Authorship Credit and Funding Acknowledgements as Vulnerabilities in Investigations of Grants Compliance and Foreign Influence

March 26, 2024
7 minutes

In published papers, authorship attribution and disclosure of funding support have emerged, oddly and unexpectedly, as elements of government enforcement in the “foreign influence” area. In many situations, in our experience representing universities and other research entities, investigations have been triggered, or ongoing investigations have become more complex and difficult, because of decisions that researchers have made regarding who should serve as an author on peer-reviewed journal articles and what sources of funding should be disclosed as support for the published research. Yet researchers—including faculty, post-doctoral fellows, and graduate students—very often receive little guidance from their institutions regarding authorship and funding disclosure standards and expectations, and even comprehensive responsible conduct of research courses (required by NIH and NSF regulations) can fail to address and train on these issues. Although correct and defensible authorship credit and accurate disclosure of funding support are important academic expectations, they have taken on even more significance because of “foreign influence” enforcement efforts. At this point, institutions of higher education, academic medical centers, and other research institutions must, for compliance as well as academic reasons, ensure that their researchers understand the relevant standards for offering and accepting authorship credit and for acknowledging external funding sources in publications.

Acceptance of Authorship Credit

Federal funding agencies typically do not issue requirements covering how authorship of scientific articles supported by federal funding should be determined. Most journals in the biomedical and natural sciences ascribe to the standards of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), which require that each author:

  1. make a substantial contribution to the conception or design of the work or to the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data;
  2. draft the work or review it critically for important intellectual content;
  3. give final approval of the version to be published; and
  4. agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.1

Contributors who meet some but not all criteria may still be acknowledged elsewhere in the publication by citations to their individual contribution but are not designated as authors.

This sets a high bar to authorship. Stated differently, this standard precludes the historical practices of seeking or awarding “honorary” or “courtesy” authorship. Researchers should be aware—including through responsible conduct of research training provided by their institutions—that the acceptance of authorship on an article in which a researcher has not been deeply involved can threaten the researcher’s reputation for research integrity if the work turns out to have underlying data reliability problems. Indeed, researchers who have accepted authorship credit for a publication to which they have made no or only minor contributions have later become implicated in institutional and federal investigations related to falsified data and research misconduct. Researchers need, therefore, to be aware that agreeing to be an author carries with it, as the ICMJE guidelines state, “agree[ment] to be accountable for all aspects of the work.”

A researcher’s inappropriate acceptance of authorship in some cases can also place the researcher and his or her institution under scrutiny for noncompliance with federal grant terms regarding disclosure of “other support” and/or of “foreign components” of federally funded research.2 Federal funding agencies have identified publications which list funded researchers and co-authors from foreign institutions, compared those publications with grant proposals and progress reports, and treated discrepancies (e.g., no mention of the foreign collaborations on grant documents) as evidence of problematic non-disclosures. In some circumstances, the federal agency concern is justified; in others, the researcher’s gratuitous acceptance of unwarranted authorship has created avoidable enforcement interest. And if that omission relates to an affiliation or collaboration with, for example, an institution based in China, Russia or Iran, then the enforcement interest can be acute.

In other instances, elaborated in more detail below, a researcher may accept co-authorship with authors from ex-U.S. institutions on a paper whose subject matter is closely aligned with the aims of his or her own active NIH grant, or more specifically falls within the express aims of an active grant. This co-authorship can be interpreted—again, even if incorrectly, depending on the circumstances—as evidence that the ex-U.S. co-authors’ collaboration was actually a “foreign component” of the researcher’s NIH grant. In turn, if the researcher did not report that assistance in the NIH grant application as a “foreign component,” then this can be viewed by the federal funding agency as a significant disclosure omission.3

The concern is compounded when funding from external sources, including foreign government sources, include provisions requiring certain authorship attributions. Some China “talents program” contracts, for example, contain express requirements that the talents program participant cite his or her China-based institution affiliation to the exclusion of, or in addition to, the affiliation with the faculty member’s full-time U.S. institution  employer. Obviously, such provisions are inappropriate in any funding agreement.

