Research Article: Authors, Ghosts, Damned Lies, and Statisticians

Date Published: January 16, 2007

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Elizabeth Wager

Abstract: None

Partial Text: Since the earliest peer-reviewed publications of the late 17th century, conventions about the authorship of scientific papers—which were generally anonymous and attributed to the sponsor (in those days, usually the church or the king)—have evolved considerably [1]. Readers now want to know not only who paid for the research but also who did the work. Transparency (i.e., full disclosure) is now considered a moral responsibility, and many medical journals have introduced mechanisms for increasing transparency [2]. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) has also issued guidance on who qualifies for authorship [3], and their criteria have been updated and augmented several times in response to several authorship scandals [4]. Yet problems with authorship persist.

In a new study published in PLoS Medicine, Peter Gøtzsche and colleagues compared research protocols with study publications to examine the prevalence and nature of ghost authorship in 44 industry-initiated randomized trials [5]. They defined ghost authorship as occurring when anybody who wrote the protocol, did the statistical analysis, or wrote the manuscript was not listed as an author. Using this criterion of ghost authorship (which is based, loosely, on the ICMJE definition), they showed that 75% of the publications had ghost authors and, in all cases, the ghosts were statisticians.

The question of whether writers merit authorship if they are involved only at the publication stage of a study has not been resolved. Guidelines from the European Medical Writers Association state that such writers usually do not qualify for authorship although their role should be acknowledged [9]. The ICMJE criteria state that all authors should have made a substantial contribution not only to developing the manuscript but also to other aspects such as collecting, analysing, or interpreting the data [3]. It could be argued that the act of drafting a manuscript always involves an element of interpretation, yet many writers feel they do not fulfil the overarching principle that authors should be able to take public responsibility for the study.

One clear implication of Gøtzsche et al.’s study is that the ICMJE authorship criteria are widely ignored. This may not be surprising in light of an earlier study that showed that 62% of a sample of 66 British academics disagreed with at least one aspect of the ICMJE criteria [11]. However, Gøtzsche and colleagues’ study is the first to show how often statisticians are omitted from authorship lists. This omission might suggest either that the ICMJE criteria should be revised to reflect current thinking or that it should be more strongly enforced. But journal editors are often not well placed to detect authorship abuse (especially missing authors) and have a poor track record in terms of educating contributors about authorship criteria. A more pragmatic approach would be to adopt the contributorship system and let researchers and readers make up their own minds about who deserves to be listed.



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