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Early Career Researchers: Tips to avoid authorship disputes

By AuthorAID Team | March 16, 2021  | None  | PhD Journal publishing Career tips

Pauline Kibui is an Embryologist and a Scientific Researcher affiliated with the Institute of Primate Research, Kenya. She specialises in Assisted Reproductive Technologies and reproductive diseases causing infertility. In this blog post, she discusses one of the most common challenges young researchers encounter; being omitted from the author credits.

As a young researcher, having a publication record is essential to the development of one’s career. In the Global South, most young researchers commence their careers by participating in ongoing projects where their influence is limited. Within these projects, the common dynamic is the senior researchers hold the power when deciding what benefits to bestow upon the Early Career Researchers (ECRs). Lately, most research institutions and universities do not easily facilitate ECRs. Many ECRs are faced with depending on either their parents or other sources of income to pursue and advance their careers in research. Listing ECRs as authors is not only the right thing to do, to acknowledge their input and contributions to research and can also help with their career development. However, this is far from reality for most ECRs. If they are lucky, their names may appear in the acknowledgement section. On the contrary, researchers who have negligible to no contribution to the project will often have their names included in the list of authors (gift authors). An act that is a complete violation of the authorship guidelines published by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). Despite these obstacles, ECRs should evaluate their research goals, keep their eyes on the prize and view participation in research projects as an opportunity to learn new skills and build networks.

Over the years, many academic institutions in the Global South have introduced the canon: publish or perish. The ever-rising publication of research data has empowered academia and resulted in revolutionary innovations in all facets of life. Perhaps, research institutions and universities in the Global South need to develop a common policy to avert exploitation of ECRs but instead encourage and develop them to spearhead scientific research in future. Scientific research is so exciting, and it should not feel like a punishment for ECRs. The benefits and returns of scientific research are not immediate compared to other academic disciplines; it requires patience and persistence. As one of my professors used to tell us, so long as we are in research and academia, we shall live a decent life but should not expect to be millionaires! This is correct and thus, the research environment ought to be welcoming ECRs.

Below I share some key lessons I have learnt from my own personal research experience:

1) Have an open discussion on authorship:

Publications in scientific research is one way to disseminate results to the public. Most importantly it offers researchers credit and visibility for their work. Therefore, at inception, all participants should have a candid discussion regarding authorship. When I was a young researcher, this conversation did not happen at the beginning of most projects. Although authorship became a topic of discussion as the projects progressed, I found that the senior researchers hardly kept their word. Some senior researchers promise to include the names of ECRs in the list of authors only to not follow through during the final publication. This happened with some projects that we (ECRs) had substantial contributions to (designing, collecting/analysing data and drafting manuscripts). Instead, researchers who had little, or no contribution ended up in the list of authors.

2) Have clearly defined roles at the inception:

The roles of every participant should be clearly spelt out to outline their scope of work and to reduce authorship disputes. Biomedical journals stipulate that authors should meet all four criteria as defined by ICMJE. However, the goodwill of the senior researcher surpasses everything. There are other cases where graduate students dedicate their efforts and resources to conduct research but eventually, their supervisors publish their work without their knowledge. In some instances, graduate students may end up not publishing their work due to disagreements of the supervisors regarding the order of authors and this can also be detrimental to a researcher’s career. There are guidelines for authorship that may help graduate students/ECRs to have good publication experience as published by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE): How to handle authorship disputes: a guide for new researchers

My experience as a young researcher taught me resilience. Realising that competition will only get stiffer, young researchers ought to critically strategize to achieve realistic career advancement. If I could go back in time, there are two things I would tell my younger self: know your worth and don’t waste time on unfulfilling engagements. With the advent of technology, young researchers have access to lots of opportunities; I would encourage them to cast their nets wider. I would wish to see more ECRs thriving in solving intractable problems such as the current Covid-19 pandemic. Most importantly, research institutions and universities in the Global South should support ECRs as part of their academic personnel development through the development and implementation of common policies that foster a healthy research culture. 

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