Ensuring Ethics and Integrity in Co-Authorship

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Wednesday, November 16, 2022
By Robert Haywood Scott III
Photo by iStock/fotostorm
Why it’s important for business schools to encourage their faculty to embrace and promote established guidelines for co-authored scholarship.
  • When faculty’s career progress relies on the number of peer-reviewed journal articles they publish, it can lead to unethical research practices such as gift authorship.
  • Over the years, the number of co-authored research papers has increased considerably—a trend driven, in part, by the pressure on junior faculty to increase publications.
  • To maintain the integrity of co-authored research, business schools can follow guidelines for authorship similar to those set in the medical and scientific fields.

While teaching and service are important to a professor’s career, research is the true hard currency in academe—the familiar adage “publish or perish” remains very relevant. Endowed chairs and other special appointments are often based on research output above all else, while tenure and promotions most often depend on the number of peer-reviewed journal articles that professors have published. While there are questions about the overall value of peer-reviewed articles, they are nonetheless sine qua non for a successful academic career.

Faculty scholarship also is an important pillar of AACSB’s accreditation standards. Whether professors are categorized as Scholarly Academics (SA) or another category is based on whether they are engaged in research or activities that link them to practice. According to AACSB’s standards, “normally, a minimum of 40 percent of a school’s faculty resources are SA.” That means that consistent publication output among a majority of full-time faculty is essential for a school to obtain and maintain AACSB accreditation.

Many types of research are important to AACSB-member schools. For example, to fulfill AACSB’s Standard 9, which is dedicated to societal impact, a school’s faculty can publish public policy briefs, opinion pieces, and trade articles that have an impact on practice, regulations, or society as a whole. These forms of scholarship can have tremendous reach—more people will read an opinion piece in a newspaper than will likely ever read a peer-reviewed journal article.

One especially fruitful area of research—that both supports SA qualification and often leads to societal impact—is co-authored scholarship. Co-authored research is often a product of a vibrant academic culture. When professors are excited and passionate about their research, they are more likely to share ideas among colleagues and transfer knowledge from research findings to students, which can lead to more research collaborations. And when faculty within the same school co-author articles, they create a valuable cross-pollination of ideas and an even more collaborative environment.

But if professors employ unethical co-authorship practices, it can destroy collegiality and create an antagonistic culture. That’s why it’s important for schools and their faculty to ensure that co-authoring relationships remain ethical, transparent, and productive.

Criteria for Ethical Co-Authorship

Most business schools are already well-versed in using journal rankings, impact factors, and acceptance rates to determine the “value” of different research publications. Many schools use resources such as Cabells’ Journalytics to find legitimate peer-review journals, as well as its Predatory Reports to avoid journals that do not meet their publication quality standards and practices.

But academic administrators spend less time ensuring that their faculty follow best practices concerning publication ethics. This is true even though concerns about co-authorship are held across academia.

Over the years, the number of co-authored research studies has steadily increased. One reason for this trend is likely that increased publication requirements can lead to “senior faculty feeling pressured to ‘help out’ junior faculty members,” according to a 2017 article by C.W. Von Bergen, professor of management, and Martin Bressler, professor of marketing and management, both of Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant. Bergen and Bressler note that author inflation in the form of gift and guest authorship, in which a co-author contributes little to no work to a scholarly paper, is increasingly common.

An increasing number of journal editors are adopting policies to ensure co-authorship integrity.

Some discipline-based associations already have published guidelines discouraging this practice. For example, the International Council of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) lists four criteria necessary for ethical co-authorship. According to the organization, to be considered a legitimate co-author, a researcher must take all four of the following actions:

  • Make substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work.
  • Draft the work or revise it critically for important intellectual content.
  • Give final approval of the version to be published.
  • Agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work and ensure that any questions related to the work’s accuracy or integrity are appropriately investigated and resolved.

“Contributors who meet fewer than all four of the above criteria for authorship should not be listed as authors, but they should be acknowledged,” the ICMJE concludes. “Examples of activities that alone (without other contributions) do not qualify a contributor for authorship are acquisition of funding; general supervision of a research group or general administrative support; and writing assistance, technical editing, language editing, and proofreading.”

Although intended for medical journal editors and authors, these criteria have since been adopted by many academic disciplines and organizations. This includes the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which is perhaps the largest organization providing guidance on publication ethics. A nonprofit organization with more than 12,000 members, COPE is more well-known in the scientific community, but it is increasingly serving as a resource for all academic fields, including business disciplines.

COPE sets out detailed guidelines designed to help authors and editors avoid misconduct related to publishing, intellectual property, conflicts of interest, and other publishing and post-publication policies. These guidelines are largely based on ICMJE’s four criteria mentioned above. In addition, COPE provides many cases, seminars, and webinars to help journal editors and academics ensure co-authorship integrity.

An increasing number of journal editors are adopting COPE/ICMJE policies to ensure co-authorship integrity. Journals and research organizations can modify these criteria as needed or adopt them completely.

Best Practices for Co-Authored Research

There are several ways that AACSB-member business schools can ensure that their researchers follow and understand co-authorship best practices. First, administrators should educate faculty on the best practices for co-authorship outlined by ICMJE and COPE.

Second, before beginning any collaboration, potential co-authors can prepare an agreement that outlines clear expectations of each participant. Such agreements help prevent conflicts or misunderstandings later on in the research process.

Co-author agreements outline clear expectations of each participant and help prevent conflicts or misunderstandings later on in the research process.

Biologists Richard B. Primack, John A. Cigliano, and Chris Parsons provide a template for a co-author agreement in a 2019 editorial (researchers can also find other examples online). Their template includes five parts:

  • First, the co-author agreement should outline the project’s goals and vision, so colleagues share the same vision and understand the scope of the plan.
  • Second, the agreement should clearly define the roles and responsibilities for all parties involved.
  • Third, it should address contingencies for handling potential disagreements.
  • Fourth, it should include rules for governing communication of the project to ensure transparent interaction among all parties.
  • Finally, all parties should disclose any real or perceived conflicts of interest.

The goal of such an agreement is to inspire trust among all parties, argue Primack, Cigliano, and Parsons. “Research tells us that trust is among the most important factors in successful collaborations—it is difficult for a team to succeed without it,” they write. “If co-authors do not trust each other, they can begin to question each others motivations and actions in every situation.” For this reason, any correspondence is best done in writing so that there is a record and contributors can review each other’s thoughts more carefully.

As research co-authorship becomes more prevalent in academia, the practice of gift authorship should be prohibited by all AACSB-member business schools. But when collaborating scholars set out clear agreements, contribute equally to the effort, communicate transparently, and remain accountable for their work, they can ensure that co-authorship remains an ethical and productive endeavor for their institutions, and for academia as a whole.

Robert Haywood Scott III
Greenbaum/Ferguson/NJAR Professor of Real Estate Policy in the Department of Economics, Finance, and Real Estate, Leon Hess Business School, Monmouth University
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