Due to both the collaborative nature of research and the dynamic quality of research teams, scientists often find themselves submitting findings on behalf of others. For example, as a principal investigator (PI), you may need to include your laboratory members’ methods and results in a grant proposal. Alternatively, as a graduate student, post-doctoral associate, or PI, you could have to write a manuscript based on joint research, whether in collaboration with another laboratory, with a former laboratory member, or with an inexperienced author such as an undergraduate student. In these cases, you may be either writing about someone else’s work or integrating someone else’s written contribution with your own. This potential disconnect between collecting and analyzing results and putting together a manuscript can lead to inaccuracy and possible ethical issues if not handled properly.
To facilitate authoring a paper or grant proposal that is at least partly based on someone else’s research, good recordkeeping is crucial. If you are a PI, you should require your team members to maintain detailed records of all studies, to be preserved after a student or employee leaves. More specifically, materials, methods, results (including raw data), and analyses should be documented in such a way that a reader can understand and potentially reproduce the experiments, whether in writing or at the laboratory bench. PIs are also often held accountable for proper data collection, preservation, and protection by their institutions’ policies on responsible conduct of research. Additionally, if a team member is leaving the laboratory, make sure that you know where his or her laboratory notebooks and data files are located and how to contact him or her if necessary.
If your co-author is still available, you should also request thorough verbal and written explanations of his or her methodology, findings, and conclusions before and while writing to improve accuracy and clarity. This communication is additionally useful if you need to incorporate text written by someone else into your own text. In particular, active collaboration will ensure that you are not misunderstanding a co-author’s laboratory work and/or written work. This cooperative approach, even if you are in charge of the actual writing, is especially helpful if you have collaborated with a laboratory in a different field. The resultant more accurate, clearer manuscript may ultimately ease peer review, thus potentially accelerating publication.
From an ethical standpoint, fostering collaboration, if possible, and ensuring accuracy when submitting research findings on others’ behalf are critically important due to the authorship guidelines established by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). More specifically, achieving author status on a paper requires meeting the following four criteria:
1. Significant involvement in study conception/design, data collection, or data analysis/interpretation;
2. Involvement in drafting or revising manuscript;
3. Approval of final version of manuscript for publication; and
4. Responsibility for accuracy and integrity of all aspects of research.
All authors should thus be involved in generating and approving the manuscript, even if only one is performing most or all of the writing, further underscoring the importance of collaboration. If this level of participation is not possible, you should instead note a colleague’s contributions to the study in the acknowledgments section of the manuscript.
Moreover, based on the fourth criterion, authors share accountability for the entire research project, from data collection to publication (and beyond). This means that if a collaborator independently conducts a relevant experiment or writes only a brief section of your manuscript or if you have to write about that individual’s work without expertise in his or her research area, you are still morally responsible for any errors. If undetected, reporting errors can either hinder other researchers from performing follow-up studies or lead them to investigate tangential areas, wasting time and resources. If detected, even honest mistakes can lead to retraction (approximately 20% of retractions are due to error) and affect an investigator’s credibility.
In sum, publishing a colleague’s techniques and findings on his or her behalf can be fraught with ethical implications. Ongoing, clear communication both on paper and in person is perhaps the best strategy, ensuring that both you and the scientific community can maximally benefit from your research collaborations.