Skip to main content
Log in

Researchers’ Perceptions of Ethical Authorship Distribution in Collaborative Research Teams

  • Original Research/Scholarship
  • Published:
Science and Engineering Ethics Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Authorship is commonly used as the basis for the measurement of research productivity. It influences career progression and rewards, making it a valued commodity in a competitive scientific environment. To better understand authorship practices amongst collaborative teams, this study surveyed authors on collaborative journal articles published between 2011 and 2015. Of the 8364 respondents, 1408 responded to the final open-ended question, which solicited additional comments or remarks regarding the fair distribution of authorship in research teams. This paper presents the analysis of these comments, categorized into four main themes: (1) disagreements, (2) questionable behavior, (3) external influences regarding authorship, and (4) values promoted by researchers. Results suggest that some respondents find ways to effectively manage disagreements in a collegial fashion. Conversely, others explain how distribution of authorship can become a “blood sport” or a “horror story” which can negatively affect researchers’ wellbeing, scientific productivity and integrity. Researchers fear authorship discussions and often try to avoid openly discussing the situation which can strain team interactions. Unethical conduct is more likely to result from deceit, favoritism, and questionable mentorship and may become more egregious when there is constant bullying and discrimination. Although values of collegiality, transparency and fairness were promoted by researchers, rank and need for success often overpowered ethical decision-making. This research provides new insight into contextual specificities related to fair authorship distribution that can be instrumental in developing applicable training tools to identify, prevent, and mitigate authorship disagreement.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


Download references


Authors would like to acknowledge Drs. Kirstin Matthews and Leigh Turner for their comments on this manuscript. This work is partially supported by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) (program ZIA ES102646-10). ES is supported by a collaborative fellowship from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Fonds de Recherche du Québec en Santé (FRQ-S)—(#254164). ZM is partly supported through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) (UL1 TR002377) Grant at Mayo Clinic. This paper does not represent the view of the NIH, the FRQS or any governmental institution.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



ES started developing a precursor to this study in collaboration with bioethicists BWJ and ZM under the supervision of DBR. The full study design and methodology of the survey was developed with team of researchers in bibliometric and library science research including CS and VL. The survey development, sample creation and data collection were completed by ES, AP-H, CS and VL. Qualitative data analysis was conducted by KC, ED, ES and MS. The paper was drafted by ES. All authors revised the paper and contributed substantially to the final draft of the manuscript. Authorship order was modified throughout the process as collaborators were added to the project. Although authors were added in decreasing order of contribution, the interdisciplinary nature of this project makes comparison of contribution difficult especially between middles authors. Authors agree on the final order of authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Elise Smith.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest related to the content of this manuscript.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (PDF 26 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Smith, E., Williams-Jones, B., Master, Z. et al. Researchers’ Perceptions of Ethical Authorship Distribution in Collaborative Research Teams. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 1995–2022 (2020).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: