Authorship and the deceased

By Gert Helgesson

Research ethics has attracted increasing attention in recent years, not least regarding broad themes like scientific misconduct and predatory publishing. In the aftermath of some extensively reported research scandals, such as the Macchiarini case, involving patient deaths, the responsibility of the individual co-author has emerged as a theme of great interest to many, including people outside academia. For instance, should collaborators escape accountability simply by reference to the fact that they were not actively involved in strategic decisions about the work – maybe they should have been? On the other hand, should doctoral students share the responsibility for scientific misconduct in a paper co-authored with more senior researchers, even if they were not hands-on involved in the misbehavior and were unaware that it was going on?

The responsibility of co-authors has been a continuous concern for the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) throughout the many versions of the so-called Vancouver rules (formally: Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals). To ICMJE, authorship has never been tied merely to substantial contributions to research, but also to identification of those responsible for the work, the idea being that contribution, recognition and responsibility all go hand in hand. What the exact relations should be between contribution and responsibility is not easy to spell out, and there is still room for improvement in these guidelines.

A special case that has not yet been explicitly addressed by ICMJE is how to handle co-authorship in relation to deceased collaborators. Although a rare issue to deal with for most researchers, it tends to be perceived as both emotional and important whenever it does have to be faced. Last year a researcher at my department died unexpectedly. At the time he supervised doctoral students and was involved in several projects, with quite a few papers in the pipeline. Soon colleagues knocked at my door and asked me for advice on how to handle co-authorship concerning their deceased friend and colleague. I brought in three other medical ethicists in the discussion, and we quickly realized that there was not much help to find in the literature.

In our paper, we discuss the inclusion of deceased collaborators as authors on research papers. Basically, we argue that inclusion would be adequate under certain circumstances, although not for the reason of honoring an appreciated colleague. We spell out our arguments in relation to the authorship criteria of the Vancouver rules, including their take on author responsibilities. While these well-known guidelines seem to give a very clear, and negative, response to the inclusion question, we suggest that their best interpretation would in some cases allow inclusion of the deceased as authors.


Paper title: Should the deceased be listed as authors?

Author(s): Gert Helgesson1, William Bülow2, Stefan Eriksson3, Tove E. Godskesen3,4


1Stockholm Centre for Healthcare Ethics (CHE), Department of Learning, Informatics, Management and Ethics, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

2Department of Philosophy, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

3Centre for Research Ethics and Bioethics (CRB), Department of Public Health and Caring Sciences, Uppsala University, Sweden

4Department of Health Care Sciences, Ersta Sköndal Bräcke University College, Stockholm, Sweden

Competing interests: None declared.

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