NIH IRP Authorship Conflict Resolution Process
Responsible authorship is essential to the ethical conduct of research. Unethical authorship practices, such as granting authorship to those who do not deserve it or denying authorship to those who do, undermine the integrity of scientific research and trust among researchers. According to NIH policy, authorship on scientific publications or presentations should be based on the following:
- Making a substantial contribution to the conceptualization, design, execution, or interpretation of the research; and
- Drafting or substantively reviewing or revising the study manuscript; and
- The ability to take responsibility for publication of the research and particularly your contribution to it.
Individuals who do not meet these authorship criteria but who have assisted with the research in some manner should be acknowledged in the article but not named as authors. It is expected that members of each research group will freely discuss, document, and resolve questions of authorship, including the order of authors, before and during the course of a study and up to the time of its publication. See Guidelines and Policies for the Conduct of Research in the Intramural Program at NIH.
Disputes over authorship inclusion and order are not uncommon. Such disputes shall be settled fairly, collegially, effectively, and expeditiously. The purpose of this policy is to describe the procedures that shall be followed in the NIH Intramural Program when an authorship dispute arises.
- Binding decision: a decision concerning authorship credit or responsibilities made after a request for a formal adjudication of an authorship dispute under this policy. The NIH has the legal authority to ensure that current NIH researchers comply with binding decisions according to provisions found in the NIH Policy Manual, Chapter 1754 (for employees), Chapter 2300-308-1 (for guest researchers and special volunteers), and Chapter 2300-320-7 (for intramural training awardees). For NIH contractors, legal authority for compliance derives from the terms agreed to under such contracts. While the NIH may not have legal authority to enforce binding decisions on individuals who are not current NIH researchers, such as extramural scientists or former NIH employees or trainees, it will work with appropriate parties, such as journal editors, to try to ensure that these individuals comply with binding decisions.
- Conflict of interest: An individual has a conflict of interest, under this policy, if they have a financial, personal, or professional interest related to the dispute which is reasonably expected to bias their judgment or decision-making concerning management or adjudication of the dispute.
- Deciding official (DO): an NIH employee who makes a binding decision under this policy. If all the NIH parties to the dispute are from the same NIH IC, then the Scientific Director (SD), is the DO, unless they have a conflict of interest. If the NIH parties are from different ICs or they are from the same IC and the SD has a conflict of interest, then the Deputy Director for Intramural Research (DDIR) is the DO unless they have a conflict interest. If the DDIR has a conflict of interest, the NIH's Principal Deputy Director (PDD) is the DO.
- Good faith: An individual acts in good faith, under this policy, if they are making an honest and sincere effort to resolve a dispute in a timely manner, are not misrepresenting facts, and are cooperating fully with the dispute resolution process.
- NIH intramural researcher: An individual who conducts research supported by the NIH Intramural Research Program (IRP), including individuals with the following official designations: NIH employee; NIH special government employee; NIH post-doctoral fellow; NIH intramural training awardee; NIH contractor; NIH special volunteer; and NIH guest researcher.
- Party to an authorship dispute: An individual who is named as an author on a publication or presentation that is the subject of an authorship dispute; or an individual who is not named as an author and they are disputing this omission.
- Research supported by the IRP: Research for which the NIH IRP provides financial, material, technical, or logistical support, including, but not limited to funding, access to or use of data, materials (such as reagents and cell lines), equipment, supplies, and laboratory or office space.
- Retaliation: Any unwarranted adverse action, including but not limited to termination of employment, demotion, or reassignment of duties, taken by one party against another involved in the dispute, or against an Authorship Conflict Resolution Committee (ACRC) member or an individual assisting in the dispute resolution process.
This policy applies to disputes about authorship credit and responsibilities, including the assignment of authorship or the order of authors, on publications (e.g., articles, books, or abstracts) or professional presentations in which a) the research on which the publication or presentation is based is or was supported by the NIH Intramural IRP, and b) the first, last, or corresponding author is or was an NIH intramural researcher during the support period.
Parties shall make a good faith effort to settle their disputes informally in a timely manner before seeking formal adjudication of their dispute (described in Section 3.2). Informal processes for settling disputes include but are not limited to: a) discussions among the parties involved in the dispute to resolve it in accordance with NIH authorship policy; or b) consultations with the Laboratory/Branch Chief, Department Head, NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) and/or Institute/Center (IC) Training Director, IC Scientific Director, NIH Office of the Ombudsman/Center for Cooperative Resolution (CCR), or other NIH researchers or administrators who may assist the process of informal resolution. If the parties have not reached an informal resolution of their dispute within three months, they shall consider asking for formal adjudication (see formal adjudication section below), but they are always free to do so earlier. If all parties agree, authors may extend the informal negotiations beyond three months.
