Background: Over the past two decades, the promotion of collaborative partnerships involving researchers from low and middle income countries with those from high income countries has been a major development in global health research. Ideally, these partnerships would lead to more equitable collaboration including the sharing of research responsibilities and rewards. While collaborative partnership initiatives have shown promise and attracted growing interest, there has been little scholarly debate regarding the fair distribution of authorship credit within these partnerships.
Discussion: In this paper, we identify four key authorship issues relevant to global health research and discuss their ethical and practical implications. First, we argue that authorship guidance may not adequately apply to global health research because it requires authors to write or substantially revise the manuscript. Since most journals of international reputation in global health are written in English, this would systematically and unjustly exclude non-English speaking researchers even if they have substantially contributed to the research project. Second, current guidance on authorship order does not address or mitigate unfair practices which can occur in global health research due to power differences between researchers from high and low-middle income countries. It also provides insufficient recognition of "technical tasks" such as local participant recruitment. Third, we consider the potential for real or perceived editorial bias in medical science journals in favour of prominent western researchers, and the risk of promoting misplaced credit and/or prestige authorship. Finally, we explore how diverse cultural practices and expectations regarding authorship may create conflict between researchers from low-middle and high income countries and contribute to unethical authorship practices. To effectively deal with these issues, we suggest: 1) undertaking further empirical and conceptual research regarding authorship in global health research; 2) raising awareness on authorship issues in global health research; and 3) developing specific standards of practice that reflect relevant considerations of authorship in global health research.
Summary: Through review of the bioethics and global health literatures, and examination of guidance documents on ethical authorship, we identified a set of issues regarding authorship in collaborative partnerships between researchers from low-middle income countries and high income countries. We propose several recommendations to address these concerns.