolve the dispute locally
    • among the authors 
    • by involving the lab chief or other appropriate person
    • by involving the HMS/HSDM/HSPH Ombuds Office  (additional resources exist within Harvard’s affiliate institutions)

Want help?

The Ombudsperson for Harvard’s Medical School, School of Dental Medicine and School of Public Health provides impartial assistance to Harvard faculty, staff, students, trainees and appointees at the affiliated institutions whose concerns are impacting their work or studies.  The Ombuds Office offers a highly confidential, independent and informal forum in which to help visitors to clarify their issues, identify their goals and consider all of their options in managing or resolving their concerns.  Options can range from simply talking about problems to filing a formal complaint.  The Ombudsperson provides coaching in written and verbal communications, informal mediation, meeting facilitation, shuttle diplomacy, upward feedback and information about policies/procedures and resources.  Concerns include but are not limited to career management, working conditions, sexual harassment, discrimination, professional/scientific misconduct, authorship, personality conflicts, fear of retaliation, favoritism and feelings of stress/anxiety.  Any issue may be brought to the Ombudsperson.

Contact:  Melissa Brodrick HMS/HSDM/HSPH Ombudsperson

164 Longwood Avenue, 1st floor   Boston 02115   

617-432-4040 (ombuds line)

617-432-4041 (office line)