16

The paper in question is an analysis of government statistics to answer a question in sociology. The analysis was applied to a single government survey of a large population.

The sociologist has limited knowledge of statistics. He wrote the introduction, literature review, part of the discussion, and the conclusion. He also listed the variables to be analyzed by a hired statistician.

The statistician wrote the entire results section and a summary for the discussion in his own words, accounting for about 50% of the paper. He designed the analysis and ran all of the calculations.

Is it ethical for the sociologist to list himself as the sole author of the published study? What is customary and ethical in this case?

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  • 4
    Did the statistician run any calculations/models and did the statistician design the statistical analysis?
    – henning
    Jul 6 at 13:49
  • 5
    The statistician designed the analysis and ran all of the calculations. The sociologist listed the multiple variables to be analyzed. The analysis was applied to a single government survey of a large population.
    – Eggy
    Jul 6 at 13:54
  • 10
    Odd, I didn’t realize there could be such a thing as a sociologist with no knowledge of statistics. Live and learn.
    – Ed V
    Jul 6 at 13:54
  • 6
    @Eggy several countries (and academia in general) tend towards the view that the moral rights of the author can't be assigned contractually, only permission to distribute. There's no reason the statistician couldn't publish pseudonymously if he wanted though
    – origimbo
    Jul 7 at 0:48
  • 4
35

It would not be ethical to claim sole authorship in this case and the statistician should be listed as an author. It's always a good idea to get authorship sorted out as early in a project as possible to avoid problems later.

In the fields I'm familiar with (STEM) anyone who made a substantial intellectual contribution to the paper should be an author. Their contractual/payment status shouldn't be part of this decision. The Guidelines for Authorship from the University of Cambridge, and the references cited there, elaborate on this.

From a personal point of view, if questioned on the details of the statistical part, answering that you would need to check with the person who did the work would feel pretty awkward to me if they weren't an author. At least if they are an author they share responsibility for the results, otherwise it's all on you.

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  • 5
    Assuming the facts as stated, it would be plagiarism to claim sole authorship.
    – Buffy
    Jul 6 at 15:09
  • 1
    Similar to the concern raised by atom44, the author could be questioned about the statistics in a job interview and find himself unable to answer.
    – Eggy
    Jul 6 at 15:35
  • "In the fields I'm familiar with" I think you should state what these are, since the OP asks for what is customary (besides ethical). In the law and in econ both my personal experience is that statisticians junior to the main author often prepare their section of the paper and don't get authorship.
    – Hasse1987
    Jul 6 at 23:50
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    @Hasse1987, I clarified this in an edit. That is actually very interesting about law & econ. It may be worth elaborating on this in an answer.
    – atom44
    Jul 7 at 9:03
  • @Eggy If the sociologist is expected to understand the statistics involved, that could be an issue even if the statistician is listed as a co-author.
    – chepner
    Jul 7 at 14:42
14

The statistician has a very good case for being included, but not absolutely clear-cut.

The British Sociological Association (BSA) lists a number of criteria for deserving authorship. The BSA criteria are quoted below (emphasis mine). They are similar to the Vancouver Protocol, which relates to medical research but is often referred to beyond medicine.

  1. Everyone who is listed as an author should have made a substantial direct academic contribution (i.e. intellectual responsibility and substantive work) to at least two of the four main components of a typical scientific project or paper:

    a) Conception or design.

    b) Data collection and processing.

    c) Analysis and interpretation of the data.

    d) Writing substantial sections of the paper (e.g. synthesising findings in the literature review or the findings/results section).

  1. Everyone who is listed as an author should have critically reviewed successive drafts of the paper and should approve the final version.

  2. Everyone who is listed as author should be able to defend the paper as a whole (although not necessarily all the technical details).

If a contributor fulfills each main criterion, they must be included as author.

If a contributor does not fulfill each main criterion, they must not be included as author.

If a contributor fulfills some criteria but not others, they should be acknowledged. (This is how I interpret the clause "all those who make a substantial contribution to a paper without fulfilling the criteria for authorship should be acknowledged.")

Paraphrasing from the question and comments:

  • The statistician wrote half of the paper
  • The statistician designed the analysis and ran all of the calculations

The statistician clearly fulfills criterion 1, as they contributed to design, data processing, analysis, and writing.

Since they contributed a crucial component of the paper, they arguably would be able to defend the remainder too, as in criterion 3.

It's not clear whether the statistician approved the final version, as in criterion 2. But it seems likely.

Obviously, the statistician should at least be acknowledged, since they fulfill some criteria. But all things considered, the statistician has a pretty good case for being included as co-author as well, in particular when comparing their contribution to that of the sociologists (which I have not done here).

