Each year AJN receives hundreds of queries and manuscript submissions from authors ranging from experienced clinicians to novice nurses and first-time writers. We welcome the opportunity to present the work of nurses and are proud of the impact these articles have. But recently, we've noticed a trend of inappropriate authorship, and conversations with other editors indicate that our experience isn't unique. As clinicians and academicians complete manuscripts developed over the summer and as faculty and students prepare capstone or thesis papers for publication, we decided this was the right time to address this issue.
Recently we received a manuscript that was well written, cited references appropriately, and offered cutting-edge information. The sole author was an experienced clinician with excellent credentials. We had high hopes—until we noticed that the contact e-mail address was that of someone at a medical communications company. When we queried the author, she said that she'd had “writing assistance.” Asking for more details revealed that this “assistance” included writing the initial draft and revision of subsequent drafts, and that the pharmaceutical company that manufactured two of the drugs discussed in the paper had paid for the writing assistance. We rejected the manuscript.
Or consider this scenario: one of our editors will send queries about a manuscript to the lead author, only to be told that this author didn't actually write the paper and that the editor should direct all queries to a coauthor. Often that coauthor turns out to be a student, and the lead author, a faculty member. Unfortunately, we're seeing both of these situations with increasing frequency.
According to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, in order to be named as an author, one must meet three criteria:
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.
This means what it says—that if a person has contributed essential ideas or data, participated in writing or revising drafts, and taken responsibility for the final article, that person is an author and must be included as such. It also means that a faculty advisor whose participation is limited to reading and grading a paper, perhaps providing advice on where to submit it or otherwise “cheerleading” a student on, does not qualify as an author. Students should expect faculty coauthors to contribute content and to work beside them in developing a paper into a publishable article. Faculty have a responsibility to promote intellectual integrity and ethical behaviors. Working with students on a paper that will carry each of their names shows both.
We aren't opposed to authors who seek assistance with writing. Writing is a skill to be learned, and some people need more help than others in mastering it. It's fine for authors to get help with grammar, clarity, organization, or any other aspect of writing mechanics. But having someone else write a draft or add substantial content goes beyond the realm of assistance. This is called ghostwriting, which is not acceptable in scholarly publication.
Authors need to acknowledge any writing assistance they receive, and if that assistance was compensated, who paid. When writing assistance is provided by a writer paid by a company with a stake in the outcome, bias and “spin” can be introduced, whether inadvertently or intentionally. Transparency about such relationships alerts editors, reviewers, and potential readers that bias might exist. To avoid any suggestion of bias, many hospitals and schools of nursing underwrite writing support for staff; authors seeking help might start there. Novice authors might also join a writing group or ask a more experienced author to coauthor a paper.
As the nursing editors responsible for AJN's content, we are committed to fulfilling its 112-year legacy of providing “the most useful facts, the most progressive thought, and the latest news” and to do so in keeping with our mission of “adherence to standards of journalistic integrity and excellence.” We believe this is a concept on which all nurses can agree.