Authorship of Scientific Papers

Christina Cheung shares her ethics & society case study, which she completed as part of our Young Scientist Program.

For any aspiring scientist, authorship is crucial in many ways. In a scientific world where literature is one of the most trusted ways to share information, the people responsible for the work are given authorship of that particular paper. Potential publications often have stringent criteria and are put through the ringer by peer reviews to ensure quality control of the information. Nowadays, because science is increasingly specialized, reliance on other scientists’ publications are needed for research. Therefore, quality work and accurate information is essential not only for the authors but their peers as well. Authorship is also one of the primary ways for recognition in academia. Often, one of the qualifications that is emphasized heavily in a position in academia is the candidate’s quantity and quality of publications; which would entail looking at their authorship in scientific literature. For better or for worse, a person’s success is often influenced by authorship of publications, making it crucial that it is accurately portrayed.

With so much influence, one would assume that the rules for authorship should be black and white; instead, many times there tend to be gray areas that make it difficult to determine authorship. These gray areas can stem from the different ethical systems that apply to authorship rules. Of all the ethical systems, two of the normative ethical theories are most relevant: utilitarianism and virtue ethics. For a utilitarianism system, one can say that authorship should come from how much one has contributed by the end of the experiment. Therefore, in terms of authorship, if the success of the experiment is the ultimate end, then guidelines would shape around allowing a scientist to gain authorship if they can successfully replicate the experiment. This would then show their competency and merit in the context of the experiment. If a written manuscript is the ultimate end, then guidelines for authorship would shape around how much the scientist contributed to the final manuscript in terms of physical amounts like word count or even number of figures. This would then show literally how much a scientist has contributed to the final manuscript and therefore, if there is enough, should be granted authorship. In a virtue ethics system, guidelines would revolve around a system that emphasizes the role of one’s character to determine whether or not it was moral. Therefore, a person can be granted authorship simply because they were trying to be helpful. This could be seen in a situation where a mentor helps provide guidance to a project or a colleague that provided meaningful conversations that led to the success of the experiment. Because virtue can be seen as culturally defined, this could lead to inconsistent guidelines in publications and authorship in increasingly globally collaborative research environment.

A topic that comes up often in the discussion of the ethical systems that are pertinent to authorship, include the question of what is considered to be fair in the overall context of acknowledging those who contributed to the experiment that is being described in the paper. In any given experiment, there are many people who contribute to its success that deserve to be acknowledged one way or another. From the different ethical systems, there are many different criteria that allow many different people to become authors. However, is it fair to say that they all deserve to be an author? For example, there can be situations where ownership of the data is in question. A principle investigator with a lab has a post-doc that has a paper ready to be published; but is the post-doc obligated to include the PI’s name even if he or she didn’t contribute in any way except perhaps the laboratory space? What if for whatever reason there is a person helping to write parts of the paper, but this person did not take part in planning, designing, or executing the experiment. Do they get a chance of authorship by merely writing? Lastly and even simply, lab personnel change, or experiments take a different turn based on results and the influential people change. How does one take that into account? Essentially, these situations cause fairness to be put into question, and therefore, make defining authorship a gray area that is often not addressed until problems arise.

With the knowledge of how authorship can be a rather sensitive subject with many gray areas, perhaps the best way to avoid this is having a mutual understanding before the start of any experiment as well as the beginning of any major pivotal points. Therefore, it entails that this be a more regularly discussed topic at the start rather than something that is avoided until problems arise. A more open discussion early on, between all parties, allows everyone to have clear cut expectations and less questions later on. An end-all strict set of rules for authorship may not be the best solution. Every institution should have their own guidelines and regulations catered towards their own needs and situations. However, it is important for open communication to all parties to have a mutual understanding at the start of an experiment and at the start of any major experiment direction change. This can help to mitigate issues that may arise later and determine authorship to the deserving individuals.

Bringing a Taste of NASA to Marjorie H. Tobias Elementary School

BMSIS Young Scientist Christina Cheung led an outreach event at Marjorie H. Tobias Elementary School in Daly City, California.

Christina’s engagement was part of her Communications requirements for the BMSIS Young Scientist Program. BMSIS is continuously committed to engaging the public in the wonders of Space Exploration and the Earth System. Our Young Scientist Program continues this tradition by engaging local communities around the world.

