Van Way, Charles III

The dispute over authorship of scientific papers is as old as publishing. Older, really. Even during medieval times, when artists and builders worked for the glory of God, disputes over authorship were not unknown. People fought duels-swords, pistols, seconds, all that. After the invention of the printing press, when publications became common, authorship disputes were widespread, often leading to bitter personal feuds. Today, we have courts, lawyers, and plagiarism laws to substitute for the code duello of an earlier and simpler, if more violent, time. But frank plagiarism covers only the most simple and basic of authorship disputes. More subtle and more common are misattribution of ideas, omission of significant sources, inclusion of authors who did none of the work, and other such irregularities and abuses. Finally, in this day of multicenter studies and papers written by consensus committees, even the concept of authorship becomes more difficult to define.

But there are guidelines for the proper attribution of authorship. One such is published in JPEN this month: the Consensus Statement on Surgery Journal Authorship.1 It is brief, easily understood, and generally applicable. Although JPEN is not strictly a surgical journal, your editor-in-chief is a surgeon and has been included in the Surgical Journal Editors Group (SJEG) authoring this particular statement. I should note that this statement does not represent an official policy position of American Society of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (A.S.P.E.N.), nor has it been endorsed by the board of directors.

The SJEG consensus statement is largely taken from the Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE).2 This group has been a leader in setting standards for the biomedical publication community. Their definition of authorship is simple and direct: “An ‘author’ is generally considered to be someone who has made substantive intellectual contributions to a published study, and biomedical authorship continues to have important academic, social, and financial implications.”

The authorship process is largely controlled by the ethical standards of individuals. Indeed, it cannot be otherwise. JPEN, like most other journals, requires a signed statement of authorship from all those listed as authors. Most reputable individuals will think twice or 3 times before putting their name on something that they have not participated in. But… it doesn’t always work that way. We all have known senior leaders who insist their name be listed on all papers from their department or division. And then there’s group loyalty. With the pressure to publish, it’s always a temptation to put old Joe on the list, even though Joe did none of the work and didn’t write a word of the paper. With the increasing use of multidisciplinary teams, names may be put on the list just for balance. Now, balance is a fine goal for A.S.P.E.N. committees, but it should not enter into authorship decisions.

Over my career, I’ve been involved in only 2 authorship disputes. One was easily resolved, whereas the second involved a major interinstitutional issue. Both were fairly unpleasant at the time. I’ve come off easy. Most senior academicians have at least 2 or 3 personal “war stories,” and often more. They usually don’t like to talk about them.

Authorship disputes should be separated from scientific misconduct, although they can be related. Some authorship disputes simply come from lack of attention to detail. The investigator who carries out specialized laboratory tests on a patient may legitimately feel hurt if someone else publishes that data in a case report without attribution. Others may revolve on a question of who “owns” the data. Recently, a senior colleague left our institution for another. When he published a paper based on work done at our institution, he attributed it to us and listed the coauthor who had worked with him. Not everyone is that meticulous. If someone leaves a research team and continues similar work in another institution, he should include his former colleagues in publications stemming from his work for the first institution. But how often is that rule violated?

Worse, how would the editor of the journal know? To be candid, journal editors can do little to police this, other than to maintain vigilance, and to correct any errors if they turn up later. As an editor, I have no hope of keeping up with the ins and outs of research groups all over the world. Nor can our reviewers. And JPEN is a small journal with a relatively restricted field of interest, receiving only 3 or 4 submissions each week. Consider the problem of a large-circulation scientific journal, which may receive 50 times as many submissions as JPEN. Given all of this, it is a major tribute to the integrity of the world’s scientists that there are still relatively few such disputes.

For your attention and education, then, we offer this brief consensus statement1 and refer you to the much more extensive material available from the ICMJE.2 Our scientific and medical progress depends heavily upon the publication of all relevant information, positive and negative. The integrity of the publication process is of overwhelming importance to the integrity of our scientific efforts. It is our responsibility as authors, readers, reviewers, and editors, to keep the process clean and unblemished.


1. Surgical Journal Editors Group. Consensus statement on surgery journal authorship, 2006. JPEN J Parenter Enteral Nutr. 2006;30:370-371.

2. International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. Uniform requirements for manuscripts submitted to biomedical journals: writing and editing for biomedical publication: updated February 2006. Available at: Accessed April 11, 2006.

Charles Van Way III, MD

From the UMKC Department of Surgery, Kansas City, Missouri

Correspondence: Charles W. Van Way III, MD, UMKC Department of Surgery, 2301 Holmes Street, Kansis City, MO 64108. Electronic mail may be sent to

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