Ghost Authorship, Gift Authorship, Guest Authorship – 3 Practices to Avoid
Defining authorship is a big point of confusion for researchers around the world. This is because authorship is often open to abuse, and early career researchers, in particular, are unsure of how to define contributions to their research and, thus, whom to include as authors of their papers.
Updated on November 16, 2022
Ghost authorship is when someone who substantially contributed to a study is left out of the author list. Gift authorship and guest authorship are when someone who doesn’t qualify as an author is still given credit for being one.
These situations are unethical (they’re questionable research practices, QRPs). You might be tempted as a researcher to add a ghost, guest, or gift author to one of your papers, but – don’t do it. It can seriously damage your career.
But it can be challenging to understand when and how to avoid authorship misconduct. This post will help you understand just what these types of undesirable “authors” are.
- the differences between ghost, gift, and guest authorship with real-world examples
- why such practices occur and what’s their impact
- how to avoid authorship abuse
Who is an author?
An author, by definition, makes substantial intellectual contributions to a publication.
A synthesis of existing definitions by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE, PDF) suggests that an author is someone who:
- contributes substantially to the
- concept or design of the reported work or
- data collection, analysis, or interpretation; and
- drafts or substantively revises the content of the work; and
- reviews and approves the publication of the final manuscript; and
- agrees to
- be accountable for all aspects of the work or
- identify which co-authors are responsible for specific parts of the work
Defining “authorship” is a big point of confusion for researchers around the world. This is because authorship is often open to abuse, and early career researchers, in particular, are unsure of how to define “contributions” to their research and, thus, whom to include as authors of their papers.
Authorities on authorship
Editorial and scientific organizations in different disciplines provide strict guidelines on the acceptable roles of authors in peer-reviewed publications.
If you’re a medical researcher, you can consult the guidelines of:
- National Association of Science Writers
- International Committee of Medical Journal Editors
- American Medical Writers Association
In sum, academic research article authorship comes with creative responsibility, legal rights, and obligations.
While you may be under pressure to list someone as an author, or you may feel entitled to authorship, if you don’t qualify, it’s unethical to list yourself. It’s also dangerous.
One useful rule of thumb is: Could you stand up and give a talk (and answer questions) about the research project in question? If not, then you shouldn’t be an author on the publication.
Journal editors tend to trust when papers are submitted by academics, asking just for contributions to be listed, often at the end of an article or during an online submission system. This makes it relatively easy to add authors and list their contributions in general, broad, and undefined ways. That’s not a good thing.
So, let’s break down these three main bad actors.
What is ghost authorship?
Ghost authorship describes professional writers who get paid to do scientific work officially attributed to another author. The contribution of these writers (and/or researchers) is omitted from the author list and acknowledgments. This practice is also known as anonymous authorship.
This practice is prevalent because of the growing pressure on researchers to publish original research. In many biomedical research institutions, students can only graduate after publishing at least one first-authored paper in a certain kind of journal (e.g., SCI-listed, SCOPUS Q1 or Q2).
Promotion, tenure, and research prestige depend to a great extent on an individual’s publication record.
Example 1: A researcher hires a ghostwriter
A ghostwriter can be a scientific writer or investigator hired to help the main author with data analysis or manuscript drafting and editing.
Many low-key online services promise to write a scientific manuscript or dissertation from scratch. These operators' fees often rise to thousands of dollars.
Example 2: Ghostwriting in healthcare research
A nastier example of ghost authorship involves a conflict of interest. It has thrived in clinical/medical journals since the 2000s.
Say that a pharmaceutical company wants to promote a new product in the healthcare community. They then sponsor relevant medical research, such as a large-scale clinical trial, to test the efficacy of a particular drug or therapy. This “research” is then conducted either by academics or contract research organizations, and a medical communication agency is hired to write up the study.
To gain credibility and legitimacy, this study is published under the name of well-known scientists. These might have done part of the research or reviewed/edited the final manuscript. They’re often aware of the backstage and receive generous compensation for lending their name.
Famous ghostwriting scandals include a situation when a University of Wisconsin professor was paid $1,500 to put his name on a study on the therapeutic effects of Redux, a diet pill that was ordered off the market a year later. Doctors began to report heart-valve injuries in up to a third of patients who took the drug. The drug was later related to dozens of patient deaths.
This type of ghost authorship results in serious ethical lapses. It can cause risk or injury to patients and harm people's and clinicians' trust in science.
How to avoid ghost authorship
Being honest will save you from plunging into ghost authorship.
