Authorship & Plagiarism

Authorship is defined as the process by which the results of original research are translated to published form to facilitate the communication of new knowledge to the professional community (Penn State Guidance RPG01). 

Plagiarism is defined as the appropriation of another person's ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit (Penn State Policy RP02).


Authorship vs Plagiarism

The Office for Research Integrity (ORI) developes policies, procedures and regulations related to the detection, investigation, and prevention of research misconduct and the responsible conduct of research. The Office of Research Integrity explains that

Many allegations of plagiarism involve disputes among former collaborators who participated jointly in the development or conduct of a research project, but who subsequently went their separate ways and made independent use of the jointly developed concepts, methods, descriptive language, or other product of the joint effort. The ownership of the intellectual property in many such situations is seldom clear, and the collaborative history among the scientists often supports a presumption of implied consent to use the products of the collaboration by any of the former collaborators.​

As such, many times when an allegation of plagiarism is made, it is better categorized as an authorship issue. To prevent issues related to authorship, authorship expectations should be discussed between collaborators and these guidelines can be used to help determine what contributions would merit authorship.  


Below are two examples that highlight the differences between plagiarisim and authorship disputes.

Situation 1:  Professor Ex uses multiple verbatim passages from other articles without properly acknowledging that they were not Professor Ex's own words.  This appears to be a plagiarism issue that should be addressed pursuant to RP02. 

Situation 2:  Professor Ex and Professor Wye previously collaborated on a research project.  They developed the idea and performed the initial experiments together.  However, they had a disagreement, and Professor Ex continued on to develop the project without Professor Wye.  Several years later, Professor Wye sees that Professor Ex has published an article on the same topic on which they collaborated several years ago.  Professor Wye is not a coauthor on the article and is not mentioned in the acknowledgements, but feels that they should receive "some sort of credit" for their work on the early project.  Based on these facts, this situation is most likely an authorship or acknowledgement issue rather than a plagiarism issue. 


Acknowledgement vs Authorship

Not every contribution justifies authorship. Below are some examples of contributions that might merit acknowledgement but might not merit authorship. Collaborators should have discussions on acknowledgement and authorship prior to initiating the project so that expectations are clear. 

  • provision of standard materials  
    (for example, plasmids, cell lines, tissue, and antibodies) 

  • performance of incidental assays or measurements 

  • providing access to subjects or providing an environment and/or financial support for the research 

  • collecting or analyzing data in a routine format 

  • chairing or advising a dissertation or thesis committee 

  • contributing to the general intellectual development of one or more authors  


Below are two examples that highlight the differences between acknowledgement and authorship disputes. In each situation, the collaborators did not discuss authorship expectations before beginning their respective research projects.

Situation 1:  Professor Ex has Student draft the "methods" and "results" section of an article because Student conducted the experiments discussed in the article.  When the article is published,  Student is listed in the acknowledgements as a member of Professor Ex's lab but is not listed as a coauthor.  When Student asks Professor Ex why they were not included as a coauthor, Professor Ex says "all you did was perform the experiments and analyze the results, so those were the sections I had you write up.  I wrote the rest of the article and handled submitting and revising it, and I was the one who supervised you and reviewed all of your work.  You didn't make any significant contributions to this paper."  Based on these facts, it seems likely that Student DID  actually make contributions that warranted authorship and just an acknowledgement may not be sufficient.

Situation 2:  Student is preparing to submit an article for publication.  Professor Ex, Student's adviser and chair of their dissertation committee, offers to read the draft and provide feedback.  When Student receives Professor Ex's feedback they notice that, in addition to leaving a few comments on the text of the draft, Professor Ex has removed themselves from the acknowledgments and listed themselves as an author on the article.  Student talks to Professor Ex, who indicates that because they provided feedback to Student and because they are Student's adviser/chair of their dissertation committee, they are entitled to coauthorship.  Professor Ex notes that “even if I hadn’t given you any feedback, I should still be a coauthor on all articles that come out of projects in my lab.”  However, based on these facts, it seems likely that Professor Ex may not have made contributions that warranted authorship and an acknowledgement may be more appropriate.


Additional Resources

Standard Operating Procedure for Handling Authorship Disputes 

Penn State Policy RP02 

Penn State Guidance RPG01 

Penn State Policy IP02 

ORI Introduction to RCR: Authorship and Publication 

COPE Guidance on Authorship and Contributorship