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?


  • Posted by mpeasm@nus.edu.sg, 17/11/2008 3.09am

I believe the problem of "gift authorship" is all-pervasive and quite old as well. While securing research funds is increasingly important, I do agree that this should be clearly acknowledged but not in the form of co-authorship. The responsibilities of authorship are quite different and often gift autorships may lead to discredit as well to the recipient of such a gift. Sometimes it is an unwanted gift too!

This brings me to another point of multiplicity of authorship. Often I find some relatively short papers (mainly in sciences to my knowledge) have up to 30 authors. Is this reasonable or logical? Fortuntaley, I do not see this phenomenon in engineering journals.

  • Posted by carodopoulos@ya..., 15/1/2009 6.51pm

Multiple authorship means two things a) there are internal politics, sometimes fuelled by the faculty in order to increase the number of publications or b) there are multidisciplinary works where everyone has participated. Of course anything more than 4-5 people is strange and mostly serves the first. In this case the paper should be rejected.

  • Posted by Liz Wager, 19/11/2008 12.12pm

How much does it take to be an author?

I was recently asked to edit a paper written by non-native English speakers. The science was fine but the language needed considerable attention. I was saddened to note that, although the remaining authors were from a non-English speaking country, one author came from a well-respected British university and had an English-sounding name. Of course, it is possible that this English-sounding author is, in fact, not a native speaker, but if s/he is, it did make me concerned if s/he couldn't be bothered to correct the paper. There may be an innocent explanation, but I did wonder about the contributions people consider sufficient for authorship.

  • Posted by simon.donell@nn..., 20/11/2008 2.50pm

Simon Donell

Poorly written English is common, even with native English speakers. I always ask for a revision and specific assurance that ALL the authors have read and agreed the new draft. If they do not comply, I reject the paper.

  • Posted by boero@unile.it, 16/1/2009 12.51pm

The name of a author means also that that author agrees with what is written in the article, even if s/he did not participate to the work and even to the writing. If one has a very outstanding but potentially controversial result, having the name of a big shot in the authorship might help accepting the novelty. In this case the name of a person who did nothing but approving the work is some sort of endorsement of what is written in the article. I see nothing bad in it, and it helps even the editors in having a first impression about the quality of the paper.
Let's face it, if you receive an outstanding article with potentially controversial results, you are inclined to accept it (or at least to send it out for review) if the names are important or if the University is important. The very same article signed by unknown people from an obscure university might be taken with much more suspicion.
This attitude is much more dangerous than gifted authorship and represents bias and prejudice in weighting the importance of papers. In this case, the big shot might give a further chance of being considered to the bunch of obscure (but potentially good) authors.