How to avoid disputes
Establish who's who early on - When authorship disputes arise, young researchers are often in the most precarious situation. Markovitch advises that they push for meetings early in the process of research (long before the paper is written) to establish who will be considered the first author and the last author. If you work in a collaborative setting, this conversation may have to happen a few times. Stephen Kimmel, director of cardiovascular epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania, conducts a monthly conference call with all the PIs on a multidiscipline project; the only topic is author issues.
Encourage your group to include a contributions section in the paper - Nature strongly encourages its authors to list their contributions, but only about one-third of published papers have these credits, writes Linda Miller, executive editor of Nature, in an E-mail. A contribution section is "wonderful for interdisciplinary collaborations," says Scott Huettel at Duke University. "It really points out that [one] person's expertise [played a] specific role in the paper. It can be shown to their evaluation team that they did something that no one else on the paper could have done."
Stick to the numbers - If you are a lab leader who regularly mediates authorship squabbles among your researchers, or someone who collaborates regularly, create a points system, like the one by Robert Schmidt offered in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America (68:8-10, 1987). Each task associated with the project gets a certain point allotment, and the number of points you accrue determines your spot on the author list.
Be picky - Being choosy about which lab you join could save a lot of grief, says Linda Wilcox, ombudsperson at Harvard Medical School. PIs have reputations, both good and bad. When looking for a lab to join, says Wilcox, interview current lab members and ask in delicate ways about the environment in the lab. For example, instead of asking if many fights about authorship occur, ask how approachable the PI is when researchers have problems.
How to resolve disputes
Find the happy medium - As a graduate student in an animal physiology lab, Cecily Bishop, now a postdoc at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, noticed that the labor-intensive parts of projects (such as serial blood collection) were farmed out to undergraduate students looking for lab experience. The undergraduates voiced their discontent, and the lab heads offered a compromise. "Those undergrads who displayed a higher than usual interest in research were given their own projects, and were included in acknowledgments on the papers they helped with research on," writes Bishop in an E-mail.
Get professional advice - Young researchers at universities can reach out to the institution's ombudsperson or other outside mentor to help them determine the best way to approach their PI and ask about authorship. Having what Wilcox calls a plan based on a set of guidelines - one that either your institution or the ICMJE establishes - will help you to speak on principle, not emotion.
Keep good records - Disputes can get ugly, even when ombudspeople are involved. Make sure to keep a dated record of what was said and to whom through the duration of the disagreement. E-mail can be an easy way to archive conversations, and this will help an ombudsperson to mediate a solution.
Split up the project - Getting several papers out of closely related projects can help spread the credit over many authors, especially in cross-discipline collaborations.
Keep your cool - "Recognize that you have emotions but try to appear reasonable," says Wilcox. "As soon as we behave badly, that's an excuse to do all kinds of damage to us." Remaining collected and professional ensures that, despite precarious lab situations, you can still get solid recommendations in the future.