Letters Honorary and ghost authorship

Let’s simply scrap authorship and move to contributorship

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e157 (Published 10 January 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e157
  1. Richard Smith, chair1
  1. 1Patients Know Best, London SW4 0LD, UK
  1. richardswsmith{at}yahoo.co.uk

Why do science journals stick to authorship rather than moving wholesale to contributorship?1

These days science is rarely undertaken by individuals. Most research is conducted by teams, often large teams with people with very different skills. A binary division into authors and non-authors is bound to be arbitrary and to cause problems, as a recent systematic review shows.2 It makes more sense to treat research papers like films rather than novels and to use credits or contributorship rather than authorship.

Rennie and colleagues identified the serious problems with authorship in 1997 and made a convincing case for contributorship, but 15 years later we are still floundering around with authorship.3 Why can’t journals be bolder and scrap authorship forever?

As the Cassandra of scientific publishing, I was 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 author of the editorial edits, makes about a 35% gross margin, way above that achieved in most businesses. They do have resources. How enraged they would be if—with similar waywardness—a drug 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.4


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e157


  • Competing interests: RS is a former editor of the BMJ and chief executive of the BMJ Publishing Group.


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