- If the parties are unable to settle their dispute informally, any party to the dispute may request formal adjudication. The parties always have the option to withdraw from the formal adjudication process prior to a binding decision if they mutually agree in good faith to resolve their dispute informally.
- The formal adjudication process begins when a party (or parties) to the dispute contacts the NIH Agency Intramural Research Integrity Officer (AIRIO) to request formal adjudication of the authorship dispute. The request shall be made in writing or by email (AIRIO@od.nih.gov) and provide a brief summary describing the complaint(s), the parties, and the history of the dispute.
- The AIRIO (or designee) will assess the request to determine a) whether the Authorship Conflict Resolution Policy (i.e., the policy described herein) applies to it; and b) whether there are other issues, such as possible research misconduct, harassment, bullying, or conflicts of interest, each of which would also need to be referred to appropriate NIH officials and handled independently and in accordance with NIH policies. The AIRIO will also notify parties to the dispute that a request for formal adjudication has been made. The AIRIO assessment must be made within four (4) business days of receiving the request for adjudication, unless extenuating circumstances exist (e.g., illness, federal government shutdown, etc.) justify a longer timeline.
- If the AIRIO determines that the Authorship Conflict Resolution Policy applies to the dispute, the AIRIO will determine who qualifies as the DO under this policy and inform the DO of the request for formal adjudication and SDs of the parties involved in the research (if applicable) within two (2) business days of completing the assessment, unless extenuating circumstances justify a longer timeline. If at least one of the parties to the dispute objects to the AIRIO's determination's concerning conflicts of interest under this policy, the AIRIO will consult with the NIH Ethics Office on this issue.
- If the AIRIO determines that the Authorship Conflict Resolution Policy does not apply to the dispute, the AIRIO shall explain to the parties why this is the case and shall provide, if appropriate, information about NIH resources that may be available to the parties to help them resolve their dispute, such as the Office of the Ombudsman/CCR or OITE. Any party may appeal the AIRIO's decision that the Authorship Conflict Resolution Policy does or does not apply to their dispute to the NIH Committee on the Conduct of Science and Ethics (CSCE). Appeals to the CSCE must be made within five (5) business days of receiving the decision, unless extenuating circumstances justify a longer timeline. If the CSCE rules in favor to the appealing party, the AIRIO shall apply the Authorship Conflict Resolution Policy to the dispute.
- The DO has various options for settling the dispute, including but not limited to: a) meeting personally with the parties; b) assigning a designee who has no conflict of interest to meet with the parties; c) obtaining advice from NIH researchers or administrators, such as the AIRIO (or designee) or members of the CSCE; or d) appointing an Authorship Conflict Resolution Committee (ACRC) to meet with the parties and provide a recommendation for resolution of the dispute. As appropriate, the DO may address various matters related to authorship credit and responsibilities that are at issue in the dispute, such as assignment of authorship, authorship order, co-first, co-senior, or co-corresponding authorship, interpretations of data, or choice of publication venues. The DO must issue a binding decision to the parties within twenty-five (25) business days of being informed by the AIRIO, unless extenuating circumstances justify a longer timeline.
- The ACRC (if one is used) must include at least three members who are qualified by knowledge, experience, or expertise in science or ethics to resolve the dispute. One of the members of the ACRC must also be a member of the CSCE. The proposed committee membership must be disclosed to the disputants, and disputants may challenge membership on the basis of real or perceived conflict of interest. To avoid ties in voting, the ACRC shall have an odd number of members. As appropriate, the ACRC may also address various matters related to authorship credit and responsibilities that are at issue in the dispute. The ACRC must make its recommendation within twenty (20) business days after being appointed by the DO, unless extenuating circumstances justify a longer timeline.
- The DO (or designee) or the ACRC may review evidence necessary to settle the dispute, including but not limited to: Testimony from the parties, testimony from outside experts, publications, presentations, drafts of manuscripts, research records, research proposals, and emails. Parties to the dispute shall cooperate in good faith with requests for evidence.
- Once the DO has made a binding decision, the DO shall issue a written statement with their binding decision and share that with the parties to the dispute and their immediate supervisor(s) (if they are NIH researchers). The DO will also inform the AIRIO of the outcome of the formal adjudication process within one (1) business day of making a binding decision, unless extenuating circumstances justify a longer timeline. If the publication or presentation includes more than four authors, the DO may inform the corresponding author who will inform the other authors on behalf of the DO. A binding decision shall have no ethical or legal implications for disputes concerning patents. Authorship and inventorship are considered distinct concepts under the Authorship Conflict Resolution Policy.
