Publication Practices and Responsible Authorship

The Pressure to Publish

Researchers working in academia often find themselves under pressure to produce publications. The total number of articles, which journals they are published in, and how many times articles are referenced may all be factors taken into consideration when a researcher is being considered for a job, a promotion, tenure, funding, etc. Being the first to publish new results or ideas may also drive researches to publish quickly. Such pressures can be difficult to cope with, and can unfortunately lead some investigators to consider various types of misconduct as means to an end.

It is in these situations that fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism may threaten research integrity, but publication misconduct is not always as clear cut as making up, altering, or stealing data or work. There are in fact several gray areas regarding misconduct in research publication and authorship that must be considered.

What to Publish

Clearly data that has been fabricated or falsified should never be published. Doing so is a waste of resources that were allocated to the project, threatens to waste the resources of other researchers that attempt to follow up on the work, and in some cases could endanger public health. However, other unethical and damaging shortcuts to publication are less blatantly wrong.

Fragmentation of Results

A researcher attempting to bolster his or her list of publications may be tempted to divide the results of a single project into multiple articles. If the project was large and segmented in a way that justifies division into multiple publications and the individual publications reference each other, there is nothing wrong with doing this. However, dividing a small project into multiple least publishable unit papers when it could have been presented in one is known as salami/bologna/trivial publication. Multiple papers may distort the apparent value of the work and waste resources as multiple papers must be sent for peer review and multiple journal issues must be acquired to assess the project as a whole.


Along the same lines, a researcher may consider increasing his or her publication count by publishing the same material more than once. This could mean publishing the exact same data and analysis under a different title (redundant publication), or it could mean copying text from one paper and using it in another. Each of these acts are forms of plagiarism known as self-plagiarism and are considered as serious as plagiarizing the work of others. Publishing the same results multiple times wastes the time and resources of journals and peer reviewers and unfairly creates the illusion of greater productivity on behalf of the researcher. The use of identical text in multiple publications may be more difficult to avoid, especially in articles addressing closely related topics, but researchers should always take care to ensure all sections in each of their related publications are original to avoid the implication of plagiarism.


Authors of published research results are responsible for the content of those publications. The list of authors on a publication therefore not only indicates who should receive credit for the work presented, but who is familiar with and liable for the content. There are therefore certain standards that must be met for a researcher to qualify as an author on a particular publication. These standards may vary somewhat by discipline, and disagreements are common. One should try to familiarize oneself with the authorship practices of ones discipline, working group, and journals of intended submission before issues arise.

Authorship by Contribution

A common method of assigning authorship and order of authors is to do so based on relative contribution to the project and final publication. Ideally, each author included on a publication should have been involved in the conception and design of the research, the collection and interpretation of data, and the drafting and approval of the final publication. Any and all research participants that meet these standards should be listed as authors in order of relative contribution, and contributors that fall short of these standards may be listed in the acknowledgements section but should not be included as authors. These are the authorship guidelines set by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), but as mentioned before, approved standards vary widely and researchers should verify what kind of authorship guidelines may apply to them before conflicts arise.

Unjustified Authorship

In the interest of increasing the exposure of a publication, winning the approval of coworkers or superiors, or aiding a student or colleague, researchers may consider including honorary authors on publications. This inclusion of authors that did not adequately contribute to the work presented in a publication is unethical in that it unfairly reduces the apparent contribution of deserving authors and increases the apparent productivity of the undeserving authors. Researches that commonly receive undeserving authorship include:

  • Department or program chairs
  • Providers of funding for the project
  • Well-known or respected investigators in the area
  • Providers of reagents
  • Mentors of the primary authors

Sometimes researchers fitting one of the above descriptions are included as authors because of the customs of a particular field or working group, but generally the inclusion of such honorary authors should be avoided.

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