Context Authorship has major implications for researchers' careers. Hence, journals require researchers to meet formal authorship criteria. However, researchers frequently admit to violating these criteria, which suggests that authorship is a complex issue. This study aims to unpack the complexities inherent in researchers' conceptualisations of questionable authorship practices and to identify factors that make researchers vulnerable to engaging in such practices. Methods A total of 26 North American medical education researchers at a range of career stages were interviewed. Participants were asked to respond to two vignettes, of which one portrayed honorary authorship and the other described an author order scenario, and then to describe related authorship experiences. Data were analysed using thematic analysis. Results Participants conceptualised questionable authorship practices in various ways and articulated several ethically grey areas. Personal and situational factors were identified, including hierarchy, resource dependence, institutional culture and gender; these contributed to participants' vulnerability to and involvement in questionable authorship practices. Participants described negative instances of questionable authorship practices as well as situations in which these practices were used for virtuous purposes. Participants rationalised engagement in questionable authorship practices by suggesting that, although technically violating authorship criteria, such practices could be reasonable when they seemed to benefit science. Conclusions Authorship guidelines portray authorship decisions as being black and white, effectively sidestepping key dimensions that create ethical shades of grey. These findings show that researchers generally recognise these shades of grey and in some cases acknowledge having bent the rules themselves. Sometimes their flexibility is driven by benevolent aims aligned with their own values or prevailing norms such as inclusivity. At other times participation in these practices is framed not as a choice, but rather as a consequence of researchers' vulnerability to individual or system factors beyond their control. Taken together, these findings provide insights to help researchers and institutions move beyond recognition of the challenges of authorship and contribute to the development of informed, evidence-based solutions.
- HONORARY AUTHORSHIP