“The trade of authorship is a violent and indestructible obsession”
Authorship is a unique and controversial topic due to myriads of scholars in academia and involves numerous ethical and nonethical issues. Recently, an interesting article on research and publication ethics which addressed a current burning issue on authorship ethics observed that nearly 37% of research participants were not aware of authorship criteria proposed by International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). Nearly 30% of researchers claimed that they provide authorship to people with no or no significant contribution to the research. A recent review of literature addressing the ethical issues in scientific authorship has ranked ten themes with several ethical issues. The most common ethical issue is the attribution of contribution to authors followed by the violation of authorship norms, whereas the issues relating to the order of authors were ranked at five. A survey on the frequency of honorary authorship based on the violation of ICMJE guidelines in Indian biomedical journals was found to be 60%. This raises a serious concern regarding the publishing ethics.
The million-dollar question and the need of the hour that needs to be addressed is “who qualifies to be an author?”. This has been a perplexing and controversial issue since research fraud as well as the need to emphasize the contribution of all co-authors of the research was highlighted in 1970s and 1980s. This led to the proposal of authorship criteria by ICMJE in 1978. These guidelines have been amended multiple times with the recent update version being updated on May 2022. Authorship offers credit to a person as well as suggests that all credited authors of the research should take responsibility and accountability of the published work in addition to enjoying social, academic, and financial advancements. Currently, increase in collaborative multi-institutional research as well as multi/inter disciplinary research has led to larger research teams which makes conferring authorship a complex process. However, ICMJE criteria for authorship can aid the researchers to identify and distinguish between authors and contributors. The four criteria are as follows:
- “Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
- Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
- Final approval of the version to be published; AND
- Agreement to be accountable for all the 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.”
A person who is claimed as author should satisfy ALL four above said criteria, and any person who satisfies all the four criteria should be identified as author as well. A person who does not meet all four above criteria can be duly acknowledged as a contributor. Few examples are a person aiding in (a) acquisition of funds, (b) generalized supervision of the research group, and (c) writing/technical assistance.
At this juncture let us explore into two main types of authorship issues that is prevalent, gift, and ghost authorship. One of the many controversies on authorship ethics and a well discussed topic in the medical literature is gift authorship. This is a practise of providing authorship to persons who has no or minimal contribution to the research and does not comply with ICMJE criteria. This term encompasses the various types of authorship namely (a) honorary authors such as senior faculty at the workplace, (b) guest authorship is conferred to person who is well known in the field and enhances the stature of the research, and (c) true gift authors, to whom authorship is provided as a gift namely, a mentor, family member or former colleague without anticipating any reciprocation. A survey on publication misconduct among medical professionals in India revealed that the predominant misconduct was gifting authorship (65%) and in 86% of instances, it was gifted to a senior faculty.
In contrary, ghost authors are those who contribute to the paper substantially, but are not included as authors either willingly or unwillingly. Ghost authors could be (a) a subordinate to a senior author, (b) sponsored freelancer by pharmaceutical company with potential conflict of interest, or (c) a person voluntarily decline authorship due to various reasons. A recent international survey on the awareness and usage of authorship guidelines shows that nearly 34% respondents reported that they were not listed as authors despite contributing significantly.
An increase in the average number of authors per publication has inflated recently in all disciplines which is one major reason for ethical issues in authorship. The debate on the order of authors is another major concern in publishing and differs between various disciplines of research. Few issues regarding the order of authorship still dominates namely (a) is there any criteria to follow for the authorship order, (b) the power dynamics associated with author order, that is, the first, last and corresponding authors are more coveted and may lead to biased credits, and (c) The relationship of author's position in the sequence to that of assumed responsibility. In general, the last position in authorship might indicate seniority and the co-authors in middle might be listed randomly rather than based on responsibility. It is also observed that the authors listed in the middle are the beneficiaries as gift authors.
The way forward in avoiding such unethical practices is to implement institutional policies and conduct trainings in responsible conduct of research. The institute can implement author contribution like CRediT system. The CRediT Taxonomy subsumes 14 roles for contribution and is followed by many publisher as well as recommended by COPE experts as well as implemented by ORCID. Journals also implement author contributory forms which aid in listing the contribution of each author before submission. Authors should also be aware that change in authorship order or inclusion/exclusion of author names after submission to the journal will need consent and copyrights from all authors in the submitted manuscript.
Authorship ethics may seem like a minor concern in comparison to other research misconducts; however, it impacts the root of scientific research as well as brings discord and erodes the faith within the research team. It has to be noted that authors who are beneficiaries of gift authorship carries equal responsibility in the research integrity and cannot defend based on ignorance or innocence. The onus of ethical authorship rests on authors, researchers, and institutional policy-makers. It is pivotal and high-time that adequate importance is given to the ethical aspects of scientific authorship and promotes publication integrity, fairness, and trust among the research team.
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