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Trust us: one of the proudest moments of your life will be when you write that little line with your name, stating authorship of research you truly believe to be a real contribution to science. But it will also be a moment haunted by many doubts: will your name stand alone? Were there other people who made a real contribution to your project that deserve to receive credit for it?
The concept of authorship appears to be more difficult to define in today’s academia than it was decades ago. And why is that? Science has derived into a large multiplicity of disciplines, intersecting one another in the most unexpected ways. Young scientists are prepared and encouraged to develop their research in multidisciplinary teams, accepting and filtering information from diverse origins. Moreover, in research nowadays it is common that scientists rely on outsourced manpower to help carry on with their projects and, of course, there is the normal scholarly hierarchy, where students often work closely with their mentors, helping them on their research projects. So, to whom can we really attribute credit, and for what?
In a very simplistic definition, we can say that authorship is attributed to the person who had the major intellectual contribution to a publication. That includes:
- data acquisition, management and interpretation;
- design of the project or study;
- project review – with critical judgement – the drafted work.
Of course, acknowledgement always comes hand in hand with responsibility. An author must always be ready to state that he or she is fully familiar with the content and conduct of the research, assuming responsibility for erroneous statements or misconduct during the processes of research and submission for publication.
The reality though, is not so simple: it might not be easy to separate authorship from co-authorship and authorship from acknowledgement. Peoples’ roles involved in a research project may vary drastically throughout the process, making it difficult to identify the level of contribution coming from each one of them and consequently giving them the deserved credit.
To minimize this sort of problems, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors published a clear guide concerning authorship in scientific papers, taking into account short-term researchers, for example, who often don´t receive enough recognition for their work.
Professional and operational issues are not solely responsible for the obstacles concerning authorship attributions; ethical concerns also arise, putting transparency in science at stake. Scholar and academia communities are highly politicised, in which traditionally the more powerful receive credit for their work, leaving more fragile professional classes – like short-term researchers, students or outsourcing scientists – career stagnated. Although authorship guidelines exist to control this kind of situation, in the urge for acknowledgement, researchers find themselves plunging into potentially problematic kinds of authorship; whether by omission (ghost authorship) or crediting someone who actually had no role whatsoever in the research (gift authorship). As we will see, although omitting might seem a minor problem at first sight, it might hide ethically questionable issues regarding conflict of interest, for example.
Ghost authorship in research
Ghost authorship occurs when someone that participated actively in the research is not disclosed in the author’s byline or acknowledgments section. This person can be a research unrelated professional that helped the main author to draft and edit the manuscript, for example. It can also be a junior colleague or researcher that helped carry out the research and drafted a first version of the manuscript. Although this practice is reasonably unfair, one can always argue that these people never had a real significant intellectual input for the project, having had a rather more technical role, and their actions were entirely directed by the main researcher.
However, there is one form of ghost authorship that is broadly considered ethically incorrect and the main reason why the World Association of Medical Editors firmly disavows such practice: there have been known cases of pharmaceutical ghost-written industry-sponsored trials. Papers produced by individuals working in the pharmaceutical field with the goal of marketing drugs among the healthcare community. The identity of these ghost authors is hidden behind a listed author, who might not even be aware of what is happening under his name, and whose reputation is used to bring credibility to the paper. Unaware of all of this, readers actually perceive the paper as unbiased, written under academic good practice standards.
Gift authorship occurs when someone is credited as an author, taking acknowledgement for a research paper when, in fact, he/she hasn’t really given any contribution for it whatsoever. Sadly, this is a very common type of unethical behavior, quite unacceptable in the eyes of most medical editors. There are several motivations for such misconduct to happen: Junior researchers might feel pressured to assign authorship to older colleagues, thinking that this might bring better chances of publication and credibility. Senior authors might want to award someone who has helped them in the past or gratify co-workers and collaborators to maintain good relations with them.
At the end of the day, abusive authorship attribution – whether by excess or omission – is only going to distort the real capacities of researchers and scientists, bringing no real benefit for science. With Language Editing Plus Service you don’t have to worry about ghost writing: together with our team, you can achieve excellency in written text, helping you reach your professional goals. Our language experts will pay special attention to the logic and flow of contents, adjusting your document to meet your needs. Apart from professional text edition, we offer reference checking and a customized Cover Letter. All this, with unlimited rounds of language review and full support at every step of the way. Use the simulator below to check the price for your manuscript, using the total number in words of your document.