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Case discussion: gift authorship

Prolific authors: case summary

Prolific authors case 07-04

The editorial team at a journal noticed that an author had high submission and publication rates. Internet checks revealed that the author, an institute board member and department head, was publishing a total of 50 to 100 articles per year. This high productivity raised suspicions that the author was not always fulfilling the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) criteria for authorship.

Questions for COPE:

  • What submission rate should make editors concerned about whether an author truly deserves authorship?
  • When should editors raise concerns about overly prolific authors to institutions?
  • Is there any way to systematically identify the most prolific authors (databases, search engines, software)?

Forum advice and follow-up

Forum lamented that prolific and unjustified authorship, although unethical, is common and hard to police. For example, some department heads insist on being named as authors in every publication. Forum suggested asking authors whether they meet authorship criteria and publishing an editorial highlighting this practice. There was also a possibility of data fabrication. The editors had no data concerns, but subsequently mentioned to the author that the high article count was surprising, given the expected research and writing workload needed to qualify as an author. There was no response, but the number of submissions from the author decreased.

Case Discussion

This archived COPE Forum case is categorised under the COPE Core Practice of Authorship and contributorship. COPE encourages journals and publishers to provide and implement clear policies that allow for transparency around who contributed to the work and in what capacity. Journals need to clearly define authorship criteria and authors should declare their contributions, for example, according to the CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) system. A matrix chart could display contributions of multiple authors, as proposed in 2019 by Nick Steinmetz; the extent of contributions could be colour-coded (as discussed in a recent Nature news blog).  Non-authoring contributors should be named, with permission, in the Acknowledgements section.

The case above was brought to COPE in 2007, but overly high productivity suggestive of systematic gift authorship is still very relevant in 2021. Gift authorship is where a person is named an author but has made no or only an insubstantial contribution to the research or article. A co-author might grant someone gift authorship (1) out of perceived duty, respect, or friendship (sometimes overlapping with guest authorship, which aims to make the author list look impressive); (2) in return for something that should instead be acknowledged, such as supervision, securing funding, or supplying materials; (3) with the arrangement or expectation of reciprocity to increase each other’s publication list; (4) in return for a future favour; or even (5) for payment. Conversely, a department head or research group leader might actively request, require, or coerce researchers to routinely add their name as senior author. 

COPE guidance on the ethics of authorship includes a COPE Discussion Document on Authorship, How to Spot Authorship Problems, and How to Recognise Potential Authorship Problems. The latter two list warning signs of possible authorship problems, including gift authorship involving overly prolific authors, especially those who are department heads. In such situations (and as illustrated in the case under discussion), editors can ask the corresponding author for clarification, following the COPE flowchart on Ghost, Guest or Gift Authorship in a Submitted Manuscript. Suspicions of gift authorship should also be raised on the receipt of requests to either add an author or remove an author before publication. 

It may be difficult to detect a consistent pattern of unethical activity from one journal submission. A cluster of submissions listing the same author/s would warrant an extensive check of past papers, including in the wider literature. Prolific authorship may reveal questionable practices like churning out superficial commentaries/letters far and wide and salami publishing, in addition to gift authorship. Unfeasibly prolific authorship of papers on widely differing topics might indicate the use of paper mills to purchase ready-made or fake papers and/or authorship, or other ways of systematically manipulating the publication process. Discussion with other journal editors may be needed, following COPE’s guideline Sharing of Information Among Editors-in-Chief Regarding Possible Misconduct.

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What submission rate should make editors concerned about whether an author truly deserves authorship?

The answer to the first question asked in Case 07-04 depends on what a reasonable rate of submission or publication is, which in turn depends on (sub)disciplinary differences in authorship criteria, study types, and structure of research groups. The case mentioned a publication rate of 100 articles per year, or 1 article every 4 days. In The Behavior Analyst Today, Daniel Shabani et al (2004) reported that the 53 most prolific authors in the field of behaviour sciences published an average of 2.9 articles per year between 1992 and 2001; the 11 most prolific authors published 4.2 articles per year. In an analysis of medical papers published from 2008 to 2012, Elizabeth Wager et al (Peer J, 2015) identified 24 prolific authors each publishing at least 25 articles per year.

In contrast, the threshold of 72 papers per year (>1 every 5 days) was used as a baseline for “hyperprolific authorship” in a report by John Ioannidis et al in Nature in 2018. The report provided evidence that prolific authorship is an established phenomenon, further growing between 2000 and 2016. More than 9000 authors were identified to be hyperprolific, with nearly 8000 of them from physics-related fields involving large international teams. Among 265 of the remaining authors, about a half (138) worked in medical and life sciences. An indication that high productivity likely involves gift authorship came from further study of 81 of the hyperprolific authors. Of the 27 authors who completed a survey, 19 admitted failing to meet one of the four ICMJE authorship criteria in more than a quarter of their papers and 11 admitted failing to meet two or more criteria in more than a quarter of their papers. For journals/groups using the ICMJE guidelines (or other industry-recognised publishing guidelines), more work is needed to increase awareness of and compliance with authorship criteria so as to promote ethical authorship practices.

