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Power, in terms of social relations, refers to the capacity to influence or control others. For example, in a traditional supervisor-learner relationship, the supervisor may be in a position of power. Roles as a supervisor include assessing the learner and potentially writing letters of recommendation. Relative to these supervisory roles the learner might feel she must consistently impress the teacher to the point that she might not disclose if she is struggling with a personal challenge interfering with learning, for fear that this might have negative impacts on the supervisor’s perceptions and thus her ultimate academic progression.

While many resources discussing authorship practices encourage explicit conversations about authorship roles and eventual positions throughout the research process, fewer factor in power, particularly nuanced attention to it. Not all power relations are this explicit and visible. There may be occasions that challenge assumptions or that remain unnoticed until something triggers attention to it.

Thus, ongoing critical questioning about power is advisable. For example:

  • In this situation, who stands to benefit and who stands to lose?
  • What might each person gain and lose?
  • What gains and losses might I be overlooking?

Authorship ethics resources also explicitly outline that:

  • gift and ghost authorship are unethical practices,
  • even if someone has been paid to provide a service, if they meet the guidelines for authorship they should still be an author (financial payment does not replace authorship credit),
  • the issue of “need” (e.g. going up for academic promotion soon) should not trump actual contributorship.

However, an often overlooked factor skewing whether and how someone sees these practices at all, is power. While being paid to conduct data analysis does not take away from the fact that the person has conducted data analysis; power relations could potentially position a lead author to view such work as a paid, non-intellectual service instead of an intellectual contribution. Power complicates authorship conversations because it can skew how and what we see in a situation.

Therefore, additional guiding questions could include:

  • Are the contributions of anyone on this authorship list overrepresented because they are in a relatively prominent or powerful position?
  • Are the contributions of anyone on this authorship list underrepresented because they are in a relatively disempowered position?
  • Has anyone been forgotten entirely?
  • Am I justifying any of these misrepresentations using ethically-fraught rationales like: pay for service, current career choice, or proximity to promotion?

In order to make every effort to engage in ethical authorship practices, all members of research teams should strive to consider ethics and power in all authorship conversations and decisions.

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