Medical students are taught early that guest authorship is acceptable

A recent study done by Lakartidningen, the journal of the Swedish Medical Association, among 499 newly qualified doctors of medical science has shown that even at the beginning of their careers, doctors are not adhering to rules on authorship. The English summary is here , full text of Swedish report is here. According to the study, “people had been cited as authors in breach of the authorship guidelines of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors in 47 percent of medical dissertations.”

In detail, the findings were that “In 30 percent of the dissertations, there were 'authors' who had not made any significant scientific contribution. Breaches of the rule that a person cited as a co-author shall have written or critically reviewed the article occurred in 41 percent of the dissertations. 14 percent of the newly qualified doctors stated that there were articles in their dissertations by 'authors' who had not read or approved the article prior to publication.”

These are astonishing findings – and ones that argue even more for institutions to have robust policies in place on what constitutes authorship and clear education for students and faculty on what is and what is not acceptable as regards both ghost an guest authorship. There is clearly a way to go. A recent paper in PLoS Medicine has shown that in academic medical centres in the US only 13 of 50 (26%) publicly prohibit their faculty from participating in ghost-writing.

As quoted in the article Mats Ulfendahl, principal secretary for the Swedish Research Council’s Scientific Council for Medicine and Health, says "I believe that what is needed above all is a discussion on this problem, which everyone, to a varying extent, is aware of. In my view, the most important thing shown by the questionnaire is that there has been no discussion on these principles, at least not in such a way as to be understood by the doctoral students. This is a general failure on the part of supervisors"

It’s clear that academic institutions need to step up to the plate and get their policies in order.