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Technical Issues in Publishing

What is Ghost Authorship in Scholarly Publishing?


Andrés Pagán, Associate Editor

August 2022

One metric used to evaluate the output of researchers and academics is the number of articles on which they appear as an author or co-author. However, the criteria used to determine whether a person qualifies for authorship on a manuscript are not universal and are difficult to enforce. Thus, the pressure placed on researchers (and their institutions) to publish their work in peer reviewed journals can lead to what is known as ghost authorship. Ghost authorship is when a person that qualifies for authorship on an article is not included as an author.

Concerns with ghost authorship

One of the ethical concerns with ghost authorship is that it may misrepresent the credibility of a study. For instance, it has been reported that parties with vested or commercial interests may employ ghost authors to draft manuscripts, while attributing the work to recognized scientists to increase the probability of the paper being accepted and disseminated. Another ethical concern with ghost authorship is that “power relations and expectations” may result in senior scientists being included as authors on manuscripts despite not meeting the criteria for authorship; conversely, junior researchers or students may not be recognized as authors despite making sufficient contributions to qualify them for authorship. Interestingly, although ghost authorship is typically understood as a problem that can occur when manuscripts are submitted to academic journals, a recent study revealed that ghost authorship is also widespread in the peer review stage. Indeed, the researchers found that postdocs and graduate students often contributed peer review responses as part of their academic training without being recognized.

Recognizing problems with authorship

Author lists are becoming increasingly long in academic articles, making it difficult to identify ghost authorship. However, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), an organization committed to promoting ethical practices and guidelines in academic publishing, provides guidelines on how to spot potential authorship problems, including ghost authorship. Signs of suspicious authorship include an unresponsive corresponding author, suspicious document properties, similar papers published under different author names, and roles missing from author contributions.

Ways to deter ghost authorship

Ghost authorship is a recognized problem in scholarly publishing; as a result, several guidelines have been proposed to increase transparency in publishing and decrease the frequency of ghost authorship. For instance, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) was one of the first organizations to establish guidelines for authorship. To be listed as an author on a study an individual must meet all the following:

1. Substantial contribution to the conception or design of the work, or acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of the data

2. Drafting the work or revising it critically

3. Final approval of the version to be published.

4. Agreement to be accountable for the work

Similarly, the Contributor Role Taxonomy (CRediT) author statement, which is becoming increasingly required of authors when they submit manuscripts to journals, was established in large part to recognize author contributions and, by extension, to reduce ghost authorship. Although the CRediT author statement does not explicitly state that certain criteria must be met, the statement outlines exactly which contributions were made by each author. Examples of contributions include:

• Conceptualization

• Methodology

• Formal analysis

• Resources

• Data curation

• Writing

• Editing

• Visualization

• Funding acquisition

While ghost authorship continues to be an issue in scholarly publishing, mechanisms such as the IMCJE guidelines and CRediT statements are becoming widely adopted by journals to help mitigate the ethical concerns associated with ghost authorship. Ultimately, it is the authors’ responsibility to appropriately recognize all persons that contributed to a study to ensure ethical and credible science communication.

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