• L. Barza

Guests & ghosts

Updated: Nov 28, 2018

who's in and who's (in)visible on your next paper

Black Cat Blog: Issues in academia, research, & publishing

Lydia Barza, PhD

When it’s time to submit your paper and list the authors who contributed, do you sound like you’re delivering an Oscar speech for the best academic manuscript of all time?

“I’d like to thank my faculty mentor, who not only provided occasional feedback but also the recommendation that got me this job…”

A senior colleague put you in touch with THE expert on the instrument you used, so his name on the list should look pretty good. What about the undergraduate student who did most of the interviews or the research assistant who entered all the data? A graduate student did most of the data collection but was paid, so maybe she’s already been compensated sufficiently?

“…And finally, I’d like to thank the librarian in the stacks for helping me find that misshelved book and my cat, Mr. Fluffernutter, for keeping my feet warm on those cold nights writing the manuscript…”

The stakes are high for scholars to publish. The stakes are even higher for researchers to be respected by the public. It behooves us to know who to include and who to exclude in order to prevent and settle disputes about authorship. Exclusion of those who do make significant contributions is clearly unfair. However, there’s also a danger in being too inclusive despite the best of intentions. “Hyperauthorship” inaccurately reflects the participation of some authors, exaggerating the scope of their involvement. With great authorship comes great responsibility. Those who are unwilling or unable to be accountable for the work, should not be authors.

What constitutes authorship?

In 2013, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) suggested 4 principles for defining authorship:

  1. Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work, or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND

  2. Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND

  3. Final approval of the version to be published; AND

  4. Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

Therefore, the guidelines refer to scholarship, authorship, approval and accountability. Notice the “ANDs”. These guidelines suggest that authors conform to all four criteria. A graduate student who was only involved in the collection of data, no matter how significant to the project, should not be an author in accordance with these recommendations.

Not all scholars agree with this assessment, arguing that substantial contributions to specific aspects of the project make research team members deserving of authorship. For example, some argue that writing up a manuscript can be considered substantial. If the researcher who originated the idea and collected the data is a poor writer, then a collaborator who takes the lead on communicating the findings and interpreting them is making a significant contribution to the work.

For this reason, there is resistance to adapting the guidelines formally. Most favor them as recommendations to be discussed within research teams (Tarkang, Kweku, & Zotor, 2017). A study within one medical journal found that 39% of over 800 authors did not meet all 4 of the ICMJE criteria (Supak-Smolcic et al., 2015). Institutions develop their own cultures in terms of project collaboration and want to maintain autonomy in decision-making.

These points are echoed by statements made by major publishers:


“Authorship should be limited to those who have made a significant contribution to the conception, design, execution, or interpretation of the reported study. All those who have made substantial contributions should be listed as coauthors.

Where there are others who have participated in certain substantive aspects of the paper (e.g. language editing or medical writing), they should be recognised in the acknowledgements section.”


Authors whose names appear on the submission have contributed sufficiently to

the scientific work and therefore share collective responsibility and accountability for the results.”

Research teams usually default to the Principal Investigator to make authorship decisions. Some, however, are more assertive than others in pressuring or demanding to be listed. Studies on authorship decisions across disciplines reveal that the following 3 factors have the most influence (Moore & Griffin, 2006; Marušić, Bošnjak, & Jerončić, 2011):

  1. idea origination

  2. contribution amount

  3. write up of the manuscript

Guest authorship

Guest authors do not make any substantial contributions to the research. So why would they be included? A scholar’s research quality is determined by its research impact, which is usually measured by journal prestige (Journal Impact Factor) and number of citations (Dehdarirad & Nasini, 2017). Many guest authors are prominent names in the field and are thought to contribute to the likelihood of paper acceptance, credibility, and both measures of research impact.

Among the reasons why researchers include guest authors are (Greenland & Fontanarosa, 2012; Elliot et al., 2017; Von Bergen & Bressler, 2017):

  • To appease senior colleagues or researchers that pressure them to be included

  • To increase the likelihood of publication based on the belief that inclusion of a prominent researcher will do so

  • To promote team cohesion or avoid conflict

  • To honor mentors

  • To boost young colleagues’ careers

  • As a result of confusion over what counts as a significant contribution

Two studies on authorship in the sciences found a third of publications in their sample had a guest author (Jabbehdari & Walsh, 2017; Vera-Badillo et al., 2016). Another which examined medical and nursing journals reported that 20-50% of published articles included a guest (Eisenberg, Ngo, & Bankier, 2013). A survey of health profession education scholars revealed that 58% of respondents said authorship was granted to scholars who were not deserving (Uijtdehaage, Mavis, & Durning, 2018). The numbers are considerable.

This practice of adding guest authors is more prevalent in Asia and Europe as compared with North America. Evidence exists that one of the factors is a lack of awareness. Earlier this year, a survey of health scien