Death of the Author?: Some Thoughts on Ethical Research

This week, as we are discussing ethics, and in particular conducting ethical research, I explored the “Case Summaries” from the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Research Integrity. Because I study the way language and discourse circulate, operate, and leverage power, I was of course drawn to a specific case study entitled, “My Lab Boss Puts His Name on My Paper and Proposals,” which I’ve linked here.

In this particular case study, “Ana”, an international scholar who is worried about her ability to write and publish in English, begins asking colleagues to review her manuscripts. While many of her fellow research faculty seem interested in consulting her work, she is surprised to see her manuscripts returned with the names of her readers listed as secondary and tertiary authors on her own manuscript! Although this development infuriated me, “Ana,” fearing that she would “stir the pot” too much and disrupt the fragile ecosystem of her lab if she said anything, did not intervene in this crisis of authorship.

Unfortunately for “Ana,” her authorship authority was further compromised by her direct supervisor, as her boss put his name on her paper and completely co-opted a proposal she had been writing. While some other colleagues reacted with disgust at this development, “Ana” felt completely unsure of what to do.

This case study made me think of Mikhail Bakhtin, a famed 20th century philosopher whose influence on rhetoric and composition (my field) has been immense in the past quarter century. Within Bakhtin’s extensive body of work, he frequently discusses the difficulty of authorship and ownership over language, essentially arguing that “your words are not your own,” suggesting that every phrase or “utterance” we speak / think / write, does not really belong to us, but was borrowed / learned  from someone else, in fact many, many “someones.” While theoretically, Bakhtin’s work is fascinating, it does complicate this particular case study, making me question whose work is “Ana’s”? Has Roland Barthe’s famous essay, “The Death of the Author” come to full fruition?

While “Ana’s” case prompted a rich theoretical rabbit-hole for me, I think the issues of power within this case make the issue quite clear. Because “Ana’s” boss never consulted her as he placed his own name on her paper, he is at fault. Similarly, because “Ana’s” colleagues who consulted her English did not ask her if they could be added as authors, a simple request she likely would have granted, they, too, are at fault. In this sticky social situation, it seems “Ana” should consult her department head for assistance.

3 Replies to “Death of the Author?: Some Thoughts on Ethical Research”

  1. Thanks for bringing up this topic. I am happy that our university provides free writing services for all the students, faculty, and staff, at all levels through The Virginia Tech Writing Center. I hope students like Ana seek to find trustworthy people/institutes to help them out with the language.

  2. As the previous comments states, this is such a great topic in research. Co-authoring is so common so where are the guidelines on what is to much or too little. It feels odd that a reviewer of only logistics should have some type of full author claim in a publication. I am also familiar with the concept proposed by Bakhtin which I think is beautiful in the way of human learning but terrifying as it relates to plagiarism!

  3. I think you present an interesting discussion about co-authoring. I’m trying to publish a manuscript from my research for my thesis and I’ve been through a couple of rounds of edits now. I’m the main author and then my advisor and my lab manager are also co-authors. They’ve helped a lot with writing the manuscript so I think they definitely should be co-authors. There are three other PI’s on my project and they are also listed as co-authors. However, they haven’t really even looked at the manuscript, so I feel like they haven’t earned their titles of co-authors. I guess as a professor, it would be very nice to be listed as co-authors like that because then I think you could count those as publications. I suppose, however, that when you try to get tenure, they would probably take into account how many papers you were the primary author on.

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