Authorship issues – guest, gift or ghost

Guest or gift authors

A guest author is somebody who did not contribute in any way to the research and writing, but is included in the author list because they confer extra credibility on the article. A gift author is one who may have a slight relationship with the study or the article, but who would not be considered an author according to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) guidelines.

Guest/gift authorship is thought to be quite common. A frequent example is the head of department or the PhD supervisor being named in all articles. In some regions of the world this is not only expected but also required – so many authors will not realise that it is considered unethical to include these people.

Have you ever had an example of a guest or gift author in one of your articles?

Journal Editors are not expected to automatically detect this type of unethical behaviour. To ensure that appropriate credit is given to each author, and gift/guest authors are excluded, BioMed Central requires authors to state their individual contributions within the dedicated “Authors’ contributions” section of the article. This may identify individuals who would be more appropriately acknowledged for their contribution to the research (for example supervision) rather than listed as an author.

Ghost authors

A ghost author is a person who should be listed as an author, but has been excluded. This term is most often used to identify authors who are professional (medical communications) writers. These are usually commissioned (and often paid) by pharmaceutical companies to produce a paper from raw data. The authors listed on the article may have undertaken the research, created and perhaps analysed the data, but not written the article.

Ghost authorship is more common in some journals than others, and there are guidelines for such articles developed by the European Medical Writers Association. The guidelines require that the named authors should have been involved with the article from the start and should lead the writing, and that any involvement of professional medical writers must be acknowledged within the article (if they are not named as an author).

A study published in the BMJ found that 21% of papers published in 2008 in six major medical journals had guest or ghost authors. Happily this figure was lower than the findings of a similar study undertaken in 1996 which found prevalence of 29%.