Up to one-third of authors don’t meet criteria for adding their name to a paper, study finds
It’s a practice that makes some scientists cringe: The lead author of a paper pays homage to a department chair, or a colleague who helped secure a grant, by listing them among the manuscript’s authors—even though the person made no intellectual contribution to the paper. Such “honorary authorship” is discouraged by many journals, publishing industry groups, and universities, who say it undermines the integrity of scientific literature.
Research integrity guidance, such as the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research provide criteria to establish if a contributor can be listed as an author for a research output. Similar guidance is provided by international documents such as the COPE and the ICMJE. An individual assisting with the securing of research funds or merely being the head of a research centre is not sufficient for a person to be listed as a co-author. Of course, it is quite reasonable for such a person to be acknowledged. This piece in Science reflects on research the looked at how common gift or honorary authorship is and why it is a concern. In Australia, the practice is at least a breach of the Code.
The unusually large study is “novel and adds to what we know” about the long-standing but controversial practice, says Annette Flanagin, executive managing editor of JAMA and the JAMA Network, who was not involved in the work. And the finding comes as authorship practices have come under scrutiny over concerns that senior researchers often horn in on credit for work done by junior colleagues.
Previous studies of honorary authorship have estimated its frequency by surveying scientists directly. But such self-reported data can be unreliable. To get a firmer grip, a team led by veterinary researcher Nicola Di Girolamo of Cornell University examined what it believes to be a more reliable measure: statements, typically written by a paper’s lead author, that describe each author’s contribution to the work. Specifically, the team examined statements that accompanied some 82,000 papers—with 629,000 authors—that were published in seven open-access journals from 2017 to 2021. All the journals are published by the Public Library of Science.