Thursday, September 27, 2007

Who Is the Author?

By Richard Vedder

Thou shalt not steal. That is what most of us are told from early age. The epidemic of plagiarism cases, including one involving a university president is both shocking and sad. It strikes at the very integrity of universities’ research mission. If researchers can steal other people's ideas without attribution and get away with it, why not simply fabricate research results?

Yet I am the first to admit that sometimes it is a bit ambiguous what the proper thing to do is. Does the graduate student who helps you a good deal on research for a paper or book properly get mentioned in a footnote, the acknowledgment section of the book, or listed as a coauthor? I have been told of a case of a senior scholar at a major research university who provided many of the most important ideas for a book published by a major university press, and was listed one place in the book as a coauthor, but not too prominently (that is, on the spine of the cover). The senior author is now very unhappy that this senior scholar considers himself a coauthor, as listed on his own resume. Some places in the world of books (e.g., Books in Print) list him as coauthor while others (e.g., do not. Where do you draw the line?

Maybe it is time for the academic community to develop a suggested code of conduct that might help deal with some of these issues. Persons who make a significant intellectual contribution to a book --advance ideas of importance to the theme of the book --usually should be coauthors. Persons who merely toil at verifying ideas of the senior author through research are probably best not listed as authors. Alternatively, how about drawing a distinction between "by" and "with"? A book authored "by Professor ABC with XYZ" would mean --"ABC is the prime mover on the book, but XYZ did a lot to make it happen."

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