Receiving funding

The authorship of your research

The RCUK Code of Conduct specifically describes the following as unacceptable research conduct (under the heading of misrepresentation): 

misrepresentation of involvement, such as inappropriate claims to authorship and/or attribution of work where there has been no significant contribution, or the denial of authorship where an author has made a significant contribution.’  

This statement is very clear, but in practice, authorship can be a sensitive issue, and so it is useful to establish agreement at the beginning of a project.  This is essential if you are working as part of a team, but even if you are working on your own in collecting your data, it may be that others collaborate in generating articles on the basis of your research.

The issue of authorship can be very contentious, and it is an area where allegations of misconduct can arise. In particular, it does sometimes happen that senior members of a research team will insist on having their name added to publications into which they have had relatively little input.  Equally, if you are an early career researcher, it can feel difficult to assert your authorship rights in relation to more experienced or senior colleagues.

Many of these issues can be avoided by establishing at the outset who will be named as the author of any publications that should result from the research.  It is generally better to have these discussions at an early stage of the project, to make agreements in principle and so avoid later misunderstandings.  It may also help to check with another senior colleague or research manager in your department if you are unsure whether your department or institution has any existing protocols on authorship. These considerations may be particularly important in new teams – where there aren’t existing protocols – and in work across countries or disciplines, where customary practices (e.g. for multiple authorship) may differ.  

The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at Cambridge University hosts a post-doctoral forum, with a very useful collection of web pages and guidance on Who Owns Research? - a useful and accessible source of further reading and information.

Legally there are two issues that need to be established for any work that you produce, these are ‘copyright’ and your ‘moral rights’:

‘Copyright’ is your right to publish the work you have produced and to make a profit from it. It is granted automatically to whoever created a work, and it can cover books, articles, dramatic works, music and many other things.

In an academic context, copyright can get very complicated. Normally if you produce work (such as a report) while you are working for an employer (i.e. on work time) then your employer automatically owns the copyright to the work. There is a long standing tradition in academia, however, that universities will waive their right to work produced by their academics, and student research normally remains the property of the student in any case. If you are unsure, check with your line manager or supervisor who has the copyright for the work.  Your institution’s research administration department can also advise on copyright, and should check that copyright is appropriately assigned in research contracts.

Your ‘moral right’ to a work is your right to assert that you are the author of that work. In an academic context, where your reputation as a researcher is a determining factor in your career progression, your moral rights will be very important.

Good explanations of the legal position with respect to copyright and moral rights can be found on the website of the government’s Intellectual Property Office.

Summing up

Authorship can be a contentious issue, and so it is good to get agreements in place as early as possible within a project.  Remember, however, that those agreements may have to be changed - e.g. if someone stops working on a project for any reason, or joins at a later date.  If you have concerns about authorship in relation to a piece of work you are involved in, it is a good idea to try and resolve the problems initially through informal channels.  For example:

  • try speaking to an experienced independent colleague (e.g., an academic colleague or research manager), and ask their advice;
  • set up a joint meeting between the people who are disagreeing and an independent third party - such as another experienced colleague, and see if you can work out a compromise.