Re: Honorary and ghost authorship in high impact biomedical journals: a cross sectional survey
9 April 2012
The study by Wislar et al.  shows that efforts by journals to promote integrity in authorship practices are helping to reduce the incidence of honorary and ghost authorship, which is good news. While journals are taking important steps to resolves issues concerning authorship attribution, authorship order remains an important concern. Most scholarly studies of authorship and professional guidelines focus on questions concerning appropriate versus inappropriate authorship attribution [2-7]. Authorship guidelines developed by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors  and the Committee on Publication Ethics  address authorship attribution but not authorship order. However, controversies concerning authorship order remain important.
While there is considerable interdisciplinary variation in the meaning of different positions in the authorship order, in most of the biomedical sciences the most prestigious positions are first and last author. In biomedicine, the first author is usually the person who has done most of the work on the project, while the last author is a senior scientist who supervises the research.[11, 12] Corresponding author designation also has special importance, since the corresponding author usually interacts with editors and deals with request for data and materials.
To handle disputes concerning authorship order, some scientific publications now include a note stating that two or more individuals have contributed equally to the research. The most conform form of this practice is to state that two or more authors at the beginning of the list (i.e. first authors) have contributed equally. In most cases, only two first authors are designated, but sometimes more three or more individuals are named. A paper published in Science in 2007 listed four first authors, for example. In some instances authors in other positions, such as last, are designated as having made equal contributions. The trend toward designating equal contributions by authors has been increasing since 2000.
Since the designation of equal contributions does not change the authorship order appearing on the publication or in an electronic database, co-first authors who are not listed first but sometimes call attention to the co-first designation on their curriculum vitae (CV) to receive credit for their accomplishments. They may even switch the authorship order on their CVs, so that people who are evaluating their work will see that they are a first author on particular publication. This may create some confusion if the reader of the CV checks the reference and finds that it is different from the CV listing.
Is stating that authors have made equal contributions to a paper a useful notation or is it a deceptive practice? According to some, stating that two authors have contributed equally is a sham because individuals rarely make equal contributions to a paper. A careful consideration of the contributions of authors will usually reveal that one individual has done more work than another. The probability that three or four individuals have contributed equally to a paper would seem to be very low. Scientists usually state that two authors have contributed equally, according to this criticism, to appease researchers who both want to be listed in the same authorship position, not to clearly indicate that two people have contributed equally. If the main ethical purpose of authorship designation is to allocate credit fairly and honestly, then stating that two authors contributed equally rarely achieves this goal. It is simply a ruse. Individuals who switch the authorship order on their CVs add to the deception, because the CV should reflect the actual listing on the paper.
Because the designation of equal contributions by authors is a relatively recent phenomenon in scientific publishing, it is difficult to determine whether it is a useful notation or ethically problematic. In theory, it could be a useful designation that allocates credit fairly and honestly. In practice, however, it may be abused by some in order to deal with authorship disputes. Since this designation has merit in some cases, it would be wise to provide researchers with additional guidance on using this designation properly, rather than prohibiting it. Journals should consider developing policies that address the assignment of equal contributions by authors. These policies should indicate the equal contribution designation should be used only when individuals have contributed equally to the research. Individuals who are named as having made equal contributions should affirm in writing that they contributed equally to the research. Nature’s authorship guidelines, for example, state that co-first authors can be designated if they have contributed equally to the work. Guidelines may not solve all of the potential problems related to noting that authors have contributed equally to the research, but they can help prevent scientists from abusing this designation.
Acknowledgments: This paper is the work product of an employee or group of employees of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), National Institutes of Health (NIH). However, the statements, opinions or conclusions contained therein do not necessarily represent the statements, opinions or conclusions of NIEHS, NIH or the United States government.
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Competing interests: None declared
National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Healt, 111 Alexander Drive, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709.
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