Eth­i­cal au­thor­ship

Do re­searchers need a Hip­po­cratic oath?

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - Tr­isha Green­halgh is pro­fes­sor of pri­mary care health sciences at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford and was deputy chair of the 2014 REF Main Panel A. She writes in a per­sonal ca­pac­ity.

Afel­low pro­fes­sor emailed me re­cently: “I’m scarred by a re­cent au­thor­ship dis­pute in­volv­ing a very se­nior aca­demic de­mand­ing to be added to a pa­per in which they had played no part,” the mes­sage read.

“It got as far as two sets of lawyers be­fore there was a back-down,” it con­tin­ued.

The story struck a chord be­cause I too had re­cently been a named party in a two-sets-of-lawyers in­ter­ac­tion over what was even­tu­ally cat­e­gorised as an “un­for­tu­nate misun­der­stand­ing” – namely, an­other pro­fes­sor’s be­lief that his/her name (I’ll leave gen­der out of it for now) be­longed on my pa­pers (yes, plu­ral).

These two al­ter­ca­tions, each be­tween sea­soned aca­demics of ap­prox­i­mately equal rank and ten­ure, did not re­sult in “gift” au­thor­ship. But then I raised the topic of such de­mands on Twit­ter, with sur­pris­ing re­sults. “I run work­shops on pub­li­ca­tion ethics, and I’m afraid it’s com­mon for se­nior aca­demics [who have con­trib­uted noth­ing] to in­sist on au­thor­ship,” said one se­nior medic; while a ju­nior aca­demic felt just as ag­grieved, stat­ing, “My em­i­nent pro­fes­sor boss of­ten re­placed my name with his on pa­pers I wrote as I was ‘too un­known to pub­lish’”. “‘You use my lab’ has been an ex­cuse I’ve seen used,” said an­other Twit­ter user.

Re­spon­ders were quick to point out that the sys­tem is flawed. Many of the prob­lems raised will be fa­mil­iar to any­one who has sat on a re­search ex­cel­lence frame­work panel. For

ex­am­ple, “au­thor­ship” means dif­fer­ent things in dif­fer­ent fields, au­thor or­der con­ven­tions dif­fer by dis­ci­pline, and there is the peren­nial prob­lem of how science recog­nises ac­tiv­i­ties that are im­pos­si­ble to cap­ture in met­rics. Oth­ers have pointed out that if we mea­sure an aca­demic’s worth by the length of their pub­li­ca­tions list, we can ex­pect shoul­der barg­ing.

My Twit­ter re­spon­ders sug­gested that au­thor­ship of­fences would be re­duced by “trans­parency”, “con­sis­tency in cri­te­ria and def­i­ni­tions” and “clear poli­cies”. Some pro­posed for­mal au­thor­ship frame­works such as the one used by the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of Med­i­cal Jour­nal Edi­tors or the more creative wiki-style CRediT cri­te­ria set out by CASRAI, an in­ter­na­tional ini­tia­tive led by re­search in­sti­tu­tions and based in Canada. The lat­ter in­cludes a sug­ges­tion for “dig­i­tal badges” for on­line pub­li­ca­tions, de­not­ing dif­fer­ent kinds of con­tri­bu­tion (“com­pu­ta­tion”, “re­sources”, “funding ac­qui­si­tion” and so on).

Not­with­stand­ing the need to use com­mon stan­dards and to fix per­verse in­cen­tives, the so­lu­tion to the grow­ing prob­lem of un­rea­son­able au­thor­ship de­mands is not go­ing to come in the shape of a new set of ra­tio­nal cri­te­ria or stan­dards – nor through bet­ter polic­ing of ex­ist­ing ones. That is be­cause, at its root, the prob­lem is not a ra­tio­nal one but a moral one.

In each of the Twit­ter quotes given, the is­sue is the same: some­one with more power (and knowl­edge of how the sys­tem works) was im­pos­ing an un­rea­son­able de­mand for au­thor­ship on some­one with less power and knowl­edge. In ev­ery case, I will wa­ger, they knew ex­actly what they were do­ing.

Au­thor­ship de­mands from se­nior aca­demics upon ju­niors are im­moral be­cause they are an abuse of pro­fes­sional power and sta­tus. They re­flect some­thing deep and dis­hon­ourable about the se­nior aca­demic as a per­son. Those of us who aspire to be­have de­cently to­wards our own ju­niors rarely con­front col­leagues whose be­hav­iour gives cause for con­cern. That is partly be­cause we rarely have in­con­tro­vert­ible ev­i­dence, and partly be­cause we do not have the time. But it is also per­haps be­cause it takes moral courage to throw down a moral chal­lenge. It’s not like point­ing out a typo.

It seems to me that things need to change. I be­lieve that we need to de­velop an ethics of pro­fes­sional prac­tice that is based on aca­demic virtues, and which iden­ti­fies and es­chews aca­demic vices.

The Hip­po­cratic oath, which no­body takes these days and which in­cludes out­dated as­sump­tions and phrases that would of­fend many fem­i­nists, nev­er­the­less of­fers some lines of in­spi­ra­tion: “I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art”; “I will ab­stain from in­ten­tional wrong­do­ing and harm, es­pe­cially from abus­ing the bod­ies of man or woman, bond or free.” With a bit of tweak­ing, it could be use­fully re­cy­cled.

Why bother? Be­cause, as del­e­gates ar­gued at an in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary work­shop that I ran in 2016 with the philoso­pher Quas­sim Cas­sam, the im­plicit con­fla­tion of pro­fes­sional virtue with the as­sid­u­ous use of tools and pro­ce­dures de­means us. As aca­demics (and doc­tors) know all too well, obey­ing pro­ce­dure to the let­ter, with­out re­gard for the moral nu­ances of the in­di­vid­ual cir­cum­stance, does not in­evitably make our ac­tions moral. In­deed, it can some­times pro­duce what so­ci­ol­o­gists are now call­ing “bu­reau­cratic vi­o­lence”.

Would a vol­un­tary “aca­demic oath” (per­haps cov­er­ing au­thor­ship as one of sev­eral di­men­sions of our work) help to trans­form academia into a pro­fes­sion that is more self­con­sciously eth­i­cal, and which there­fore sees eth­i­cal vi­o­la­tions for what they are? And would it force aca­demics to take such vi­o­la­tions se­ri­ously and con­duct high-level self­polic­ing? Or would such an oath come to serve as a moral cur­tain be­hind which academia’s bul­lies can bet­ter hide? I don’t know. But I think it’s time we dis­cussed it.

We rarely con­front col­leagues on this, partly be­cause it takes moral courage to raise a moral chal­lenge – it’s not like point­ing out a typo

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