Blog | Thursday, October 27, 2011

QD: News Every Day--Ghost authorship declined in past decade

Honorary and ghost authorship declined from 1996 to 2008, but not enough, study authors concluded.

Ghosts by Sean MacEntee via Flickr and a Creative Commons licenseThe problem is two sides of the same coin: honorary authors who are named as authors but didn't substantially contribute to the work, and ghost authors who made substantial contributions to the work but weren't named. Inappropriate authorship fell from 29% in 1996 to 21 in 2008, with no significant change in the prevalence of honorary authorship (from 19.3% to 17.6%) and significant decline in ghost authorship (from 11.5% to 7.9%).

To draw their conclusion, researchers conducted a cross-sectional survey using a web-based questionnaire among an international survey of corresponding authors of 896 research articles, review articles, and editorial/opinion articles published in six general medical journals with the highest impact factors in 2008: Annals of Internal Medicine, [Annals and ACP Internist are both published by the American College of Physicians.] JAMA, Lancet, Nature Medicine, New England Journal of Medicine, and PLoS Medicine.

Results appeared online Oct. 25 at BMJ, which, incidentally, publishes its authorship policy online.

In the 1980s, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) created guidelines for authorship that have been adopted by more than 600 medical journals. Of the six journals studied, Nature Medicine and New England Journal of Medicine do not require ICMJE disclosures, while the other four do.

Of the 545 articles with usable data on the honorary authorship questions, 96 (17.6%) met criteria for honorary authorship. Nearly all of these (93) were articles in which the corresponding author reported that one or more co-authors performed only one function, thus not meeting ICMJE authorship criteria. Prevalence ranged from 12.2% to 29.3% by journal (P=0.134), and was 25.0% for research articles, 11.2% for editorials, and 15.0% for reviews (P=0.0007).

The prevalence of honorary authorship in 2008 was 17.6% (95% confidence interval [CI], 14.6% to 21.0%) was not significantly different from the prevalence in 1996 (19.3% (95% CI, 16.7% to 22.2%), (P=0.439). The 2008 prevalence of honorary authors for research articles (25.0%, 95% CI, 19.7% to 31.1%) was significantly higher than in 1996 (16.3%, 95% CI 13.3% to 19.9%), (P=0.006), but was significantly lower for review articles (15.0%; 95% CI, 9.6% to 22.6%) compared to 25.5% (95% CI, 20.4% to 31.4%), (P=0.023) and editorials (11.2%, 95% CI, 7.5% to 16.3%) compared to 20.8% (95% CI, 13.1% to 31.2%), P=0.038).

A total of 49 (7.9%) of 622 articles met the criteria for ghost authorship. Prevalence ranged from 2.1% to 11.0% across the six journals, and was 11.9% for research articles, 6.0% for reviews, and 5.3% for editorials (P=0.017). Compared with the results for 1996, ghost author prevalence in 2008 was significantly lower (11.5%, 95% CI, 9.5% to 13.9%) compared to 7.9%, (95% CI, 6.0% to 10.3%), P=0.023). The prevalence of ghost authors was not significantly different by article type between 2008 and 1996.

When comparing the four journals that require authors to report their individual contributions with the two that don't, there was no statistically significant differences in the prevalence of articles with honorary authors (18.5% compared to 16.0%, P=0.461) or ghost authors (7.3% compared to 9.0%, P=0.455). The authors acknowledged that journals without publically disclosed requirements may have privately required it as part of the editorial process.

An editorialist commented, "The results showed that inappropriate authorship declined from 29% of articles in 1996 to only 21% in 2008, an improvement from previous studies cited by the authors, which were also based on the ICMJE criteria but lacked the breadth of the authors' 1996 and 2008 studies. However, this proportion of inappropriate authorship is a concern to institutions and journals responsible for integrity in scientific reporting."