If one takes a superficial look at the authorship issue, it would seem unethical, i.e. one author does not physically contribute to the paper. However, viewing a paper from the perspective of contributorship, which I perceive as wider than the concept of authorship (which focusses on the writing, (see for example examples from ICMJE and BMJ) a more tangible part of the research process), the original described Hardy-Littlewood case is less clear. Since both authors work intimately together, it is clearly conceivable that their joint long-term discussions form a significant background to and lead up to the final publication(s). Hence they have both contributed to the paper even if it has not been explicit. The rules for contributorship set up by the Vancouver Protocol:
- Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
- Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
- Final approval of the version to be published; AND
- Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.
may thus not be broken. It sounds as if point two of this list is not clearly enforced but if the last point is fulfilled then it is possible to view the second and third points as implicitly covered.
Clearly the issue of ethics in what I would call a positive case such as this is not easy to deal with. The ethical rules should of course be followed in all cases but it is primarily the negative aspects that need to be scrutinized. If both authors can stand by each paper they are on, I would say all is ok. I should perhaps also mention the consortia papers that emerge from large projects such as the CERN where authorships are bound by contract rather than actual physical contribution. Again, I would see this as a positive form of division of authorship which serves its purpose and although break the Protocol rules is accepted.