PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Scientific authorship, autonomy and the identification of unethical practices

Authorship plays a central epistemic role in the system of scientific communication. It is the way research communities allocate credit and assign blame. In addition, authorship often serves as currency in the political economy of research spaces. Its location at the intersection of epistemic, ethical and economic currents offers an interesting window into the practice of science. Recently, there has been increased attention to the ways in which scientific authorship can go wrong. Practices like ghostwriting and honorary authorship are clearly unethical, but these judgments presuppose an understanding of the nature of authorship. However, there is no universally accepted, consensus criterion of scientific authorship. The situation is made still more complex when we consider the autonomy of scientific practices. Do the principles of research ethics grow out of the behavioral norms of self-regulating scientific communities? If so, how do we think about the possibility of differing communities exhibiting differing distinct practices sanctioning differing behaviors? If so, what are the consequences for how we think about using general principles to identify unethical scientific behavior? My aim in this poster is to map some of the relevant conceptual space around the intersection of autonomy, pluralism and research ethics. This project ties together three strands of philosophy of science research: work on the nature of scientific communication, philosophical investigation of social science research about research ethics, and work on values and science.

I consider the possibility that there is no single, universal account of authorship in the sciences—nor should one be imposed by small groups of journal editors, funding agencies or other institutions. If this is true, we need to rethink the empirical work identifying papers as ghostwritten and subsequent claims of unethical behavior. Starting with the assumption that differing accounts of authorship can reflect differences in the preferences of autonomous research communities, what are the consequences of this fact if we accept them as all potentially legitimate? I argue that if we accept authorship pluralism, we need to rethink how we identify unethical practices. I will illustrate this difficulty by reanalyzing the identification of unethical practices in Gøtzsche (2007).

Disputes over who should be an author and unethical authorship practices reveal details of scientific practice often overlooked by philosophers of science. I argue that understanding authorship and the role that it plays in the epistemology of science requires that we grapple with the plurality of distinct accounts of scientific authorship and the autonomy of scientific practice. As a result, the principle of charity requires interpreting a potential ghostwriter’s behavior in light of the entire plurality of authorship practices. This is not to condone unethical behavior. We simply need to be better about how we identify it in the field.

Gøtzsche, P. C., Hróbjartsson, A., Johansen, H. K., Haahr, M. T., Altman, D. G., and Chan, A. (2007). Ghost authorship in industry-initiated randomized trials. PLoS Medicine 4:e19.

Author Information:

Barton Moffatt    
Department of Philosophy and Religion
Mississippi State University


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