In short, authorship status can be interpreted as evidence of “other support” and/or “foreign components,” which, if not having been properly disclosed to the cognizant federal funding agency, can lead to researchers and their institutions facing funding agency or even prosecutorial inquiries for failure to have disclosed the collaborations and for the institution’s allegedly inaccurate certifications of compliance with federal grant requirements. None of this means that a collaborative publication with colleagues outside the U.S. would represent a per se violation of U.S. law or federal funding conditions, but it does mean that co-authorship of collaborative publications should be viewed in light of corresponding obligations of researchers and their institutions to disclose “other support” and “foreign components.” Disclosures to federal funding agencies should be promptly amended when it becomes evident that such disclosure should have been made.

Acknowledging Federal Research Funding Support for Published Work

While many researchers are at least somewhat familiar with basic authorship principles described above, they may have no similar understanding as to how funding sources should be acknowledged in their publications. Federal funding agencies provide only high-level instructions in this regard. For example, NIH instructs grant recipients to acknowledge NIH awards in publications when underlying work for the publication (1) “directly arise[s] from the award and” (2) is “within the scope of the award being acknowledged.”4 Acknowledgment of funding is most often made in notes published at the end of a published paper. These funding acknowledgements, in our experience, may be formulated hurriedly, as a researcher rushes through the questions in a journal’s online portal needed to complete a submission. However, funding acknowledgments are crucial not only to compliance with federal grant requirements but also to ensuring transparency relating to, among other things, possible conflicts of interest. Here too, researchers sometimes err by citing funding support that has not actually and directly supported the published work. They may do this to demonstrate their productivity related to those grant funds (e.g., citing a grant as support for a paper, so that the publication can be cited in an upcoming progress report) and/or as a “courtesy” to the funding agency.

Funding acknowledgements should be neither under-inclusive nor over-inclusive, but should accurately reflect external support for the specific work underlying a publication. Erring in either direction can draw unwarranted attention. For example, a U.S.-based researcher may be a co-author on a paper that gratuitously and inaccurately acknowledges funding support from a foreign government agency but (correctly) does not identify such foreign funding on federal grant applications or progress reports. On the other hand, a researcher who omits a funding acknowledgement, either unintentionally or not, may appear to be hiding support to avoid unwanted attention to the funder and/or potential conflicts of interest. In all these instances, inaccurate funding acknowledgments can have serious consequences for authors and their institutions.

This risk related to citing of funding sources (as well as to accepting co-authorship, as described above) is not theoretical, but quite real. In many—perhaps most—foreign influence investigations of U.S. researchers’ academic activities outside the U.S., federal funding agencies, the FBI, and the Department of Justice appear to have scoured publications for this information, and often have challenged those under investigation to explain funding acknowledgements. Discrepancies can then be used as evidence of potential grant misconduct. For example, a U.S. researcher who engages in a purely bilateral collaboration with a group of scientists in China and cites his or her own federal funding as support for the resulting publication could raise significant questions of whether that researcher failed to disclose “other support” and/or foreign components to the cognizant federal funding agency.

In summary, awareness of authorship and funding acknowledgment requirements, and adhering closely to them, is crucial to protecting the reputation of both researchers and their institutions. Inaccuracies in authorship credit and funding disclosures have yielded scrutiny and lengthy investigations from federal agencies. Even when collaborative publications are not the impetus for an investigation, inaccurate authorship credits and funding disclosures are frequently cited in the course of investigations by funding agencies as further evidence of improper collaborations, misuse of federal funding, and false certifications of compliance with federal funding requirements. Research institutions, therefore, must ensure their researchers are aware of authorship criteria for relevant journals and agency requirements for acknowledging federal funding support, provide clear guidance and institutional expectations regarding authorship and funding disclosures (including by incorporating these issues in responsible conduct of research training ), and encourage all researchers to exercise caution and be entirely accurate in accepting authorship credit and in formulating funding acknowledgments.

  1. See
  2. NIH defines Other Support as “all resources made available to a researcher in support of and/or related to all of their research endeavors, regardless of whether or not they have monetary value and regardless of whether they are based at the institution the researcher identifies for the current grant” and Foreign Component as “[t]he performance of any significant scientific element or segment of a project outside of the United States, either by the recipient or by a researcher employed by a foreign organization, whether or not grant funds are expended.” See
  3. See
  4. See NIH Requirements for Acknowledging NIH-Supported Research. Similarly, NASA requires researchers to acknowledge NASA funding support for “[a]ll information disseminated as a result of the grant,” and NSF requires that grantees assure NSF funding support is acknowledged “in any publication (including Web pages) of any material based on or developed under this project.”