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Guests & ghosts

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 sciences faculty in Jordan revealed that only 27.2% were aware of the ICMJE guidelines, although 76.8% agreed with them (Alshogran & Al-Delaimy, 2018). More rigid hierarchical relationships among researchers in these cultures may also be a factor (Eisenberg, Ngo, & Bankier, 2013; Marušić, Bošnjak, & Jerončić, 2011; See Macfarlane, 2015 on institutions in Hong Kong). Such practices are in direct conflict with codes of ethics like that of the APA which states “that authorship and publication credits must reflect accurately relative scientific or professional contributions of the individuals involved, regardless of their relative status” (Sandler & Russell, 2005) and may be considered fraud (Stern & Lemmens, 2011).

Ghost authorship

In contrast, a ghost author is not listed on a manuscript despite making significant contributions to the research. Although ghost authors in medical sciences are notoriously pharmaceutical companies, many ghost authors in other fields are graduate students. The few studies on this show a 35-50% prevalence rate. 34.9% of health profession education scholars in one study claimed they were not included as authors on at least one paper when they should have been (Uijtdehaage, Mavis, & Durning, 2018). In another study of science journals, over half had at least one ghost author (Jabbehdari & Walsh, 2017).

Why would you fail to share authorship with a contributor? Sometimes authors are purposely hidden from public eye because they reflect a conflict of interest. This occurs, for example, when a science writer who works for a pharmaceutical company writes all or part of a manuscript. This damages credibility and interpretation of the findings. In other cases, researchers simply deny having additional collaborators because they want to take all the credit for the work.

How to recognize those who do not meet the criteria

Those who do not meet all 4 criteria should be acknowledged (Song, 2017; Paul-Hus, Mongeon, Sainte-Marie, & Larivière, 2017). This is usually done as a footnote or author’s statement. Collaborators who simply proofread drafts of the manuscript, provided administrative support, or perform data entry fall under this category. Colleagues involved in research supervision, reviewing the manuscript, merely securing funding, and mentored authors may be acknowledged as well. There is nothing wrong with highlighting collaborations that contributed to the credibility of the study in the acknowledgments.

“One should not underestimate the consequences of inappropriate authorship practice because the publication process primarily relies on the notions of trust and professional integrity. A culture of nontransparency around authorship potentially calls into question the research findings themselves.” (Kornhaber, McLean, & Baber, 2015).

Interestingly, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) does not include authorship ethics as a part of their definition for research misconduct (Katz & Linvill, 2017). This may be interpreted as a way to maintain the status quo within some academic circles which support unfair authorship practices based on seniority, gender, and race over merit (See Macfarlane, 2017 on “collaboration-as-cronyism” and “collaboration-as-parasitism”). Nicholas et al., (2017a) conducted a 3 year longitudinal study of early career science and social science researchers from 7 countries. It was found that they were “constrained by convention and the precarious employment environment they inhabit and know what is best for them, which is to publish (in high impact factor journals) or perish.” (p. 205). When quantity is rewarded over quality, the pressure is high which leads to an increased likelihood of ethical misconduct (Grieger, 2005; Kovacs, 2017; Rohwer, 2017).

“publishing in high‐impact factor journals is the only reputational game in town”

(Nicholas et. al., 2017b, p. 157)

AERA Code of Ethics

15. Authorship Credit

(a) Education researchers ensure that all who have made a substantive contribution to an intellectual product are listed as authors

(b) Education researchers take responsibility and credit, including authorship credit, only for work they have actually performed or to which they have contributed.

(c) Education researchers ensure that principal authorship, authorship order, and other publication credits are based on the relative scientific or professional contributions of the individuals involved, regardless of their status. Education researchers specify the criteria for making these determinations at the outset of the writing process.

(d) A student is usually listed as principal author on any multiple-authored publication that substantially derives from the student’s dissertation or thesis.

*For a comprehensive view of guidelines from professional organizations, see Osborne and Holland (2009).

The silence is deafening

Notice anything about where all the studies on ethical authorship are coming from? The social sciences are disturbingly silent on these issues. Surely, this can’t be an indication of the complacency of scholars in these fields. However, this silence speaks volumes about how low a priority identifying and solving issues related to authorship is to them. This can’t be good for the integrity of the professions. Go forth and make studies!

The scary truth(s)

  • ICMJE Guidelines for Authorship are a good place to start the conversation with your research team about what constitutes a substantial contribution to the research worthy of authorship

  • Guest and ghost authorship hurt the integrity of research scientists

  • Authorship ethics are often not considered a part of research misconduct

  • Research on ethical authorship is lacking in the social sciences

For Halloween this year, I suggest you wear a white sheet stapled with all the papers you contributed to but for which you did not receive any credit. Get it? Ghost author. Shut up, that’s hilarious.


Alshogran, O. Y., & Al-Delaimy, W. K. (2018). Understanding of International Committee of Medical Journal Editors Authorship Criteria Among Faculty Members of Pharmacy and Other Health Sciences in Jordan. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 1556264618764575.

Dehdarirad, T., & Nasini, S. (2017). Research impact in co-authorship networks: a two-mode analysis. Journal of Informetrics, 11(2), 371-388.

Eisenberg, R. L., Ngo, L. H., & Bankier, A. A. (2013). Honorary authorship in radiologic research articles: do geographic factors influence the frequency?. Radiology, 271(2), 472-478.

