Feature Christmas 2017: Language and Literacy

Non-existent authors

BMJ 2017; 359 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j5706 (Published 13 December 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;359:j5706
  1. Jeffrey K Aronson, clinical pharmacologist
  1. Centre for Evidence Based Medicine, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, Oxford, UK
  1. jeffrey.aronson{at}phc.ox.ac.uk

Databases of the scientific literature have accredited some unusual authors, finds Jeffrey Aronson

Authorship of bioscientific papers is a serious business. Most journals have policies that encourage transparency, making it clear who did what, but some authors take it less seriously than editors might like, and indexers don’t always get it right.

Searching for common abbreviations (table 1) in PubMed (1809–2017), Embase (1974–2017), Ovid Medline (1946–2017), Philosopher’s Index (1966–2016), and PsychINFO (1806–2017), I found three types of non-existent authors: apparent authors (such as Et Al and Anon), which conceal the identities of real contributors, depriving them of recognition; apparent authors whose “names” are postnominals, such as “Phil D”; and authors whose initials have been used as surnames and surnames as initials.

View this table:
Table 1

Explanations of the abbreviations used in the searches

Here I explore two of these categories in more detail, and discuss other forms of authorship.

Et al and anon

Searching for “et al[au]” yielded 51 474 hits in PubMed (fig 1), 54 199 in Medline, 9896 in PsycINFO, 1453 in Philosopher’s Index, and 264 in Embase.

Fig 1

Numbers of publications with “et al” or “Et Al” as senior author year by year (source PubMed); the changes in frequency to some extent reflect changes in the rules regarding substitutions of authors’ names with “et al”, as shown in the explanatory boxes. *From 1973 “et al” was used in a few cases for more than one author, with no obvious logic; † three journals used et al for more than 1, 3, or 4 authors totalling 11 papers in 2002, 23 in 2008, and four in 2009

Et Al seems to be a highly prolific author whose identity is shrouded in mystery. He or she has authored nearly 60 000 papers and is always the last person mentioned, suggesting a degree of seniority. I imagine this author as someone called …

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