Indeed, lack of awareness of ICMJE authorship criteria was among the factors that Sengül Gülen et al (Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 2020) found were positively associated with gift authorship in collaborative work. In that survey of 666 first-authors of Cochrane reviews published between October 2016 and December 2018, 41% of authors reported the existence of gift authorship in their reviews and 15% were unaware of the ICMJE authorship criteria. Other factors associated with gift authorship were an increasing number of authors and if the first author had previously offered someone inappropriate authorship. Journals, research groups, and institutions all need effective authorship training and better contribution declaration procedures, especially as trends in collaborative, interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary research continue.

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When should editors raise concerns about overly prolific authors to institutions?

The COPE flowchart on ghost, guest or gift authorship recommends that editors approach authors when unethical authorship is suspected. In confirmed cases and when involved authors are senior (and hence should know better), editors can consider informing department heads or (if the department head is an author) persons responsible for research governance. In addition, editors generally cannot adjudicate authorship disputes and, following the flowcharts on requested changes of authorship after publication, editors can refer cases to institutions for adjudication. For suspected systematic problems such as gift authorship affecting multiple journals and indicating additional misconduct such as plagiarism, duplication/redundancy, or fraud, editors can cooperate and may bring issues jointly to institutions, following COPE’s advice on establishing cooperative relationships between editors, journals and institutions.

However, the expectations of publishers and journals may not always match up with those of institutions. A survey in Accountability in Research published by Michael Reisig et al in 2020 identified gift authorship to be the most prevalent form of research misconduct, according to replies from tenured or tenure-track faculty at the top 100 research-intensive universities in the USA. This result, and past COPE Forum cases, suggests pervasive disregard, lack, misconception, or misinterpretation of ethical authorship policies, which propagates ignorance of publishing etiquette and journal guidelines.

COPE Forum Case 15-17, Requesting authorship after publication, highlights the misbelief long-held by a research group that the principal investigator is always an author, despite knowingly meeting only one of the four ICMJE authorship criteria. Case 06-13, Institutionalised policy of gift authorship?, involved removal of authors before publication because the remaining authors (a student and supervisor) had until then not considered gift authorship to be wrong and had been following university rules requiring PhD students to also name their advisors on their publications. In Case 11-24, Inappropriate authorship on student’s paper, a group of students was coerced to allow their undeserving supervisor to be the lead author of their paper, likely permitted by the absence of an institutional authorship policy.

Institutions are conspicuous by their absence among signatories to the CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) initiative. The CRediT website currently lists 33 publishers as supporters, three “publishing outlets”, nine “integrators” (online platforms such as Aries’ Editorial Manager and Clarivate’s ScholarOne Manuscripts), yet only one institution (University of Glasgow). More widespread adoption of structured authorship statements across academia, as well as fair and holistic academic appraisal methods, might mitigate situations seen in the above COPE Forum cases. All stakeholders, including funders, should be aware of and tackle the issue from all angles and at all levels. 

COPE’s upcoming provision of institutional membership, together with support for publishing ethics training at institutions, aims to raise awareness of publishing ethics and industry best practices. The shared goal is to help improve the integrity of the research record, and one step on that path is to facilitate greater transparency, accountability, and accurate recognition of authorship.

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Is there any way to systematically identify the most prolific authors?

At present, to our knowledge, there are no tools in any manuscript submission system that can identify prolific authors and flag manuscripts potentially bearing gift authorship when they are submitted. The process would be a manual one for now, but this may be an area in which technology will be able to provide a practical solution. 

For literature searches, Scopus filters and analyses can allow articles in a certain topic to be listed by author frequency. It may be possible to perform author network analyses of publication data from Dimensions using VOSviewer. PubMed/Medline searches can be analysed by author in the PubMed PubReMiner tool, as used by Frits Holleman et al (BMJ, 2015) to identify prolific “supertrialists” in the field of diabetes. Otherwise, customised code or software could be created. Elizabeth Wager et al (Peer J, 2015) used a bespoke semi-automated tool to identify prolific authors from Medline searches.

While detecting, handling, and preventing gift authorship as a serious ethical issue is still in its early days, journals and editors may implement their own pre-emptive actions and campaigns. These include clearly defining authorship criteria in terms of distinct types of contributions and requiring that all authors sign an authorship form and declare their contributions. Visible and clear website guidelines and periodic editorials, as suggested by COPE Forum in the initial case, would also help.

Trevor Lane on behalf of the COPE Education Subcommittee & Duncan Nicholas freelance copywriter