Read Christina’s impressions below:

Being a part of the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, I was given a unique opportunity to take part in a community outreach event. I was approached by a friend, who was a parent helper in their school’s read-a-thon committee, looking to find someone to speak at their school as a special guest to talk about NASA and science as a career. What started off as somewhat of an unlikely event to pull off, turned into a school-wide event with two assemblies and 400 students.

Before having to present, I was already faced with challenges as I prepared for my presentation to these students. First, the grades that I was presenting were K to 2nd and 3rd to 5th, all of which have drastically different levels of understanding and engagement. I knew very early on in my preparations that I would have to prepare different presentations for each assembly and find ways to keep them all engaged. Second, I was also tasked with finding a way to incorporate the importance of reading. After all, I was speaking for a read-a-thon event that encouraged students to read. I decided to choose two of my favorite books growing up, which were The BFG by Roald Dahl and The Giver by Louis Lowry and even went home to find my childhood paperback copies of those treasured books to show to the students. I made it a point to emphasize the importance of reading for a scientist and also how it has shaped my life. Most importantly, I also wanted to use this platform as a way to inspire the young students to take part in STEM.

The days before the presentation, I was definitely nervous. However, with the help of some colleagues and friends, I was able to practice and put together the two presentations for the school event. When I first arrived at the school, I was greeted by the rest of the read-a-thon committee. They were very helpful in coordinating the event and answering all the questions I had throughout the process. We got set up and situated and soon enough the first set of students, the K to 2nd graders, started to come in. My first impressions of them were that they were so young, but so enthusiastic to learn. As I spoke to them with excitement I got the same feelings from them. Even through the lab safety activity I did with a few participants that included nitrile gloves and shaving cream, they were all very attentive and well behaved. With a few extra minutes, I took the risk of having a Q&A session with them. Some of the questions were intuitive; others were less so, but all in all it was enjoyable to engage with them. For the next assembly of 3rd to 5th graders, I knew these students would be more interested in the science and details. They asked great questions and even asked some that stumped me. I appreciated their genuine curiosity to learn more.

All in all, the students in both assemblies were very intrigued about NASA and space exploration. I enjoyed the Q&A portions of each assembly the most just because it allowed me to interact with each student. It allowed me to not only give an answer to their question, but also the validate and encourage their curiosity to learn. I also wanted to be an example to the young girls in the audience, knowing that the statistics for their involvement in STEM is low. I don’t know the thoughts that went through their young minds, but I know I have done my job if I have inspired at least one student to know that they can definitely pursue science as a career.


Preeti Nema Selected for Science Communication Workshop

Dr. Preeti Nema was selected for Level 2 of the National Workshop for Science Journalism and Science communication for women. The workshop is co-organized by IISER PUNE, Newton Bhabha Fund, and the British council. Fifty women from all over India were selected for Level 1 of the workshop, from with 25 were chosen to advance to Level 2. Level 2 participants will receive mentoring to compete for the Asian Scientist Writing Prize.

Congratulations to Preeti!

Christina Cheung Selected as NASA Outreach Lead

Young Scientist Christina Cheung is now serving as the Space Biosciences Outreach Lead at the NASA Ames Research Center. She is ramping into this duty slowly, as her primary duties for the next few weeks will be supporting the Fruit Fly Lab-2 experiment which is due to launch on SpaceX-11 in mid-May. Following this mission, she will be working half time on Fruit Fly Lab and half time as the Outreach Lead.

Christina Cheung received her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from the University of California, Irvine in 2014. Soon after, she moved to San Francisco to join the Hughes-Fulford Lab in the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center as a Staff Research Associate and as a payload scientist for the T-Cell Activation Team that launched their experiment on the SpaceX CRS-5 Mission in Jan 2015. Christina then began her work as a Research Associate in the Bhattacharya Lab at NASA Ames Research Center through Blue Marble Space Institute of Science’s Young Scientist Program where she facilitated the development and optimization of experimental conditions for culturing Drosophila melanogaster in a proprietary prototype by TechShot Inc. In addition, she will be a support scientist on the upcoming Fruit Fly Lab 02 Experiment scheduled to launch on the SpaceX CRS-11 Mission in May 2017. Christina is also passionate about communicating STEM to wide audiences and will provide support to SC in her new role as a public education and outreach specialist.