Beyond Authorship Requirements—Ethical Considerations in Writing Letters of Recommendation

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Letters of recommendation may serve a number of vital functions related to the evaluation, selection, and promotion of candidates. The lure of academic celebrity or the desire of an individual candidate for a flattering letter must not threaten the veracity of the content. Letters of recommendation should be appropriately authored to meet the needs of the institution or individual requesting the letter, while keeping authenticity paramount. Length and content should be complete but not overly verbose. Relevant elements suggested by standardized formats should typically be included, such as nature of contact with the applicant, commitment to emergency medicine, work ethic, ability to develop a differential and treatment plan, personality, interpersonal interactions, and an overall comparative ranking. The seven cardinal elements of an exemplary letter of recommendation are that it should be: 1) authentic (based on adequate first-hand knowledge of the candidate's skills); 2) honest (accurate; avoiding exaggeration or hyperbole); 3) explicit (avoidance of veiled omissions); 4) balanced (taking care to incorporate both strengths and weaknesses); 5) confidential (avoiding unnecessary or unanticipated disclosure); 6) of appropriate detail and length (content relevant to the institutional or individual requests); and 7) technically clear (avoidance of unnecessary abbreviations and jargon). The implied duty to future students, colleagues, researchers, and patients who might come in contact with the applicant should motivate authors to write honest, explicit, appropriate, and complete letters.