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The Importance of Proper Attribution

Mar 1, 2015


A paper is published in an ASCE journal regarding the behavior of certain structures when subjected to hydrodynamic forces. The work is based on the master's thesis of the first author, and the research described in the paper was conducted as part of a larger National Science Foundation grant awarded to the student's university in partnership with a private research firm. The paper also lists the student's thesis adviser as an author, and an acknowledgment section at the conclusion of the paper thanks a member of the private research firm for his "significant contribution" to the project.

Shortly after the paper's publication, ASCE's journals department receives a complaint from the member of the private firm. The complainant states that although the material presented in the student's paper represented the combined efforts of all members of the grant team, the student and his adviser published their paper without the complainant's knowledge or permission. He further alleges that the paper includes material that is "virtually identical" to a presentation he made at an international conference, and he submits a proceedings paper as evidence of the duplication.

The complainant goes on to state that he had learned about the paper prior to its publication and had contacted the authors to demand that he be given the opportunity to review the paper and that he be listed as one of the authors. The authors had refused to cooperate, and the complainant felt that their intentional omission of credit for his contributions was a "blatant attempt to further their career at his expense.

When the journals department is unable to negotiate a resolution between a complainant and a paper's listed authors, it refers the complaint to ASCE's Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC). Of the two authors, only the thesis adviser is a current ASCE member.


Did the member’s actions violate ASCE’s Code of Ethics?


Canon 5 of the Code of Ethics reads as follows: "Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others." While practicing engineers may view this canon as applying solely to contract procurement, with violations ranging from bribes and gratuities to bid rigging or other financial improprieties, the world of academia is by no means removed from the realm of "unfair competition." 

In academia, however, the most prevalent type of competition is that for research grants, fellowships, and other career opportunities, and the quest to obtain limited research dollars or tenured positions can tempt one to pad his or her credentials by assuming scholarly credit belonging to another. This type of conduct is most directly addressed in category (e) in the guidelines to practice for canon 5: "Engineers shall give proper credit for engineering work to those to whom credit is due, and shall recognize the proprietary interests of others. Whenever possible, they shall name the person or persons who may be responsible for designs, inventions, writings or other accomplishments.

When contacted by the CPC, the accused member takes issue with the notion that the complainant should have been listed as an author. While acknowledging that all three members of the grant team contributed to the overall project, he states that his graduate student had been assigned a discrete segment of the project and that the published paper confined itself to that segment. He further contends that although the graduate student periodically reported to the complainant on the progress of his work, the complainant never contributed in any meaningful way to this segment of the project. The adviser notes that the paper made it clear that the work it described formed part of a larger project, and he argues that the reference to the complainant in the paper's acknowledgment section constituted sufficient attribution.

With regard to the claim that the paper duplicated the complainant's own scholarly work, the member observes that the complainant reviewed the graduate student's thesis and did not question its originality. Rather, the member argues, the timing of the thesis and of the presentation proves that the complainant in fact copied figures, tables, and other material from the student's thesis. He further observes that the complainant prepared the presentation without notifying or obtaining permission from him or the graduate student and that neither of them was listed as a coauthor of the conference presentation.

The accused member attributes the complaint to hurt feelings caused by his decision to exclude the complainant and find other researchers to work with in seeking a second National Science Foundation grant. He explains that he sought to alleviate the ill will by offering to collaborate on two other papers but that the complainant instead chose to launch this "undeserved attack on his character."

After interviewing all members of the research team and reviewing the papers and other material, it was the opinion of the CPC members that the behavior of both parties left something to be desired. At the same time, they did not feel that anyone's actions had risen to the level of an ethics violation. The CPC members voted unanimously to dismiss the case, and the committee notified both the complainant and the accused of its decision by a carefully worded letter explaining that the dismissal "should be regarded as neither approval nor disapproval of anyone's actions in the controversy."

Given the importance of published work to those in academia, it is perhaps small wonder that authorship credit is one of the most common disputes among professionals. At the same time, the question of what constitutes "authorship" is often difficult to define, particularly when multiple individuals are contributing in different ways. What is more, confusion about the meaning of authorship can give rise to such questionable practices as "gift authorship," which arises when an unaffiliated senior colleague is added to the list of authors as a gesture of respect, or "ghost authorship," which occurs when the efforts of a junior researcher or other contributor are seen as insufficient to warrant his or her inclusion as an author

To address these issues, many scientific publishers have adopted guidelines to define the concept of authorship. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors' guidelines, which are viewed as a model by many publishers, state that authors must meet all of the following criteria:

  • Substantial contributions either to the conception or design of the work or to the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data; 
  • Significant participation in drafting the work or making substantive revisions;
  • Final approval of the version to be published;
  • Willingness to be held accountable for all aspects of the work, including ensuring that questions about accuracy or integrity are addressed and resolved. 

ASCE's own ethical guidelines for authors mirror these authorship requirements. They state that "to protect the integrity of authorship, only persons who have significantly contributed to the research or project and paper preparation shall be listed as coauthors. The corresponding author attests to the fact that any others named as coauthors have seen the final version of the paper and have agreed to its submission for publication. An author who submits a manuscript for publication accepts responsibility for having properly included all, and only, qualified coauthors."

As is often the case with professional disputes, the situation described herein could probably have been prevented through better communication at the outset. When planning projects with multiple contributors, it is important to discuss the likely outcome in terms of papers, presentations, or other scholarly works and to continue those discussions periodically and in writing as the project proceeds or as new people are added. Moreover, all contributors should be encouraged to read published guidelines concerning authorship so that everyone will have a good understanding of his or her ethical rights and responsibilities in connection with scholarly  contributions.


Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE's hotline at (703) 295-6151 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6151. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case, that some details may have been altered for purposes of illustration or confidentiality, and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society.

© ASCE,  Civil Engineering , March 2015