Dean of Health: We must dare to talk openly about authorship – including the dilemmas

PhD students often feel pressured to share the credit for research with colleagues who have not contributed. At Health, we have developed a specific tool to remove the taboo and influence the culture. Rules and penalties are not the way to go, writes Dean Anne-Mette Hvas.

Example of a dilemma from the Department of Clinical Medicine’s dilemma game. The listed options are intended as a starting-point for discussion – not as finished solutions.

At a coffee meeting, a PhD student says that she has been contacted by her supervisor, who wants to be named as the last author of articles that the PhD student has written, and which are not related to the PhD project. According to the PhD student, the professor’s sole contribution has been in relation to grammar and spelling. What would you do?

The above is one of the dilemmas presented in the ‘Dilemma Game on the Responsible Conduct of Research’, which the Department of Clinical Medicine at Health has developed, with inspiration from Erasmus University Rotterdam.

The game gives the Faculty’s research groups a tool that can enable people, irrespective of seniority, to talk about some of the difficult subjects: Where the truth often lies in the eye of the beholder, and where there will always have to be a balance between different considerations. The game is one of the concrete initiatives the Faculty has designed to support the idea of talking openly about the themes and interests that are at stake in relation to the responsible conduct of research – including authorship.

There is no doubt that we have to address the debate, because it is linked to both the research culture and the work environment.

The discussion about ‘guest authorships’ has been much discussed in the media since the #pleasedontstealmywork campaign began in the spring of 2022. Most recently, two new Danish studies, which have been published in PLoS One and Springer, have focused on the topic.

There is no doubt that we have to address the debate, because it is linked to both the research culture and the work environment. With the help of this game, we can ensure that we regularly take a critical discussion about integrity and professionalism in our research. We will do this preventively, while there are no conflicts, and without it becoming personal.

Clear definition of roles, rather than rules and penalties

Health has many PhD students – often with several partners who have a hand in the research. It thus makes sense that we take the lead in the authorship debate.

Since 2016, all our PhD students have also attended a course on the responsible conduct of research, in which authorship is an important topic. The issue is also included in the guidance course for established researchers. But we need more. A dilemma game alone will not solve such a complex problem at a stroke, but it is a first step along the way to creating a forum for reflection and debate between young and experienced researchers.

I do not believe that we can solve the problem with more rules and penalties. We must continue to focus on explicit, preferably written, agreements about authorship and continuously encourage open conversation about this.

At Health, our experience is that the vast majority of conflicts about authorship stem from misunderstandings, grey areas or a lack of open dialogue about why things are the way they are. Here, the dilemma game provides an opportunity to put the research culture into words and perhaps, in the long run, to change it.

I have recently written an op-ed article in Altinget on the topic, which has produced many reactions. Some people suggest that we should simply make it compulsory for research groups to establish a protocol with a publication plan early on in the project, with a clear definition of roles. If we always publish the protocol together with the research results, we will ensure that the right contributors are recognised, while at the same time we will improve the transparency and credibility of our study programmes in general.

We are not yet at that point in Health, but we are continuing to work on new initiatives. Ensuring a good culture of authorship is a common task, and in the management we have a great responsibility to facilitate the discussion, which is important for everyone involved in a research environment.


This column was published in Omnibus on 10 March 2023