The Word on Authorship in Academia
From a young age, we grow up understanding that authors are people that essentially have conceived and written something, most often a book. They do the required background research, thoughtfully lay out the plot and they physically complete the main task that makes a book a book – the writing. Sure, they may have editors, cover producers, social media gurus etc to make the selling of a book a success, however their name is the one slapped on the front.
So, imagine you are in academia. You are a second year PhD student who is finding their feet in the ivory tower, and your supervisor asks you to help out a fellow student with a project which falls within your suite of, albeit green, expertise. Being the keen bean you are, you jump at the opportunity and spend what will be the next year pouring your spare time into helping to troubleshoot and optimize when things don’t quite work in the lab, spending hours making guides for the required temperamental software, doing the initial data analysis to guide next steps in the lab and putting to practice your newly acquired critical thinking mindset to suggest ideas for interpretation. Throughout this process, you are considered a co-author. Without you, the manuscript would not exist, which is what you keep reminding yourself when doubt sets in. You go through rounds of paper revision before submission, with your name remaining nicely in second position. However, when it is time to submit, your name is gone. You are officially a ghost author.
Ghosting to a New Level
Ghosting is a term that features on Urban Dictionary which has become popular since 2016. It refers to when a person cuts off communication with zero warning or notice. This is essentially what can happen when people who have contributed substantially to a manuscript are omitted from the authorship list.
Now you may be thinking, ‘contributed substantially’ is a little ambiguous and open to interpretation. Many universities/journals/publishers have authorship guidelines and tips for deciding what makes an author on a manuscript legit. The general consensus is that someone is considered an author if they meet all (that bit is important) of the following criteria:
1. Made substantial contributions to conception and design, and/or acquisition of data, and/or analysis and interpretation of data
2. Participated in drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content
3. Given final approval of the version to be submitted and any revised version
I can almost feel some of you shifting uncomfortably in your seats as you ponder the potential pseudo co-authors on your papers. In addition to some of the co-authors you know shouldn’t be there, I suspect you also feel the pang of guilt when you realise there are also fallen authors. The difficult part about identifying when a manuscript has ghost authors is the fact other authors, in particular PIs, often lie in the ‘Author Contributions’ statement, and attribute another author’s name to the task. Because, if you didn’t state who was responsible for say data acquisition and analyses for example, you will surely be found out to be harboring a ghost author.
Ghost authorship can be particularly harmful to undergraduate and Masters/PhD students, where their contributions (much like mine) are boiled down to ‘skill development’ or ‘helping out a friend’ or ‘learning how to manage an increased workload’. Universities may have policies for ethical authorship, however what can you actually do as a student to dispute authorship without creating a rift between yourself and your supervisor and potentially having yourself labelled as a ‘difficult’? Unfortunately, the answer is not much. The problem here lies with the fact authorship is not being taught (or caught) in undergrad research experiences. As a naïve junior, you blindly accept additional work without questioning whether your name will be on a paper at the end of it, and even if it isn’t, you are ‘grateful for the opportunity’ (or so some may say).
Two additional instances of ghost authors, are 1) where authors have been omitted to obscure the participation of researchers with conflicts of interest and 2) where an outside party has been paid to write essentially the whole manuscript (also known as ghost writers). Ghost writers can also be people who have only contributed towards the writing criteria of authorship (albeit often way more than the normal work of one person) but have not contributed anything else to the manuscript.
We get it; authorship is complex and justifying your input can be exhausting. I am sure many of us have felt that barbed knot in our stomachs, when a paper we have been ghosted on goes into print and starts to rack up citations. But it is a whole other type of feeling when you have poured blood, sweat, wine and tears (oh so many tears) into a manuscript, just for your supervisor to shove in an author, who has contributed absolutely nothing to the manuscript (and never will), next to your name.
Be Our Guest… or Maybe Not
We all know that person, the one who gloats about being an author on a paper despite contributing nothing. We may grimace and nod over the top of our coffee mugs, whilst they brag about how valued of a person they must be to have been included for no apparent reason. We may even feel a little jealous even though we know it’s wrong.
Guest/Gift authors are people not eligible to be included as an author (based on the criteria above) yet still feature on a paper as an author. In my experience, there are two reasons why people may be included as a guest author: 1) (and most commonly) because this person’s name/reputation holds certain weight to the point there is an expectation that inclusion will improve the chances that the paper will be published or 2) because the individual (often in the same research group as first author) is a particularly weak researcher who will unlikely get on many papers of their own and so needs a publication for the PI to appease funding bodies.
