Gift authorship common in psychology, survey suggests

Gert Storms

New findings from a survey of psychology researchers show nearly half of the respondents have encountered unethical authorship practices in studies they have been involved in.

Researchers in Belgium surveyed more than 800 people involved in psychological research about their experiences with gift and ghost authorship, as well as the use of explicit authorship guidelines at their institutions. 

Almost half said they had witnessed gift authorship on more than one occasion – in other words, the respondents saw someone listed as an author when they had made little or no contribution to a paper. Ghost authorship –  excluding someone from a paper when they have made a significant contribution – was far less common, with fewer than one in five of the respondents reporting that they had dealt with the phenomenon. Since the authors used a convenience sample, the data show signs of authorship misconduct in psychology, but don’t tell the whole story. 

Gert Storms, a professor of psychology and educational sciences at KU Leuven, and an author of the paper, which was posted to the OSF Preprints server on December 11, says the science community pays little attention to inappropriate authorship compared with other misconduct, and the questionable practice goes largely unchecked. 

Storms says the manuscript of the survey’s results has been desk rejected three times. One editor cited concerns about informed consent. For that reason, the authors decided not to share the data openly, they said. 

“These findings should be known,” Storms says. “I’m not concerned about getting it published in a way that gives me ‘a new publication with my name on it’. At my age, I just don’t care for that. It is the message.” 

Storms himself has witnessed several instances of undeserving bylines. Early in his career, somebody was given a byline on a paper Storms published even though they had made no contribution to the paper apart from applying for grant money. 

While the survey did not ask respondents why they believed the authorship misconduct occurred, Storms says the practice is advantageous for the perpetrators. “It will affect research to a large extent because it determines how much research money and grants people get, who gets hired, who is kicked out of the race and so on,” he says. 

Gift authorship in particular helps researchers accumulate publications to their name – crucial to academic recognition for those pressured by the ‘publish or perish’ culture in academia. 

“When I see CVs where people have one paper every eight or nine days, what should one think about this?” Storms says.  “Who has an idea that is worth putting on paper, and who contributes substantially to things that can be published every eight or nine days? That is simply impossible.” 

Other research on questionable authorship practices indicates a much higher prevalence of gift and ghost authorship in the biomedical field compared with psychology. One study of biomedical researchers reported 75% of respondents had experienced the addition of an undeserving author to a paper they had worked on. The same survey found that more than 30% of respondents had encountered a ghost author – a practice that may be more frequent in a field with regular industry collaboration, Storms says. In some fields, “it’s simply better for the credibility of the findings that [some authors] are not mentioned,” he says. 

Authorship criteria vary between institutions. The American Psychological Association’s authorship standards state that “substantial scientific contributions” warrant authorship of a paper; the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) guidelines, which are widely adopted by scientific journals, recommend authors should also draft or revise the work, in addition to having contributed substantially to the paper, among other criteria. 

“Defining what is a substantial contribution can lead to debate,” says Steven De Peuter, a staff member of the Research Coordination Office at KU Leuven and an author of the paper. A recent study has shown researchers often don’t agree with what is enough of a contribution to deserve authorship. 

In the new survey, each respondent was asked a series of questions about a paper they had recently published. When authorship guidelines – such as those developed by the APA or ICMJE – were not used to decide who should be an author on the paper, respondents were more likely to think that the decision was unfair. Likewise, if the respondents’ research setting did not encourage any authorship guidelines, they were more likely to believe the final authorship decisions weren’t a fair reflection of contribution. 

“I think the main point is that people need to be willing to discuss what the criteria are,” De Peuter says. “That also helps incredibly to establish an atmosphere of fairness and openness.” He also notes that authorship disputes often are a symptom of a pre-existing conflict. 

Guidelines that require writing for authorship tend to exclude members of the research group  with less tangible roles. For example, under ICMJE guidelines, “if I’m just a brilliant engineer who figured out how to get my machine to do the new trick, that doesn’t necessarily qualify me for authorship,” says Alex Holcombe, a professor of psychology at the University of Sydney and expert in authorship issues. “We’re stuck in a system that is not set up for indicating who did what.” 

Contributorship – a system that categorizes each person’s contributions to a paper – is a more transparent approach, Holcombe argues. He backs the classification system CRediT, or the Contributor Roles Taxonomy, which includes roles such as software and visualization, as well as the more traditional roles of writing,conceptualization and funding acquisition. Thousands of journals have already adopted the system, but it exists alongside the traditional system of authorship and is not yet routine across the research landscape. 

Authorship misconduct has been relatively overlooked compared with other types of research misconduct, Storms says. In the 1980s, William Bevan, then president of the American Psychological Association, said decisions about authorship, like those about sex, should “have a degree of intimacy about them.” 

“I have the impression that the same attitude is still present in psychology,” Storms says. “And that’s really a shame.”

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5 thoughts on “Gift authorship common in psychology, survey suggests”

  1. I think the answer is obvious: When the fraud blows up, as it all too often does, every author has to take full responsibility and face all the consequences. All too often these authors in name only are allowed to shrug it off without any consequences. For valued contributors not taking responsibility for the finished product there are the accknoledgements. That’s what they are for.
    Yes this doesn’t help with a genuine article written without faked data. At least ist would force all “authors” at least to read what they claim to have written and would presumably stop all those glaring mistakes I all too often find from going undetected.

  2. I agree with Axel Berger that proper acknoweldgments that state exactly what each author contributed are important. The percentages quoted above are meaningless to me, because after 40+ years, I have experienced many questionable behaviours, but they are much rarer now, so you need to account for how long ago that misconduct was experienced.

  3. As a former patent attorney, we were forever having to explain to the US Patent Office why there were far more authors on the academic paper than inventors on the patent application. The usual excuse was that a lot of people contributed to the work but not to the invention.

  4. “apart from applying for grant money”
    Well, there you have it. I’ve had a number of collaborative grants shot down explicitly because the collaborator and I hadn’t published together yet. (Of course we don’t have any eggs. You haven’t bought us the chicken yet!) It would be interesting to know how many of these gift authorships are explicitly meant to lay groundwork for proposals.

    As for ghosting, it goes both ways. Sometimes the ghost is the problematic one, but I’ve released quite a bit of data to people I’ve come to not want to be associated with.

  5. “ Storms says the manuscript of the survey’s results has been desk rejected three times. One editor cited concerns about informed consent. For that reason, the authors decided not to share the data openly,”
    That all seems questionable. The preprint reads well and gives the impression of a careful analysis. The survey questions are in the SI and responses could not be de-anonymized. Informed consent? As if respondents weren’t aware it was for a study? How does not publishing data help? Hope the authors push it forward. Another pub might not matter to senior author Storms but it likely would to student first author.
    The CRediT declarations might be better than nothing, but they have a low bar for author inclusion. Contributions such as supervision, funding acquisition, or reviewing the draft qualify for CReDiT.

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