Manuscript Ethics 101

Dec 20, 2011

By Katherine E.Reeder-Hayes, MD,MBA

Publishing a journalarticle is animportant careermilestone for manyoncology fellowsand junior faculty. However, it alsobrings a new responsibility: to ensurethat your scientific writing practicesline up with ethical and professionalstandards. Many young investigatorsreceive little guidance during fellowshiptraining about the expectations ofscientific authors.

Who is an author?
A survey study found that both honoraryauthorship (or “guest authorship,”including individuals who have notmet criteria for authorship) and ghostauthorship (failing to include individualswho contributed to the work) werecommon practices among authors inbiomedical journals.1 To clarify whoshould be named as an author, theInternational Committee of MedicalJournal Editors (ICMJE) has drawn upa list of criteria. Authors should make“substantial contributions to the conceptionand design, acquisition of data,or analysis and interpretation of data,”should help write or critically revisethe manuscript, and should approvethe final version.2 It is increasinglycommon for journals to ask the correspondingauthor to document thatthese criteria have been met, either byrequiring each author to sign an attestation,or by asking the correspondingauthor to sign a statement covering allthe contributors.

Katherine Reeder-Hayes, MD, MBA

Member since: 2010

Specialty: Internal Medicine, Hematology/Oncology

Institution: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Education: Medical degree, University of Alabama School of Medicine; MBA, Auburn University School of Business; internship, residency, and fellowship, University of North Carolina School of Medicine

Junior investigators are sometimes surprised to find that as the first author of a manuscript in preparation, they are expected to make decisions about authorship and the ordering of authors’ names for a group, which may include senior colleagues or people they do not know very well. Up-front discussions about authorship and responsibilities for preparing the manuscript, as well as the support of a senior mentor, may head off conflicts in this area.

What is a conflict of interest?
Young writers may assume they have no conflicts of interest (COI) because they are not involved with industry, or because only “bad investigators” have conflicts of interest. In fact, COI can arise any time that an author, his or her institution, or someone in his or her personal life has a relationship that could be perceived as biasing the author’s actions.2 Conflicts are often inevitable and do not mean that the author has committed scientific misconduct, unless they are not disclosed. You might be confident that an affiliation did not actually bias your work; this does not excuse you from revealing the COI so that editors and readers can decide for themselves. Classic COI include honoraria paid to authors and financial connections between an author and the company whose product is being studied. Less obvious issues such as partial sponsorship of a study by a corporate entity, or a family member’s employment by someone with an interest in the study outcome, also represent potential COI. Most journals provide forms for authors to disclose potential COI. When in doubt, disclose!

When and where can an articlebe submitted?
Early-career investigators are naturally eager to increase the chances that their work will be accepted for publication and may be tempted to send their manuscripts to multiple journals in the hope that they will be accepted more quickly. Most journals have explicit policies against simultaneous submission. Further, it is likely that this practice will be discovered, since two journals may invite the same reviewer to critique the article. A variation of this problem occurs when an author submits a manuscript very similar to a previously published article based on the same study (“redundant submission”2). Although it may seem like a shortcut to career advancement, simultaneous or redundant submission can be very costly, since many journals will not consider future work from an author who has been discovered in one of these practices. Submitting a manuscript that has been presented as an abstract or poster, or a manuscript that has been rejected by another journal, is generally acceptable.

Ask for help
Many pitfalls of authorship can be avoided by seeking advice from a mentor. Journals offer detailed “instructions to authors” on their websites that describe specific submission policies. Journal editors are another source of guidance—most would rather help you avoid a mistake than uncover it later! By establishing a track record of honest and fair authorship now, you can build the foundation for a successful career in scientific writing.

1. Flanagin A, Carey LA, Fontanarosa PB,et al. JAMA. 1998;280:222-4.
2. Uniform requirements for manuscriptssubmitted to biomedical journals: Writing and editing for biomedical publication. J Pharmacol Pharmacother. 2010;1:42-58.



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