Solely collecting samples from a lake and not even opening the manuscript to provide feedback, does not make you an author. Clicking ‘go’ once on a piece of software does not make you an author. Getting funding for a project does not make you an author. Guest authors can ruin friendships and poison research group relationships. Unlike ghost authors, as a guest author you have the ability to correct the authorship. It is easy to remove yourself from a publication when it goes to a journal if you know you do not meet the criteria, and quite frankly, it is the right thing to do. Yes, having more papers attached to your name may improve your chances at winning the lottery draw of a permanent position in academia, however, can you really accept an authorship position when you know you do not deserve the credit?
Beyond what is right and wrong, there is also the accountability for the research to consider. When you are included as a guest author, you are agreeing to be held accountable for the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work. If you accept an unwarranted authorship position and unbeknown to you, another author has falsified the data, you will be held accountable. You wouldn’t sign a house contract without getting an assessment done first, would you (I would assume, being a first-gen millennial on a temporary research contract, signing on a house is lightyears away)? Then why would you accept a Guest author position without any involvement in the data generation/analyses/interpretation?
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that getting a ‘big name’ on your paper is definitely more likely to get the paper published and cited. Heck, if I could get Sir David Attenborough to be a co-author that would seal the deal for a permanent position in academia for me (*rubs hands together*). But the reality is, it isn’t right, it isn’t fair, and it isn’t ethical. It is most definitely easier to spot a Guest author in an authorship line up, however booting someone off a paper, especially someone very well known in the field, can be damn difficult. As a student, how are you supposed to inform a journal that a guest author has been plonked on your paper, without outing yourself as the ‘grass’? Most of the time students (or even postdocs) are not allowed to be the corresponding author on their papers, meaning the communication channels are often kept just between senior author (normally supervisor) and the journal. How are you supposed to maintain an amicable relationship with someone in your research group when they have either been placed on or bullied their way onto a paper when there was nothing you could do?
Journal Roles in Authorship Ethics
Journals have recently attempted to crack down on ghost/guest authorship by including the ‘Author Contributions’ section, whereby the roles of each author are spelled out in black and white. But as I explained above, this is often completed by the corresponding author, who can tell a few porkies to justify the authorship line up. In my experience, there is no way the contributions can be validated and often the corresponding author gets the last say as the paper slides into the realm of peer review.
Some journals/publishers have produced flowcharts in order to better identify and address ghost/guest authorship. However well-intentioned these may be, it is near impossible to spot ghost authors and challenging to remove guest authors. Authors who intentionally exclude or include certain people for a paper know what they are doing and know how to not get caught. It is often a political move, governed by various reasons and motives to fill the agenda of the orchestrator.
It begs the question, what more can be done? Can an anonymous, peer-style author contributions accept/reject approach work, by diplomatically approving/disapproving an author’s contribution? If there was a system in place, where each author could reject another author’s stated contributions and/or name drop a ghost author and give reasoning, I’m sure as hell I would have used it more than once by now. Would this be a good way of quickly identifying and addressing papers which are purposely excluding/including the wrong people? How can you truly address incorrect authorship without consulting the authors?
Summary: Avoid being a Ghost and Don’t be a Guest
In my experience over the last five years, I have both been the victim of ghost and guest authorship. My name is out there in invisible ink for the world not to see on some papers, and on others, random people have been added who have barely filled one of the three author criteria. It hurts. I strive to be honest and fair with deciding authorship on my papers due to my experiences. I want to give people the chance to collaborate and co-produce great science, however I am also not willing to roll over and give people undue credit just because they are in the same research group as me and have had a slow paper year themselves.
My authorship advice to all would be to:
1. Discuss authorship early. If you have been asked to conduct work or to help someone, bring up the conversation of authorship from the get-go. Ask if your contribution will/should be considered for authorship. If the answer is no, you then have the chance to step away before you devote time to something that isn’t going to benefit you.
2. Document your contributions. Keep a log of meetings, data collection/fieldwork, data analyses you have conducted (including statistical scripts etc) and exactly what text/intellectual input you have added to the manuscript. Receipts are your friends.
3. Find a mentor outside of your research group. If you have authorship concerns or are pre-empting another author will be dishonest when it comes to authorship, discuss your concerns with a senior staff/faculty member outside of your research group. Try and make sure this person has no conflicting interests with your research group and has the ability to listen to you impartially.
4. Discuss authorship head on. If you know someone in your research group is happy to accept a guest author position, talk to them, ask them why they think they are an author and try to have a healthy discussion over why their position may not be valid. If you know someone is actively being ghosted, talk to you supervisor, share your opinion. Authorship can be ambiguous at times, with different research groups having different ‘traditions’, so healthy discussions around what makes an author can prevent future dishonesty.
Collaborating on papers can be a thrilling and rewarding experience, but other times it can leave you feeling deflated and invalidated when it comes to authorship. You learn and you grow from these experiences, but we can all contribute to avoiding ghost/guest authorship by being honest and regularly facilitating healthy work-place discussions on what makes an author.
Written by Dr. Chloe Robinson