Twenty-one percent of the articles published in 2008 in the 6 general medical journals with the highest impact factors had inappropriate honorary authors, individuals who are named as authors but have not met authorship criteria and have not contributed substantially to be able to take public responsibility for the work, according to a study published Tuesday in BMJ. In addition, nearly 8% of articles published in these journals may have had a ghost author, an individual who made substantial contributions to the work reported in an article but is not named.
The study included a sample of corresponding authors of 896 research articles, review articles, and editorial/opinion articles published in 2008 in Annals of Internal Medicine, JAMA, Lancet, Nature Medicine, New England Journal of Medicine, and PLoS Medicine. Authors self reported compliance with International Committee of Medical Journal Editors criteria for authorship for all authors on the selected articles. Joseph S. Wislar and colleagues compared the 2008 prevalence of honorary and ghost authors with the prevalence reported in 1996.
The highest prevalence of both types of inappropriate authorship occurred in original research articles, compared with editorials and review articles. When looking at temporal trends from 1996 to 2008, the BMJ researchers found a decline in the overall prevalence of inappropriate authorship (29.1% in 1996 v 21.0% in 2008), no significant change in the prevalence of honorary authorship (19.3% v 17.6%), and a decline in the prevalence of ghost authors (11.5% v 7.9%).
"Our findings suggest that additional measures are necessary by scientific journals, individual authors, and academic institutions to prevent a practice that might lead to loss of public confidence," write Wislar and colleagues. "The results of this study should raise awareness among the scientific community about the importance of ensuring appropriate authorship credit and responsibility."