Who deserves credit for the work reported in a scientific paper? That is the basic question of scientific authorship because, unlike authorship credit in the world of creative writing, what matters most for scientific papers are the ideas rather than the words. On the surface, it would seem that deciding who belongs in the list of authors would not be a difficult task. But the affairs of humans are rarely straightforward, and authorship controversies are not uncommon in the world of science and engineering.
Big-project physics papers often have hundreds of authors (the most I have seen is more than 2,000 authors), a situation that many lament but few are willing to address. There are likely some scientists who have not read a majority of their own papers. The growing average number of authors per paper over the last 50 years may represent a trend toward increasing collaboration in science, or it may indicate author inflation, where the inclusion of more authors is simply a way of building resumes. Ethical lapses regarding medical and pharmaceutical papers often center around companies that write the papers and then find academics willing to attach their names to them.
Purposely misrepresenting the true authorship of a paper is an act of fraudulent publication and is commonly the result of motivations other than the advancement of science. A 2005 survey found that about 10% of authors admitted to inappropriately assigning authorship credit over the previous three years. Although I am sure many or most of these inappropriate assignments were not intended to deceive, such ethical lapses can have important consequences. The public’s trust in science, arguably essential for the progress of civilization, depends in part on the belief that most scientists are honorable and motivated primarily by a desire to advance science. Anything that challenges those beliefs, including ethical failures regarding authorship, can only have a damaging effect on the public’s trust.