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Honorary and ghost authorship in high impact biomedical journals: a cross sectional survey

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 25 October 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6128

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  1. Joseph S Wislar, survey research specialist, JAMA,
  2. Annette Flanagin, managing deputy editor, JAMA,
  3. Phil B Fontanarosa, executive editor, JAMA,
  4. Catherine D DeAngelis, editor emerita, JAMA
  1. 1American Medical Association, 515 N State Street, Chicago, Illinois 60654, USA
  1. Correspondence to: J S Wislar joseph.wislar{at}
  • Accepted 23 August 2011


Objectives To assess the prevalence of honorary and ghost authors in six leading general medical journals in 2008 and compare this with the prevalence reported by authors of articles published in 1996.

Design Cross sectional survey using a web based questionnaire.

Setting International survey of journal authors.

Participants Sample of corresponding authors of 896 research articles, review articles, and editorial/opinion articles published in six general medical journals with high impact factors in 2008: Annals of Internal Medicine, JAMA, Lancet, Nature Medicine, New England Journal of Medicine, and PLoS Medicine.

Main outcome measures Self reported compliance with International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) criteria for authorship for all authors on the selected articles.

Results A total of 630/896 (70.3%) corresponding authors responded to the survey. The prevalence of articles with honorary authorship or ghost authorship, or both, was 21.0% (95% CI 18.0% to 24.3%), a decrease from 29.2% reported in 1996 (P=0.004). Based on 545 responses on honorary authorship, 96 articles (17.6% (95% CI 14.6% to 21.0%)) had honorary authors (range by journal 12.2% to 29.3%), a non-significant change from 1996 (19.3%; P=0.439). Based on 622 responses on ghost authorship, 49 articles (7.9% (6.0% to 10.3%)) had ghost authors (range by journal 2.1% to 11.0%), a significant decline from 1996 (11.5%; P=0.023). The prevalence of honorary authorship was 25.0% in original research reports, 15.0% in reviews, and 11.2% in editorials, whereas the prevalence of ghost authorship was 11.9% in research articles, 6.0% in reviews, and 5.3% in editorials.

Conclusions Evidence of honorary and ghost authorship in 21% of articles published in major medical journals in 2008 suggests that increased efforts by scientific journals, individual authors, and academic institutions are essential to promote responsibility, accountability, and transparency in authorship, and to maintain integrity in scientific publication.


  • We thank Angela Grayson, Jeni Reiling, and Reuben Rios, JAMA assistant editors, for research assistance.

  • An earlier version of this research was presented at the Sixth International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication, 10 September 2009, Vancouver BC, Canada.

  • Contributors: JW collected and analysed the data. All authors (CD, AF, PF, JW) participated in the design of the study, interpretation of the results, the writing of the manuscript, and review and approval of the final manuscript. All authors had full access to all the data, including statistical reports and tables, in the study and can take responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.

  • Funding: The authors are employed as editors with JAMA, one of the journals included in this study. All costs of the study were met by JAMA.

  • Competing interests: All authors have completed the Unified Competing Interest form at (available on request from the corresponding author) and declare that none of the authors, their spouses or families, have any financial or non-financial interests or relationships that may be relevant to the submitted work

  • Ethical approval: Not required. In the invitation letter and at the beginning of the survey, participants were assured of confidentiality and the voluntary nature of their participation if they chose to participate. Participation was voluntary.

  • Data sharing: A de-identified raw dataset and accompanying analytical files are available from Joseph Wislar at

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