The Council of Science Editors suggests that anonymous citations should only be allowed when the author fears revealing the identity could threaten their life.
Unless you, or a co-author, find themselves in this unlikely situation, it’s important to list everyone who has contributed to the study in a straightforward way on an article’s authorship. This will ensure that only persons satisfying authorship criteria are included in the byline.
Most journal editors have explicit policies to protect transparency in publishing. For example, the journal Nature has mandatory “author contribution statements” which serve to clarify exactly what each author actually did.
Similarly, the journal Science encourages authors to follow the CRediT model to list contributions to research outputs. This is a high-level taxonomy with 14 roles (e.g., writing, conceptualization, or data validation).
It’s also important to consider if your research sponsor (or anyone else) might gain or lose financially through your publication. If yes, then you need to declare this in a competing interest statement. Most journals have a transparent competing interests policy.
Always check the target journal's “Instructions for Authors” for specific authorship instructions.
What is gift authorship?
Gift authorship occurs when an author is credited on a study but doesn't fulfill the criteria for authorship. It's also known as honorary authorship. In other words, it's a gift; the person isn’t an author by definition. They might be a lab group leader or another senior academic.
Example 1: Authorship gifted to a senior person
Most commonly, a junior researcher will mention a senior investigator, supervisor, head of the department, or other superior as an author. However, that person didn’t substantially contribute to the work. This is done in gratitude, for example, for a supervisor’s guidance or constructive feedback.
Most often, this is seen as a mutually beneficial situation. For example, junior scientists think that having a senior co-author boosts their manuscript’s chances of a favorable review and publication in a higher-impact journal. At the same time, the senior investigator adds another publication to their CV.
Research has shown that adding more senior, well-known authors to papers raises their chances of successful review and eventual publication.
Example 2: Authorship gifted to a colleague/junior person
Gift authorship is also given to junior researchers to help them kickstart their careers. And it’s bestowed when authors want to repay a favor. It might even be given to maintain good relations with colleagues and collaborators.
Researchers often justify this misconduct by stressing the complex and multi-disciplinary nature of modern research groups. Some lab members might be more invested in clinical work or recruiting study subjects. Others might be more involved in writing and publication.
In other words, gift authorship is seen as a way to acknowledge the “passive contribution” of different members to the overall research aims.
What is guest authorship?
Guest authorship happens when influential individuals “lend” their name to a study to boost its credibility. However, these people weren’t involved in the actual research.
There are overlaps with gift authorship, and the two are often confused. In both cases, the people involved consider the arrangement mutually beneficial. Consider the example of the junior investigator citing a senior person, discussed above.
A key reason behind guest authorship is the hierarchical structure of modern laboratories. For example, principal investigators often insist their names be included or be listed first in research undertaken in their department or laboratory. They demand this because they obtained the research funds or offered top-level supervision. This is a form of “coercive authorship”.
Why you should avoid ghost, gift, and guest authorship
Gift and guest authorship are widespread types of academic dishonesty. They're often regarded as “standard practice” in large collaborative groups. This is bad.
These authorships are unethical. Like ghost authorship, gift and guest authorship put transparency in science at stake. They mean that authors don’t get credit proportional to their work.
Also, an honorary author might be held accountable if there’s a problem with the study (e.g., data manipulation). Occasionally, guest authors washed their hands, claiming that the first author “plagiarized the material.”
Doctoral students often have valid reasons to avoid abusive authorship attribution. They might want to move to industry after finishing their PhD. They count on publishing a paper (as single authors) to demonstrate their skills to prospective employers.
How to avoid ghost, gift, and guest authorship
Use the Acknowledgments section to recognize the direct contributions people made to your work. These can be:
- A laboratory assistant who helped you out with lab tests and experiments
- A colleague who helped you make the illustrations
- A supervisor/senior researcher who provided valuable feedback
Use the acknowledgment section to thank everyone who helped with the research (design, implementation, dissemination) but does not qualify for authorship. Most scientific journals, including Science and Nature, endorse this practice.
It’s a good place, for instance, to recognize funding or the person who secured it. Use simple statements like
- “The authors disclose support for the research of this work from Funder [X] and Funder [Y].”
- “The authors thank [full name] of [company] for providing editorial/proofreading support.”
- “The authors are grateful to [full name] for their valuable comments on improving this manuscript.”
Just as important as making a substantial contribution, if you’re listed as an author on an academic paper, then you’re responsible for its contents, including if there are any issues later.
Get in touch with the AJE team if you need more information about managing authorship on your next paper, or go here to learn more about publication (including authorship) ethics.