We have noticed some authors who are publishing at a rate that is exceptionally high.
(1) An author of a recent submission has published over 100 articles since January 2005; he had published fewer than 50 in the preceding 5 years. This is quite a sudden increase. On average, he published 1 article every 8 days in 2005, and in 2006 this increased to 1 every 4 days. The author is on the board of his institute, and is a department head.
(2) Another recent author published nearly 100 articles in PubMed in 2006, and more than 50 in both 2004 and 2005. This is 1 article every 4 days in 2006, every 6 days in 2005 and every 7 days in 2004. The author is a laboratory director.
Publication rates that are this high have raised our suspicions that the authors may not truly qualify for authorship under the ICMJE guidelines for each article.
It has been shown that some infamous cases of fraud were by prolific authors ("High annual publication rates had characterised many of the international research misconduct cases, which had begun to come to light in the mid-1970s" http://www.bmj.com/
cgi/reprint/331/7511/281.pdf; Lock S, Wells F: Fraud and misconduct in biomedical research. BMJ Books, 1993), for example, Robert Slutsky published 1 paper every 10 days.
Questions for COPE:
Is our suspicion of these authors reasonable, and at what levels do other editors become concerned about whether or not an author is truly deserving of authorship?
When should we, as journal editors, raise concerns about overly prolific authors to institutions?
Is there any way to identify the most prolific authors on a systematic basis (databases, search engines, software)?
The committee lamented that this practice, although unethical, is extremely common and is an area that is very hard to police. Some heads of departments/professors regard it as their right to have their name on every publication, even if they have no direct involvement in the research. It might be worth finding out if the author became a department head/professor in the past two years. The advice was to ask the authors whether they meet the criteria for authorship or contributorship. Another suggestion was to write an editorial, highlighting this practice. The committee also warned that, although unlikely, it is always possible that data may be fabricated, and this should be considered. Ultimately however, the consensus was that although this practice is not condoned by COPE, it is a frequent occurrence and a very difficult area for editors to control.
We had no concerns about the data being presented, and the author had indeed become department chair and a boardmember of the institute. We did not reject the manuscript, but did mention to our prolific author that we were surprised to see so many submissions and publications, given the work involved in the research and write-up of each article to actually qualify as author (as specified by our instructions for authors).
We have received no response from the author in this regard, but the number of submissions to our journals have decreased. This is not, as yet, reflected in the author's Pubmed record, which on last glance had over 20 publications in 2008 already.