How good are journals at policing authorship?

One of the most contentious issues in scholarly publishing is authorship. Sometimes there’s forgery involved, but most of the time the tension is more mundane but also more pernicious: Researchers who did most of the work wondering why “honorary” authors suddenly appear on papers, or wondering why their own names didn’t appear.

Journals, it would seem, are a good bulwark against such abuses. And many have subscribed to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors’ (ICMJE) Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts, which include these requirements for authorship:

  • Authorship credit should be based on 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3.

Notice the “and,” meaning that each author must fulfill all three requirements.

So how well are journals policing authorship? A group of Spanish researchers took a look, and what they found wasn’t pretty.

In a study published in this week’s Archives of Internal Medicine, Xavier Bosch and colleagues report that fewer than half — 44% — of 135 top-rated journals required all three ICMJE conditions. Perhaps worse, almost as many journals — 39% — required none of the conditions.

Those journals that subscribed to the ICMJE’s Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts were more likely to require any conditions — 82% of them did, compared to 48% of those who didn’t subscribe.

The authors write:

Clear authorship criteria are essential to ensure rigorous scientific inquiry and help readers judge which authors are making what types of contributions. Journals not posting authorship statements nor adhering to ICMJE policies are serving science badly because, without their support, the numbers of unmerited authors are unlikely to diminish significantly. Biomedical journals should pursue consensus on authorship definitions more vigorously, ensuring uniform adoption of ICMJE criteria, either current or updated to include quantitative measures, for original articles and reviews.

We asked Steve Shafer, editor-in-chief of Anesthesia & Analgesia, what he thought of the results. The journal, we should note, requires all three and requires disclosure of authorship roles, which they publish along with the paper. Authors aren’t always happy about that, says Shafer, who wasn’t surprised by the findings: 

Authors regularly complain about Anesthesia & Analgesia’s disclosure requirements. They would not complain if extensive disclosure was common.

We asked Shafer what he thought of the Archives study’s authors’ recommendation that there should be a standardized contributorship disclosure form:

Standardized author disclosure may be a good idea, but it depends on the details. Will such a disclosure include our requirement that at least two authors (of multiauthored papers) attest to having seen the original research data and actively participating in the data analysis? Will such the disclosure be so onerous as to discourage legitimate authors from accepting authorship?

 As always, we look forward to hearing what Retraction Watch readers think.

17 thoughts on “How good are journals at policing authorship?”

  1. The only part that surprises me is that authors actually complain about the disclosure statements. When Nature (hardly a progressive publisher) first started including these in all articles, I thought “this is great, why doesn’t everyone do this?” The major problem I see, however, is that it’s effectively impossible to verify the contributions, and the statements are usually too vague: “X.X., Y.Y., Z.Z. analyzed the data” could mean that X.X. was the grad student who actually did the experiment, Y.Y. was the PI and senior author who occasionally looked over X.X.’s shoulder, and Z.Z. uttered words of encouragement at the weekly department happy hour. And is any grad student or postdoc really going to complain that Z.Z. was made a co-author, especially when this might improve the chances of getting the paper into a prestigious journal?

    (I enjoy parsing disclosure statements for hints of this, especially when an extra very senior professor is included, usually second- or third-from-last, and is the sole contributor from his or her lab.)

    1. Shouldn’t those people “extra very senior professor is included, usually second- or third-from-last, and is the sole contributor from his or her lab” be contributors and not authors?

      Contributors Listed in Acknowledgments (section).

      All contributors who do not meet the criteria for authorship should be listed in an acknowledgments section. Examples of those who might be acknowledged include a person who provided purely technical help, writing assistance, or a department chairperson who provided only general support. Editors should ask corresponding authors to declare whether they had assistance with study design, data collection, data analysis, or manuscript preparation. If such assistance was available, the authors should disclose the identity of the individuals who provided this assistance and the entity that supported it in the published article. Financial and material support should also be acknowledged.

      Groups of persons who have contributed materially to the paper but whose contributions do not justify authorship may be listed under such headings as “clinical investigators” or “participating investigators,” and their function or contribution should be described—for example, “served as scientific advisors,” “critically reviewed the study proposal,” “collected data,” or “provided and cared for study patients.” Because readers may infer their endorsement of the data and conclusions, these persons must give written permission to be acknowledged.

      1. @Bernard Soares: “Shouldn’t those people ‘extra very senior professor is included, usually second- or third-from-last, and is the sole contributor from his or her lab’ be contributors and not authors?”

