Week 3. Authorship, peer review, and confidentiality


What is the role of publication in science? Why should a publication include the names of the scientists involved, if the important result of a publication is the increase in our shared understanding of the world? What are the ethical problems when practical concerns (fellowships or grants) appear to conflict with issues of scientific contributions?

  • What constitutes a “good” paper?
  • How much data should go in a paper, and who should decide which data are included?
  • Does it matter whose name goes on a paper, and why would this matter?
  • What about the order of authors? Why is this important, and how should it be decided?
  • What criteria should be used in conferring authorship?
  • Who should decide about authorship on a paper?
  • Is each author personally responsible for the accuracy of all data and statements?


The issue of confidentiality emerges in many areas of biomedical research, including confidentiality of genetic information, in human subject research, in peer review, and in collaborations. Our focus here is on confidentiality in the context of peer review. 

An excerpt from the NIH “Guidelines for the Conduct of Research at the National Institutes of Health”, Peer Review and Privileged Information:

“All material under review is privileged information. It should not be used to the benefit of the reviewer unless it previously has been made public. It should not be shared with anyone unless necessary to the review process, in which case the names of those with whom the information was shared should be made known to those managing the review process. Material under review should not be copied and retained or used in any manner by the reviewer unless specifically permitted by the journal or reviewing organization and the author." 

Although complying with the guidelines outlined in this statement seems straight forward, are there circumstances where this conflicts with other obligations? Is breaking confidentiality always an ethical lapse?

Sample Scenarios

From the HHMI Bioethics

Background: A second year graduate student named Jill and postdoctoral fellow named Laura work in Professor Green's laboratory. Laura suggests to Jill a number of different experimental strategies for studying her problem. Within a few months enough new information has been learned to warrant publication. Professor Green prepares a manuscript with himself as first author, Jill as second author, and with Laura's contributions mentioned in the Acknowledgements.

Part 1: Jill thinks that she should be first author, but Professor Green says Jill is just a beginner and wouldn't have accomplished anything without being told what to do. When Laura learns that she has been left off the paper, she argues that she should be a co-author since most of Jill's experiments were based on her ideas. Without her input, Jill would not have been able to do the experiments. Who should be authors on this paper, and what should be the order? What does it mean to be an author on a paper? How could this problem have been prevented?

Part 2: Professor Green asks Jill to write the Introduction section for the paper. Jill's introduction is a slightly paraphrased section of a review article previously published by Professor Green. Is this plagiarism? Would it make a difference if the review were published by an investigator from a different laboratory?

Part 3: When she reads the discussion section of the manuscript, Jill believes that Professor Green has ignored some of the data and reached the wrong conclusions. She explains her concerns. Green responds by saying "You don't give up a good hypothesis just because not all the data fit." Jill persists, however, and wants the Discussion to reflect a different interpretation of the data. Professor Green responds that if Jill isn't comfortable with his interpretation of the data, then she doesn't have to have her name on the paper. What should she do?

Source: Program of Ethics in Science and Medicine, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

Confidentiality and Peer Review

Situation #1
Dr. Bob Smith receives a paper to review from a close competitor

      a) Should Dr. Smith review the paper?
      b) What if the paper was generated by someone with a personal relationship to Dr. Smith?

    Dr. Smith decides to review the paper, and discovers that the experiments are very similar to those being performed in his lab. However, the results in the paper are opposite from those generated in his lab.
      a) Does this affect how he reviews the paper? Would he need to justify a poor review by citing his conflicting results?
      b) Should Dr. Smith tell his grad student about the conflicting results? Would the situation be different if its was a post doc’s or technician’s project?

    Situation #2
    Dr. Estelle Frankenbacher is reviewing a paper tat is not related to work in her lab, but contains a novel technique that she would like to use in her research. Other than the cool technique, the paper is not very good.
      a) Can she recommend the paper for publication just because of the novel technique?
      b) Does she have a conflict of interest in reviewing the paper because she wants to use the technique?

    The paper is not published.
      a) Can she use the specific protocol in the paper for the new technique?
      b) Can she use the general concept of the technique to develop her own protocol?


Schechter et al. Colloquium on Scientific Authorship FASEB J. 3:209,1989

Biagioli M. The Instability of Authorship: Credit and Responsibility in Contemporary Biomedicine. FASEB J. 12:3-16, 1998.

Editorial: A Duty to Publish. Nature Med 4:1089,1998.

Society for Neuroscience: Responsible Conduct for Scientific Communication.

Follow us: