Authorship in scientific publications is a critical component. If it is used in the right manner, authorship is useful in establishing responsibility, accountability and according credit for scientific information that are reported in scientific publications. Nonetheless, any misappropriation in terms of authorship can undercut the actual integrity of the system of authorship. A major challenge that is plaguing the scientific publication domain is the issue of honorary and ghost authorship.
According to a research published in the British Medical Journal, it has been found that around one out of five articles that were published in leading medical journals showed evidence of honorary and ghost authorship. Authors are of the opinion that these findings indicate that authorship that is not appropriate continues to pose a challenge in high impact biomedical publications. The issue of inappropriate authorship viz., honorary and ghost authorship and the subsequent absence of accountability and transparency have been issues of serious concern that has been plaguing the academic fraternity for decades now.
Honorary authors are those individuals who are given due credit of having authored a paper but they may not have made substantial contribution to the research paper to actually take any credit for it. Another form of honorary authorship is gift authorship where an individual is given credit for a research paper owing to the respect or gratitude towards that individual. For instance, in Asian cultures, it is quite common to add senior researchers or departmental heads irrespective of their involvement or contribution to the research. Another form of honorary authorship is guest authorship which can be utilized for several reasons. One of them would be to enhance the apparent quality of a scientific research paper by including a prominent name or to mask the relation of the paper to the industry by adding an academic author. Issues pertaining to honorary authorship would include the name of an author being included within a scientific research publication without his or her explicit permission.
Ghost authors on the other hand are those individuals who make substantial contribution to a research paper but they are not accorded any credit for it. In essence, they are the exact opposite of honorary authors. A common scenario would involve a professional industry researcher or a medical writer who writes a scientific research paper for a pharmaceutical organization but is not given his due credit. Ghostwriters are usually obscured to conceal the support of the industry for research, to enhance the overall objectivity of the paper while retaining the organization’s control over the content. This kind of obscurity is usually accompanied with guest authorship, which as mentioned is the practice of including the name of a reputed researcher to a scientific research paper to enhance its credibility. In other instances, a scientific researcher might engage but not acknowledge a ghostwriter to circumvent any challenges such as paucity of time, ignorance about journal requirements, lack of knowledge or poor writing ability.
Both honorary and ghost authorship are issues of ethical concern within scholarly research publication as this kind of unethical practice was observed in around 18% of six medical journals. From the perspective of journals, this practice can be reduced by listing out specific contribution and also reminding authors that they are responsible for the authenticity and integrity of any work they publish.