“Just doing my job,” by Liz Wager

Liz WagerDetermining the appropriate authorship of publications causes all sorts of problems (in part, I believe, because none of the available guidelines apply in all situations, and many journals offer little help – but I’ve written about that elsewhere, so I’ll try not to rant about it here). What I wanted to write about was the argument I had with a participant at a recent workshop because it demonstrated how much education (and change in attitudes) we need before the situation will improve.

Having given a talk to drug company employees about various authorship guidelines, I was discussing how these were being implemented in the company. Many of the participants agreed with the recommendation from Good Publication Practice for Pharmaceutical Companies that, whatever criteria are used to determine authorship, they should be applied equally to both external investigators and company employees. But one doctor in the group was adamant that company people should not be listed “because they were only doing their job.”

I tried to explain why I thought readers deserved transparency and honesty and wanted to know who had contributed to a research project and its publication (and who paid them). I also pointed out that many of the contributors to a clinical trial (including academic investigators) are also “just doing their job” (and are also paid for their work), but I felt that neither I, nor the other participants, could convince him.

What depressed me was that this argument came from a highly intelligent, well-educated young doctor, trained in Western Europe, not from some elderly dinosaur from a country with a relatively short history of openness (whom I would still have tried to convince, but in the understanding that my views represented a major shift in this person’s world view).

Perhaps I should have been encouraged that all the other doctors working for this company seemed to accept my views on authorship and transparency (and the official company policies appeared sound).

Perhaps it was also good that the dissident had the courage to speak his mind rather than pretend to agree, but I do worry that readers will be badly served, and relevant competing interests will be masked (intentionally or otherwise) while people continue to hold this view.

To paraphrase George Orwell, it appears that “all authors are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

What can we do to ensure contributor lists truly reflect who did the work?


1. Wager E. Do medical journals provide clear and consistent guidelines on authorship?
Medscape General Medicine 2007;9(3):16

2. Wager E. Recognition, reward and responsibility: why the authorship of scientific papers matters. Maturitas doi:10.1016/j.maturitas.2008.12.001

Liz Wager is a freelance writer, trainer and publications consultant who works for a number of pharmaceutical companies, communication agencies, publishers and academic institutions. She is also the Secretary of COPE (the Committee On Publication Ethics) and a member of the BMJ’s Ethics Committee.