Editors and the pandemic of gift authorship
A while ago, I wrote a piece in the BMJ about gift authorship (doi: 10.1136/bmj.39500.620174.94). I wanted to share a real case with members and seek their opinion: a friend was asked to add the name of a senior surgeon on a submission to a surgical journal, even though the latter hadn’t contributed one jot to the research. I gave him some advice, which after careful consideration he discarded. Still in the early stages of his surgical career, he opted for self-preservation. The final submission contained the name of three surgeons who had not fulfilled the authorship criteria of the ICMJE.
Following the publication of the BMJ piece, I’ve spoken to many researchers and clinicians on the issue, presenting the ICMJE criteria and exploring the ethical objections to gift authorship. On one occasion, in the Question & Answer of a lecture, a clinical professor said, “I disagree with most of what you’ve said. I obtained funding for a large research project and my name should appear on all the papers that result from the grant.” I agreed that his name should be on the papers, but in the Acknowledgements section, adding as diplomatically as I could that those who secure funding already get brownie points for their achievement.
In my naïveté, I hadn’t appreciated the extent of the problem, particularly in medicine and the basic sciences. So many researchers have approached me after a lecture or seminar, sharing similar stories to the junior surgeon’s. They feel coerced into granting gift authorship, unable to question their head of departments or senior clinical colleagues for fear of reprimand. Gift authorship, it seems, is a pandemic problem. How can we as editors deal with this, if at all? And can we do more than we currently are?