        Yes, of course – but we all know that’s not what happens in practice. However, I would add the caution that applying the standards you cite too strictly risks leaving out junior students and support staff, who often contribute significant effort to articles, but rarely have any part in writing the paper. The standard in most labs I’ve encountered in is that anyone contributing significant original work to the published results gets to be a co-author. I think this is entirely appropriate, especially since these individuals have few opportunities to publish their own work. Being listed in the acknowledgments section of an article is not as helpful to one’s career as being listed in PubMed.

        There’s still no excuse for all authors not having at least read and approved the final manuscript, of course.

  2. Author disclosure is an irrelevance and considered an annoyance by most researchers. The fact is that a person willing to be included on a paper to which they did not contribute are not troubled about providing a fictitious author statement. They can even just tell a junior author to write the statement for them.

    I see no solution to this problem, but it is definitely the most common violation of ethics.

  3. Author disclosures are can be useful if there are subsequent accusations of scientific misconduct: if an author justifies authorship because they “analyzed the data”, they would bear more responsibility if the data turned out to be dodgy.

    I do see a problem with the requirement for final approval of the version to be published. This could mean that if a student or post-doc leaves a lab, and the PI writes up their work, they can exclude them from co-authorship by not showing them the manuscript. While this is in actual fact plagiarism (taking someone’s words or ideas without acknowledgement) a PI could claim that the authorship requirements prevent them from offering authorship to the student/post-doc because they haven’t approved the final version.

    The way to fix this problem is to state that no-one who has made a substantial intellectual contribution to a paper can be excluded from authorship.

  4. Why can’t scientific publications be more like music? On a CD, there is info about who played the drums, who sang, who wrote the song, who played the bass etc. Why cant we just say: the paper was X idea; Y did the experiment with the help of A and B. X wrote the paper and did the analysis. The senior author read the paper at the end and made some editing of the writing and grammar (but because he is the chairman, he gets to have his name at the end of every paper…..)

    Residencies have ACGME requirements to publish. All faculty need to be publishing, so If someone is not, he gets squeezed into the next paper published…..

    My current fellowship program is very different from what I know from other places. We play by the rules. Ideas usually come from the faculty, fellows perform the experiment and then come up with figures and tables. Since we get formal training in biostatistics, we sometimes do the analysis. Faculty then writes the whole paper. But again, this information about the roles of each author could be useful for the reader and is never included in a paper…….

    Maybe we should include this at the end of each paper:

    Idea: X
    Scut work: Y
    Analysis: Z
    Writing: A

    I guess is more complicated than that…..

    1. “We play by the rules.”

      Meaning that the paper coming from your place have only faculty as athuors? According to the rules as cited above (sure, they do differ a bit by field), every author is supposed to have taken part in the writing of the manuscript, which you say that fellows do not do at your place.

      Or are fellows authors as well, arguing that the comments they made were sufficient contribution to the “writing” part? Which I would fully understand (coming from a field that has slightly different rules on this aspect), but which does raise the question of how closely those who claim to follow the rules actually do follow them. And if “nobody” follows this particular rule, would mean that this particular rule should be modified or everybody’s behaviour?

      1. Fellows do write the tables and figures, but not the intro or the discussion. If writing tables and figures is not writing, then you are right, and we might not be following the rules. But the rules are vague and not necessarily say that every author has to contribute with all the sections on the paper. I went back and read the rules:
        “Authorship credit should be based on 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3.”
        We are ok with rule 1, if rule 2 includes tables and figures we are ok, and number 3 we follow to….

  5. Once, I was not co-author of the paper that described the phenomenon I discovered: I left the lab and produced no any figures; once more, the technician that was trained by me to use my methods was co-author but not me; one more paper contains the figure that based on my primary detailed data referenced as unpublished… Last year paper was published that contains verbatim and data citation from my PhD thesis (>10 years ago), neither me nor my husband and co-worker are co-authors (but mentioned in acknowledgements).
    As lucky compensation, probably, other people include me as co-author just for shared idea. But I still feel uneasy for what I consider my input.

    In sum, no any standardized author disclosure will make this process more or less fair. Everything depends.

    1. Dear Elena,

      You need to complain to the journals. Maybe you you have already done this.
      From what you write you have the evidence, your PhD thesis.
      Plagiarism is a serious offence.

