Work Enthusiasm or Authorship Abuse? (Part 2)

(March 3rd, 2015) How many research publications can a scientist claim to author in a year? Can we really be the author of one paper a week, every week, for years on end? Jeremy Garwood looks at authorship abuse in biomedical science.

"Tackling unethical authorship deals on scientific publications" is a recent blog posted by 5 senior Australian life scientists that warns junior researchers about the dangers of giving unjustified co-authorship credits to their seniors. “If willing to do so, experienced group leaders can easily take advantage of inexperienced scientists, and authorship credit will always flow up the rank ladder.” This places junior scientists in difficult positions to argue against any unfair authorship deals. Group leaders may just quietly accept, or even enforce, unfair authorship deals to further build their credentials, and retain leadership status.

There is a “pressure to publish” in order to have a better chance of research jobs and funding, but this publication pressure may create incentives for growing numbers of unethical authorship deals (including coercive, honorary, guest, gift, ghost, and duplicated authorship – described in more detail under ‘Types of authorship abuse’ in LT 1/2015 ‘True credentials’). 

To help junior researchers assess whether they are being exploited and abused by senior scientists, a 5-point test is presented:

“Are you aware of any of the following situations?” –

  1. A senior academic is included in publications just because they are the gatekeeper to facilities funded with taxpayer money.
  2. A senior academic adds additional authors to a paper even if the first author (often a junior academic) never spoke to these additional authors or has no idea about their contributions.
  3. A junior academic adds a senior academic to a paper simply to improve career prospects, or potentially bring prestige to facilitate the publication of the paper.
  4. A senior academic expects to be given authorship on all papers produced by their group regardless of whether they contributed to the research or not.
  5. Large research groups include all members in all papers even when there has been negligible contribution from some of them.

The two possible answers are either:

  • “No” to all the above questions, in which case “you have good reasons to be proud of your group’s ethics”, or
  • if you answered “Yes” to any of the 5 questions, then “it may be time to consider your career and leadership options. You may be part of an undeclared, unethical scheme in which junior academics do the work while the most senior academics take undue credit and reap the rewards.”

How common is authorship abuse?

There have been several published surveys of authorship abuse. ‘Honorary and ghost authorship in high impact biomedical journals: a cross sectional survey’ found that at least 17.6% of articles had honorary authors. ‘A Systematic Review of Research on the Meaning, Ethics and Practices of Authorship across Scholarly Disciplines’ noted that almost a quarter of researchers inside the USA and UK (23%) reported authorship misuse while 4 studies in France, South Africa, India and Bangladesh found that over half of researchers (55%) complained of them. Does this mean that some countries have a worse problem than others, or that in some countries researchers prefer not to see the problem for what it is?
Peter Lawrence maintains that authorship abuse is a “systemic scandal that should be exposed.” The Australian researchers agree, not least because if nothing is done, the situation may get worse. “If junior academics don’t take action when facing unethical authorship deals, the worst may happen.” For a start, if they accept the “masked exploitation” in their publications, they will replicate the unethical behaviour of their senior peers and jointly break codes of conduct. Furthermore, if this unethical behaviour is passed from one generation to the next, the scale of the problem will only increase. With different generations of scientists competing for the same pool of funding, a “publication arms-race” is likely to develop, to the detriment of personal and academic integrity. They conclude that “unethical conduct around authorship is akin to a lie and undermines the entire discipline of science.”

By awarding scientific credit to the wrong people, there is an unjust distribution of research jobs, funds, prizes, and even the chance of appearing in the Lab Times citation rankings!

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: Greyling

Last Changes: 04.13.2015