When it comes to scientific or medical research, we like to believe the authors of a paper stand behind their work — but what if the actual authors aren't really listed?
A recent retroactive study looked at six high-profile medical journals and questioned the lead authors to see if credit was doled out in a proper manner. And the results were not encouraging.
How common is fraud in authorship?
896 corresponding authors (typically professors whom the research was performed under) in medical research fields were contacted to fill out the survey conducted by the editorial staff of the Journal of the American Medical Association JAMA) , with 630 papers included in the data analysis. Papers under review were previously published one of six leading medical journals(Annals of Internal Medicine, JAMA, Lancet, Nature Medicine, New England Journal of Medicine, and PLoS Medicine). Review articles were eliminated from the study, as the designers wanted to look at literature that communicated new research discoveries.
Analysis of the surveys shows that 18% of journal articles under review had additional "honorary" authors attached, while 8% of articles were missing an author. The practice of deleting an author, a researcher who made a substantial contribution to research, is called "ghost writing" within the scientific research community. The findings show that over 21% of research articles either do not acknowledge a significant contributor to the research published, or give credit to an individual that did not participate at a level worthy of authorship. Rates of fraudulent authorship varied from journal to journal between the six surveyed, but percentages for individual journals were not reported.
To give an example of how widespread this problem is, a typical issue of the Nature Medicine, one of the six journals surveyed, has ten articles within it that extensively report the findings of current research. This survey suggests, on average, that two articles in each issue have problems concerning fraudulent authorship.
What determines authorship?
In 2009, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) developed guidelines for responsible and accountable authorship. These guidelines are:
Authorship credit should be based on 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3.
One special notation is made later in the ICMJE's description of authorship guidelines, the stipulation that, "Acquisition of funding, collection of data, or general supervision of the research group alone does not constitute authorship." This clarification stands to eliminate individuals traditionally classified as "honorary" authors, particularly those responsible for large grant awards, but removed from everyday research or experimental design.
Why give undeserved credit or leave off an author?
Authors are often left off in order to increase the impact to the authors credited — the same work with three authors sounds more impressive than seven. This can be done in order to help a weak student earn their Ph.D. by showing a more significant hand in research, if he or she only has a single published paper.
Graduate schools often work on a "caste"-like system, with graduate students, those typically labeled as the first author on a paper, having little or no recourse or hand in deciding those listed as authors. Prospective authors can also be left off for a number of reasons — a communication breakdown on the part of the corresponding author, disorganization on the part of the lab, or for more malicious means, such as a passive-aggressive action by which to withhold credit from a former lab member.
Honorary authorship is something altogether different, a situation where an individual is named as an author but did not contributed substantially to the work. Adding a significant "name" scientist to your paper could bias (or in some cases, eliminate) a reviewer or help out the CV of a fellow professor who is down on his or her luck (or coming up for tenure). In their recent authorship guidelines, the ICMJE pointed out one of the main sources of honorary authorship, "legacy" authorship. In this situation, an author that played a significant role in obtaining research funding, but far removed from current research, is added, with this being a common point of peer pressure for junior faculty members.
The standards of science
Science is something we understand to be testable and transparent. At the very least, the credit behind authorship should be planted on as firm a foundation, if not firmer, than the data conveyed. While little can be done to eliminate honorary authorship after a paper has been published, if you are a researcher and think you have been left off of a paper, there is recourse. Start by monitoring journal articles that emanate from labs in which you previously worked.
Journal editors do not look kindly upon ghost writing, which is tantamount to plagiarism in the scientific world, and you can contact the editor of a journal if a situation does arise. Keep dated, electronic backups of your data and work (something easy in our world) in order to lend credence to your case. Science should be transparent — those who performed substantial work should be credited in any situation.
Top image from Shutterstock, with an additional image from the AP. Sources linked within the article.