  6. “why “honorary” authors suddenly appear on papers”

    It can make all the difference between the paper getting accepted in a high profile journal vs average journal. These things are obvious to most people, at least in my field, but there is no authorship police to investigate or to enforce anything. Same reason why crappy papers with a honorary “star” name on them get published in Nature? Take France, for example, where academia is organized in a strict hierarchy. There are a few “megastars” in the country who hog all the resources, and always have stuff ending up in these journals. And the papers are mediocre at best, most of the time. These people probably control most of the grants in their field, as they review them (either themselves or by means of people who work for them or are afraid of them); they probably control the few jobs in the field in their country as well. Often, their name gets on papers because people are afraid of repercussions if it does not. And so on. Same in Germany, I’m afraid. In the US is a bit different, as the country is bigger, and so no single emperor really emerges, just a bunch of local kings. Locally it’s as bad as in France, but at least you can change state, not country, and still have career.

    1. I do not know about France, although it has a very long history of a centralised state, but Germany is as described by Jon Beckman. His last point about how you can change states in the US is well taken.
      I have a project at the moment looking into German dermatology. I find a carved up state with low scientific output (sometimes less than zero. A retraction counting as less than zero).

      1. The Paus (Lübeck) half of the Bulfone-Paus/Paus equation is a dermatologist.

      He has amassed 7 retractions and an expression of concern.

      2. Michael Hertl (Marburg), another dermatologist with one retraction so far, another on the way.

      3. At least one retraction and a publication ban from Ulrich Hengge (Duesseldorf), also a dermatologist.
      I believe that a retraction of recent experimental work is on the way.

      There are also lesser “stars”, but thier retractions have not yet surfaced.

      The funny thing is that both 1 and 2 work on bullous (blistering) diseases, have hundreds of publications but not a single overlap.

      I have known several dermatologists, a few very good ones. You don’t find them in the emergency room very often. Does this give them too much time on their hands, and titles which spell-bind Germans, and Austrians more so I hear?

  7. This criticism is of another German dematology lab.

    He got a German cancer prize:

    Dr. Pangloss would say that if he is a professor and got a prize the paper must be valid.

    He compared himself, and a recent Nobel prize winner, with the disciples of Jesus on Deuschlandfunk, one of the leading cultural/educational broadcasters, similar to the BBC, or NPR, and now it is “schriftlich”, i.e. in writing:

    “”Wir waren ja wie die Jünger Jesu” = We were liske the disciples of Jesus

    Mediziner aus Erlangen über die Arbeit mit dem verstorbenen Nobelpreisträger Ralph Steinman

    Gerold Schuler im Gespräch mit Christiane Knoll”

    A man who knows his own worth. Only the heavens can determine the fate of that paper though.

    Once, on the U-Bahn I saw this quotation from Helmut Schmidt, who is an ex-Chancellor, and commonly thought the most popular living leader of Germany.

    “Wer Visionen hat, sollte zum Arzt gehen.” = whoever has visions should go to the doctor.
    The question is: which doctor?

  8. ” “wie Jesus mit seinen Jüngern”, erinnert sich der Erlangener Immunologe Gerold Schuler”

    = like Jesus and his disciples, remembers the Erlangen immunologist Gerold Schuler

    is how die Zeit reports the comparison made by Gerold Schuler between the Nobel prize winner of Ralph Steinman and his students, including Gerold Schuler, which is a very similar formulation of what was reported by Deutschlandfunk

    Two sources are more reliable than one is generally thought to be true.

  9. Just to note here that “author” for acaddemic purposes is not the same thing as “author” for copyright purposes. For copyright purposes “author” is pretty strictly associated with the actual writing of the paper, and not at all with the underlying analysis or ideas presented. Unless, of course the article is a “work made for hire,” in which case the emplyer is the “author.”

  10. Just read this at the end of a urology article published in European Urology:

    Author contributions: Jonathan C. Routh had full access to all the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.
    Study concept and design: Routh, Bogaert. Acquisition of data: Routh, Bogaert. Analysis and interpretation of data: Routh, Bogaert, Kaefer, Manzoni, Park, Retik, Rushton, Snodgrass, Wilcox. Drafting of the manuscript: Routh. Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: Bogaert, Kaefer, Manzoni, Park, Retik, Rushton, Snodgrass, Wilcox. Statistical analysis: Routh. Obtaining funding: None. Administrative, technical, or material support: None. Supervision: Routh. Other (specify): None.

    Every article should include something like this at the end….

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