- Any party may appeal a binding decision. Appeals must be made within ten (10) business days of receiving a binding decision. Requests for an appeal must state the basis for the appeal. The primary basis for appeal is that the Authorship Conflict Resolution Policy was not followed correctly, which resulted in an unfavorable decision for the appealing party. If a party appeals an SD decision to the DDIR, the DDIR will review the appeal and make a decision within fifteen (15) business days, unless extenuating circumstances justify a longer timeline. The DDIR will rule in favor of the party making the appeal only if there is clear and convincing evidence for the appeal. If the DDIR rules against the appealing party, the SD's decision remains in effect. If the DDIR rules in favor of the appealing party, the DDIR may: a) refer the matter back to the SD with instructions to take appropriate steps to resolve the dispute; or b) rule on the matter as the new DO and follow the procedures that the DO must follow when they act as the DO under Authorship Conflict Resolution Policy. If a party appeals a DDIR decision, the PDD will review the appeal and make a decision within fifteen (15) business days, unless extenuating circumstances justify a longer timeline. The PDD will rule in favor of the party making the appeal only if there is clear and convincing evidence for the appeal. If the PDD rules against the appealing party, the DDIR's decision remains in effect. If the PDD rules in favor of the appealing party, the PDD may: a) refer the matter back to the DDIR with instructions to take appropriate steps to resolve the dispute; or b) rule on the matter as the new DO and follow the procedures that the DO must follow when they act as the DO under Authorship Conflict Resolution Policy. A binding decision made by the PDD is not appealable, but a party may ask the PDD to reconsider a binding decision. Requests for reconsideration must state the reason(s) for reconsideration and must be made with ten (10) days of receiving a binding decision from the PDD.
- A disputant may consult with their personal adviser and may bring the personal adviser to interviews or meetings during ACRC proceedings. When an adviser is present for an interview or meeting, their activities will be limited to advising the disputant, as opposed to representing the disputant to the ACRC. The adviser should not direct questions to the ACRC.
- All timelines start anew if all the parties mutually agree in good faith to withdraw from the formal adjudication process at any point prior to a binding decision being reached.
- The AIRIO shall establish a system of records of formal adjudications of authorship disputes under this policy. The authorship adjudication process can involve private and sensitive information and shall be considered confidential. ACRC members, parties to the dispute, witnesses, and others assisting in resolving the dispute shall limit disclosure of information resulting from the process to those who need to know in order to facilitate a thorough, competent, objective, and fair process. This limitation includes disclosure of the fact that an authorship adjudication process is ongoing, or that a binding decision has been made. In general, discussions about the dispute process by ACRC members shall take place only within the context of meetings and official business of the ACRC. Parties to the dispute may consult with mentors, advisors, or others who may assist with the process, but they have a responsibility to remind such individuals that the information may not be shared. Discussions about the dispute with the NIH Office of the Ombudsman/CCR and with Employee Assistance Program are considered absolutely confidential, but otherwise the matter may be discussed with others only on a need-to-know basis.
- During the dispute resolution process, if the AIRIO, DO, or members of the ACRC become aware of behavior that may violate NIH polices on harassment and inappropriate conduct (Manual Chapter 1311), or may violate any other NIH policies, they must report their concerns to the appropriate office.
- Retaliation in response to a good faith engagement with the process is prohibited. The DO may consult with or refer matters to appropriate NIH officials, including the Director of Human Resources, if they believe that retaliation may have occurred and that such action may constitute breaching employee standards of conduct and related personnel regulations.
- Failure to abide by the binding decision may result in action by NIH, including contacting the journal to which a manuscript has been submitted and requesting correction or retraction of the article, and notification of research integrity officials at another institution if any authors on the paper are currently affiliated with another institution. In these circumstances, NIH officials may disclose to these parties that there was a dispute resolution process, the outcome, and the reasoning behind the outcome. Typically, in authorship disputes journals rely upon institutional officials to resolve authorship issues, and therefore it is unlikely that a party could bypass the institutional decision by working directly with a journal. NIH will make every effort to work with extramural institutions that have co-authors impacted by the binding decision, and with the publishers of the contested paper, to ensure that the binding decision is faithfully executed. NIH takes seriously its commitment to ensuring that scientific publications honestly and accurately represent authorship contributions. In addition, failure to abide by the binding decision may result in disciplinary action by the supervisor of an NIH employee or trainee, consistent with NIH policies and processes.
- Manuscripts may need to undergo substantial revisions as a condition of publication, and authors may be directed by journals to provide a significant amount of additional data that necessitates performing new experiments. Under these circumstances, either party may request a modification of the binding decision so that authorship order accurately reflects the relative contributions to the manuscript. The party must provide the DO with sufficient documentation of the changes in the manuscript and any concomitant need for changes in authorship order. Such deviations from the binding decision must be approved by the DO.
- The AIRIO will collect and retain information on formal adjudication requests and their outcomes. The AIRIO will share this information (in aggregate form) with the CSCE at least once per year.
This page was last updated on Wednesday, May 17, 2023