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  • 6
    While this is a good post, I'm not sure it address the question of the OP (at least not my initial interpretation). While based on what you explain the statistician qualifies for authorship, it doesn't mean he should be listed as an author (it's written "everyone who's an author should have done this", not "everyone who's done this should be an author"). The way I interpreted the question of OP is if it's ok to leave him out of the author list. Ethically speaking, I don't see it as a problem as long as there is a clear agreement between statistician and the author.
    – cinico
    Jul 6 at 14:02
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    @cinico What may be an ethical problem is if the author conceals the fact that none of the statistical analysis/write-up is due to them. It seems to me particularly problematic that the author wouldn't have written the Results section themself.
    – Kimball
    Jul 6 at 14:06
  • 2
    @cinico, I think your interpretation is incorrect. Everyone who qualifies as an author needs to be listed. I'm not certain that the statistician has made an "intellectual" contribution to the ideas of the paper, but if they have, they must be listed. Otherwise you are committing plagiarism. Contractual work might or might not rise to the level required, but if it does, list them as author.
    – Buffy
    Jul 6 at 15:05
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    Henning, I believe you have pinpointed why this situation is difficult: the guidelines I've seen all have several criteria that must be met for authorship, but this statistician's involvement ended when he delivered his report, so the criteria of final review and responsibility aren't met. And yet, common sense tells us there's a fairly severe ethics problem here!
    – Eggy
    Jul 6 at 23:03
  • 3
    @quarague and Eggy: The document linked in the answer as "Vancouver protocol" has 'The criteria are not intended for use as a means to disqualify colleagues from authorship who otherwise meet authorship criteria by denying them the opportunity to meet criterion #s 2 or 3. Therefore, all individuals who meet the first criterion should have the opportunity to participate in the review, drafting, and final approval of the manuscript.' I have a feeling that may be the first point where things have gone wrong here. Jul 7 at 22:32
11

I do not know what the standards are in sociology, but the contribution of the statistician looks quite substantial to me. Without even looking at standard guidelines as other responses do, from my gut impression that the contribution you describe is well above the threshold for co-authorship.

Leaving them out feels quite wrong, even mentioning it in an acknowledgement them feels like a downgrade. It is perfectly fine for not everyone to be expert in everything and for different people to providing complementary contributions, but leaving them out is just plain wrong.

There is a reason why interdisciplinary research usually has a hard time being justified - one often either drastically over- or underestimates the expertise contribution of the neighbouring fields, leading to a distorted view of the intellectual value of external contributions (in both directions). [yes, I know, statistics is well established in sociology, but the present question precisely reflects the classical interdisciplinary dilemma]

3
  • In some cases the conflict is that the statistician wants to be given co-authorship and the other author resists. In this case the statistician has not asked for co-authorship to the best of my knowledge. The concern here is the sociologist's ethical obligation as a scholar.
    – Eggy
    Jul 6 at 15:31
  • 1
    @Eggy Good point. Authorship is also about accountability, so it's not only a right, but in fact a duty. Of course, if multiple people work together to produce a work under the name of a given company, it's the company's brand at stake, but research is far more individual. Of course, one could end in a dilemma where the statistician does not want to be named, but the sociologist wants to publish. For such an issue where one side wilfully puts the other into an ethical dilemma (assuming the work itself is perfectly scholarly, and not just shoddy rough work), I do not have a good answer. Jul 6 at 16:13
  • 3
    I personally think an authorship-entitled person blocking a perfectly acceptable piece of scientific work from being published would itself constitute an ethical breach by that person, but I didn't read that into the question and it would constitute a separate issue. Jul 6 at 16:14
6

At this point I will offer what I think is an authoritative answer to the question. I consulted with a senior sociologist who conducts quantitative studies. Here's what he told me: (1) It's common for sociologists to hire statisticians because they don't have and aren't expected to have advanced skills in statistics. (2) Normally the statistician only prepares tables and charts. The statistician does not write a long, publication-ready report. (3) If the latter occurs, the statistician would be a co-author. (4) What is more expectable is that the sociologist has the skill to read and interpret the statistician's work, and then the sociologist writes the narrative results and discussion sections. In that case the sociologist takes sole authorship and might credit the statistician in an acknowledgment. (5) Claiming sole authorship in the present scenario would be plagiarism and it would invite other serious risks, like being unable to discuss the study intelligently in a job interview. (6) In order to claim sole authorship in the present case, the sociologist would need to substantially rewrite the statistician's report, not publish it verbatim.

The senior sociologist questioned why this study was undertaken in the first place, since the junior sociologist has so little knowledge of statistics. There's a case for that, but I also think a junior sociologist could begin working with statisticians to increase skills and learn the ethics of authorship. Not having statistics skills is a handicap for a sociologist, since the answers to many pressing questions in sociology are contained in government statistics.

I'm satisfied with the senior sociologist's answer. It doesn't refer to any formal authorship codes, but it's a good answer from the field. I appreciate everyone's input on this. Thank you!

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    I agree that this is pretty common. For instance, my university has a “faculty research support center” with staff that do work like this. The staff will consult on methods and code up the analysis, then hand off the tables to the faculty. They will also review and edit the write up. They may write bullet points as well. So basically the OP example is this model taken to an extreme.
    – Dawn
    Jul 7 at 18:42
1

Just to add a search term to the discussion:

Not including someone who did make a substantial intellectual contribution to the study/paper is called ghost authorship and is as such unacceptable.

Academic ghostwriting is not just a matter of the rights of the ghostwriter (who in many jurisdictions can legally agree to their name being excluded from the author list), but

  • it leaves the remaining authors misrepresenting their contributions as including those of the ghost author. This is plagiarism (even though the text is novel and original).
  • it can hide possible conflicts of interest.
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    cbeleites, I stongly agree and appreciate you adding ghost authorship to the discussion. The issue you raise is my main concern. Ghost authorship meets the definition of plagiarism as passing another's work off as one's own.
    – Eggy
    Jul 8 at 18:17

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