Honorary and ghost authorshipBMJ 2011; 343 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d6223 (Published 25 October 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6223
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As I read the editorial on honorary and ghost authorship, I wondered why science journals stick to authorship rather than moving wholesale to contributorship.
Science is rarely these days undertaken by single individuals. Most research is conducted by teams, often large teams with people with very different skills. Making a binary division into authors and non-authors is bound to be arbitrary, causing many problems as a recent systematic reviews shows. (1) It makes much more sense to treat research papers like films rather than novels and so use credits or contributorship rather than authorship.
Drummond Rennie and others identified the serious problems with authorship back in 1997 and made a convincing case for contributorship, but 15 years later we are still floundering around with authorship. (2) Why can't journals be bolder and scrap authorship forever?
As the Cassandra of scientific publishing, I was also irritated by the editorial saying “Editors are unlikely to have sufficient resources to validate all authorship claims or conflicts of interest.” My bet is that Neurology, the journal that the authors of the editorial edit, makes something like a 35% gross margin, way above what is achieved in most businesses. They do have resources. How enraged they would be if with similar waywardness a pharmaceutical company said “We don't have the resources to follow up all reports of adverse effects of our drugs.”
As Stephen Lock, my predecessor as editor of the BMJ, wrote more than 15 years ago it's time for medical journals to move beyond their amateur ways. (3)
1 Marušić A, Bošnjak L, Jerončić A, 2011 A Systematic Review of Research on the Meaning, Ethics and Practices of Authorship across Scholarly Disciplines. PLoS ONE 6(9): e23477. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0023477
2 Rennie D, Yank V, Emanuel L. When authorship fails: a proposal to make contributors accountable.JAMA 1997;278:579–85.
3 Lock S. Lessons from the Pearce affair: handling scientific fraud. BMJ 1995;310:1547
Competing interests: Former editor of the BMJ and chief executive of the BMJ Publishing Group.
Wislar and colleagues used the criteria of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) to define inappropriate authorship - honorary and ghost authors – to compare its prevalence in six leading medical journals.1 Baskin and Gross in their Editorial2 asked whether the ICMJE authorship criteria were the right standards to “accurately gauge” authorship in biomedical journals. Further, they outlined the authorship policy of Neurology – the journal they edit – which “requires that any medical writer who wrote the first draft or responded to the reviewers’ comments be included in the author byline and make full disclosure.”2
Very recently I stumbled upon a number of cases of publication misconduct – corresponding authorship for hire – which are all distinct and different from those falling into well-known categories of honorary (guest) and ghost authorship. A corresponding author for hire is not involved in any stage of research – conceptualisation, designing study, acquisition of data and its analysis - (s)he is sought after for the sole purpose of publication of papers in journals. An academician with some insider knowledge of the publication world, this corresponding author dresses up the research data (mostly obtained by postgraduate trainees and young members of the faculty) and unlike guest author, actively engages in preparation and submission of the manuscript, responding to reviewers’ comments and wherever accepted, approval of the proofread manuscript. Further, unlike ghost authors, the corresponding author for hire takes public “responsibility” of the article - on behalf of the research team - although (s)he does not have any idea how research was conducted, data were collected or whether they were genuine.
Few would disagree that this hired corresponding authorship – appearing as author as part of the research team with no genuine involvement with the research process - conveys misleading information about research, violates research integrity and is thus ethically unjustifiable. If writing the first draft or responding to reviewers’ comments qualifies any medical writer to be included in the author byline, as advocated and practiced by Neurology – any medical professional drafting an article for others will be credited with authorship, thus masquerade as a member of the research team and research ethics will be under crisis. I am afraid the authorship criteria of Neurology may be abused by the corresponding authors for hire to their advantage and will not be helpful to consolidate public trust in research integrity. The policy of the BMJ – using the ICMJE criteria of contribution to all stages of research and writing with full disclosure – is rather better suited to identify publication misconduct of the corresponding author for hire.
Conflicts of interest: I declare I have no conflict of interest.
1. Wislar JS, Flanagin A, Fontanarosa PB, DeAngelis CD. Honorary and ghost authorship in high impact medical journals: a cross sectional survey of corresponding authors. BMJ 2011; 343:d6128.
2. Baskin PK, Gross RA. Honorary and ghost authorship. BMJ 2011; 343:d6223 doi: 10.1136/bmj.d6223
Competing interests: No competing interests