When I stumbled on the research paper from one of my former labs, related to a project I had contributed to, I was taken by surprise. No one had told me our work was going to be published! A quick glance showed I was acknowledged, which was gratifying. However, when I looked at the figures, my surprise turned to shock. I had generated two of the figures, as well as the underlying data, a couple years earlier, when I was a research fellow in the lab after finishing my master’s degree. Based on my contribution, I should have been included as an author. Then I discovered the group had published other papers about our work without even acknowledging me. I had become a ghost author, my contributions used without credit.
This is an essential topic for the professional development of experienced researchers and should be a consideration when reviewing research centres, collaborations or large teams. Turning junior researchers into ghosts, not only is disrespectful and harm their career progression, it is an insidious form of research misconduct, sours an institution’s research culture and hobbles the pipeline to nurture the next generation of researchers. Institutions should squash the practice and celebrate senior researchers who nurture their more junior colleagues.
Luckily, I had my Ph.D. adviser to guide me. Not only is she a great mentor, she also taught a responsible conduct of research (RCR) course—inspired by her postdoc adviser, who ran a similar discussion group—which I had taken early in my Ph.D. journey. Since then, we’ve discussed authorship practices, peer review, data management, and more. Her course and our conversations have been invaluable for me, especially as someone who came to the United States for my Ph.D. after training elsewhere. They helped me adjust to a new research environment and learn the nuances of conducting research to the highest ethical standards.
My adviser suggested I contact the corresponding author, but urged me to choose my words wisely. I knew I risked burning bridges by complaining to my former group, but I took comfort in the fact that I have moved to a different research area and will not be needing any recommendation letters from that lab.