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‘Agree an author protocol’

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A colleague of mine is now into the fifth month of wrangling about gaining recognition for a large study to which she has contributed. She has sadly become one of the statistics that those who have developed authorship guidelines talk about.

Nurse authors are like any other nurses who use guidance documents in their practice. Such guidance is there but too often is ignored as we think we don’t need it. When authoring published material such as articles and book chapters, it may not be at the forefront of most nurses’ minds to agree an authorship protocol, as is good practice.

Advocates of such protocols include the British Sociological Association. It suggests that prior to putting pen to paper, we agree details such as who is to be named and in what order. This can be decided according to who has done what percentage of the work involved.

You may think that, as nurses, we are sufficiently collaborative in our approach not to need such formal agreements. Don’t be fooled. In my colleague’s case, being made to feel undervalued is one thing but it is largely the embarrassment of having to repeatedly challenge a senior project partner that makes the experience so negative and distracting for her.

What’s worse, she asked several times for an authorship protocol to be agreed at an early point but to no avail. Writers on the subject warn of power play between junior and senior authors and, like anyone who has ever experienced discrimination or harassment will know, speaking up against someone in authority can be daunting.

Some nurses may feel obliged to have their course supervisor named on any research article they produce from their studies.

This is not acceptable unless the course supervisor has done a substantive part of the writing.

Other unethical practices relate to the inclusion of one’s friends as authors when they have not made a significant contribution to the work conceptually or practically. The order of authors matters as the first would usually have done most of the writing.

There are various conventions for subsequent authors and assigning these in an alphabetical order is common. If someone’s contribution is minor they can be acknowledged instead.

Discussions to agree the way forward should take place early on in a study and be documented in writing. Trying to reach agreement many months after the end of a study is difficult. If you are thinking of writing with someone else, I encourage you to agree an authorship protocol. Even if you are writing with a friend or colleague, do not be lulled into a false sense of security. Friendships and allegiances may change.

Tracy Williamson, PhD, MSc, BSc, RN, is research fellow, older people/user involvement, Salford Centre for Nursing, Midwifery and Collaborative Research, University of Salford.

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