Ghost or guest - authorship of research papers

A new approach to authorship is required to reflect the increasingly complex nature of research.

Who is 'the author'?

The increasingly complex (and competitive) nature of research studies and the growth of multi-author and multi-disciplinary research mean that answering the apparently basic question 'who is the author' is not as simple as it used to be. 

Speaking at the Association of Subscription Agents conference in London, Fiona Godlee, Editor in Chief of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) revealed some of the challenges of publishing medical research.

Guests, ghosts and games
These days, if one person claims to have 'done it all' when submitting a research article, they are almost certainly not telling the whole story.  When it comes to assigning authorship, there may well be an element of 'gaming' involved.  Commercial interest may require high level names on research ('guests') while many people may have contributed without receiving acknowledgement ('ghosts').  A pharmaceutical company may write the article which is then accredited to external authors.

Key questions

  • Who has helped draft and revise the paper?
  • Who has approval of the final published version? 
  • Who will take responsibility for the accuracy of the final paper?
  • Who takes the credit for the paper?
  • Who is the corresponding author?

All kinds of issues and problems can arise when publishing medical (and other) research. Has there been bias, plagiarism, falsification?  Have the errors arisen in good faith? Has there been some 'cooking' of the results - or has there been deliberate fraud?

Studies on PubMed content show that retractions have increased tenfold since 1975.  21% were retracted due to error and 67% due to misconduct - including fraud.  Other figures suggest that approximately 20% of authors are guests and 8% are ghosts (although these are self-reported numbers and are likely to be underestimates). 

A move to contributorship
The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) is looking at ways to codify authorship and contributorship, recognising that many people contribute to research but do not write up the results for publication.  

The changing nature of research was also addressed by Jeremy Frey, Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Southampton who spoke about the creation of a 'better record' of research, e.g. open notebook science, open blogging etc.  These new approaches recognise that process and methodology are just as important as the final results.

Both Frey and Fiona emphasised the importance of exposing data - in context - for scrutiny.   The BMJ has an open data policy and expects its authors to comply.  An open attitude should be adopted at the very beginning of the research. 

The 2013 Association of Subscription Agents conference was held in London in February.

Ghost image courtesy of