Elliott, K. C., Settles, I. H., Montgomery, G. M., Brassel, S. T., Cheruvelil, K. S., & Soranno, P. A. (2017). Honorary authorship practices in environmental science teams: structural and cultural factors and solutions. Accountability in research, 24(2), 80-98.

Greenland P, Fontanarosa PB: Ending honorary authorship. Science (New York, NY). 2012, 337: 1019-10.1126/science.1224988. Available: []

Grieger, M. C. A. (2005). Authorship: an ethical dilemma of science. Sao Paulo Medical Journal, 123(5), 242-246.

International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. Uniform requirements for manuscripts submitted to biomedical journals. Ann Intern Med 1997:126: 36-47.

Jabbehdari, S., & Walsh, J. P. (2017). Authorship norms and project structures in science. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 42(5), 872-900.

Katz, S. B., & Linvill, C. C. (2017). Lines and Fields of Ethical Force in Scientific Authorship. In H. Yu & K. Northcut (Eds.), Scientific Communication: Practices, Theories, and Pedagogies. New York: Routledge.

Kornhaber, R. A., McLean, L. M., & Baber, R. J. (2015). Ongoing ethical issues concerning authorship in biomedical journals: an integrative review. International journal of nanomedicine, 10, 4837.

Kovacs, J. (2017). Honorary authorship and symbolic violence. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy, 20(1), 51-59.

Macfarlane, B. (2015). The ethics of multiple authorship: Power, performativity and the gift economy. Studies in higher education, 42(7), 1194-1210.

Macfarlane, B. (2017). The paradox of collaboration: a moral continuum. Higher Education Research & Development, 36(3), 472-485.

Marušić, A., Bošnjak, L., & Jerončić, A. (2011). A systematic review of research on the meaning, ethics and practices of authorship across scholarly disciplines. Plos one, 6(9), e23477.

Moore, M. T., & Griffin, B. W. (2006). Identification of factors that influence authorship name placement and decisions to collaborate in peer-reviewed, education-related publications. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 32(2), 125-135.

Nicholas, D., Rodríguez‐Bravo, B., Watkinson, A., Boukacem‐Zeghmouri, C., Herman, E., Xu, J., ... & Świgoń, M. (2017a). Early career researchers and their publishing and authorship practices. Learned Publishing, 30(3), 205-217.

Nicholas, D., Watkinson, A., Boukacem‐Zeghmouri, C., Rodríguez‐Bravo, B., Xu, J., Abrizah, A., ... & Herman, E. (2017b). Early career researchers: Scholarly behaviour and the prospect of change. Learned Publishing, 30(2), 157-166.

Osborne, J. W., & Holland, A. (2009). What is authorship, and what should it be? A survey of prominent guidelines for determining authorship in scientific publications. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 14(15), 1-19.

Paul-Hus, A., Mongeon, P., Sainte-Marie, M., & Larivière, V. (2017). The sum of it all: Revealing collaboration patterns by combining authorship and acknowledgements. Journal of Informetrics, 11(1), 80-87.

Rohwer, A., Young, T., Wager, E., & Garner, P. (2017). Authorship, plagiarism and conflict of interest: views and practices from low/middle-income country health researchers. BMJ open, 7(11), e018467.

Sandler, J. C., & Russell, B. L. (2005). Faculty-student collaborations: Ethics and satisfaction in authorship credit. Ethics & behavior, 15(1), 65-80.

Song, S. Y. (2017). What are the Principles for Assigning Authorship?. Archives of plastic surgery, 44(1), 3-4.

Stern, S., & Lemmens, T. (2011). Legal remedies for medical ghostwriting: imposing fraud liability on guest authors of ghostwritten articles. PLoS medicine, 8(8), e1001070.

Supak-Smolcic, V., Mlinarić, A., Antončić, D., Horvat, M., Omazić, J., & Simundic, A. M. (2015). ICMJE authorship criteria are not met in a substantial proportion of manuscripts submitted to Biochemia Medica. Biochemia medica: Biochemia medica, 25(3), 324-334.

Uijtdehaage, S., Mavis, B., & Durning, S. J. (2018). Whose Paper Is It Anyway? Authorship Criteria According to Established Scholars in Health Professions Education. Academic medicine: journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Vera-Badillo, F. E., Napoleone, M., Krzyzanowska, M. K., Alibhai, S. M., Chan, A. W., Ocana, A., ... & Tannock, I. F. (2016). Honorary and ghost authorship in reports of randomised clinical trials in oncology. European Journal of Cancer, 66, 1-8.

Von Bergen, C. W., & Bressler, M. S. (2017). Academe's Unspoken Ethical Dilemma: Author Inflation in Higher Education. Research in Higher Education Journal, 32.


APA Citation of entire blog: Black Cat Editing blog (

APA Citation of this blog post: Barza, L. (2018, October 30) Guests & Ghosts: Who's in and who's (in)visible on your next paper. [Blog post]. Retrieved from …



What do you think about the definition of authorship?

What type of pressures have you encountered to include guest authors?

Have you ever been deprived of authorship when you thought it was warranted?

How does guest and ghost authorship hurt the integrity of scientists?

How can we create a culture of integrity within our institutions?

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