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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2018  |  Volume : 8  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 62-69  

Authorship in biomedical research: A sweet fruit of inspiration or a bitter fruit of trade

1 Department of Public Health Dentistry, Triveni Institute of Dental Sciences, Hospital and Research Centre, Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, India
2 Department of Public Health Dentistry, Rungta College of Dental Sciences and Research, Kohka, Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, India

Date of Web Publication27-Dec-2018

Correspondence Address:
Dr Hunny Sharma
MD 264, Phase 4, Near AIIMS Residential Complex, Kabir Nagar, Tatibandh, Raipur - 492 099, Chhattisgarh
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/tp.TP_27_18

Rights and Permissions

Achieving a place in the authorship of published scientific research is a matter of pride and fame associated with creativity, recognition, better evaluation, and financial gains. This had made assigning of authorship in a scientific publication, a complex and challenging issue. Gaining a position in authorship in scientific publications not only prompts or encourages authors to carry out more research but also recourse many of them to the unethical practice of different kinds of authorship abuses. These authorship abuses are done so cleverly and skillfully that neither the journal editors nor the readers of the journals realize that bias had crept in authorship of the publication. This nonstandard act of biased authorship has a tremendous potential to compromise the credibility of scientific research and scientific publications. The present review aims in focusing on issues pertaining to authorship and its misuse in biomedical research. Thus, it can be concluded from this review that new policies, guidelines, and laws should be made by the government agencies in association with journal editors, institution, and government agencies to curb this malpractice by protecting whistleblowers and providing adequate punishment for those who are involved.

Keywords: Authorship, editorial policies, publishing, research, scientific misconduct, writing

How to cite this article:
Sharma H, Verma S. Authorship in biomedical research: A sweet fruit of inspiration or a bitter fruit of trade. Trop Parasitol 2018;8:62-9

How to cite this URL:
Sharma H, Verma S. Authorship in biomedical research: A sweet fruit of inspiration or a bitter fruit of trade. Trop Parasitol [serial online] 2018 [cited 2023 Mar 25];8:62-9. Available from: https://www.tropicalparasitology.org/text.asp?2018/8/2/62/248678

   Introduction Top

Scientific publications are not only a source of worldwide dissemination of scientific knowledge and communicating information to colleagues and researchers but hold much more value than that.[1],[2] Good quality research and its publication in scientific journal act as a foundation for growth in scientific knowledge in the field of medical science subsequently, acting as cascades in which new information are synthesized and passed on to the world of readers.[3]

Authorship in scientific literatures or publications was a matter of ease in the era of ancient scientists such as Dewey, Einstein, James, and Newton. In that era, authorship was specifically for the individuals with one research, idea or invention associated with one name, for example, Edward Jenner is the first person to develop vaccines.[4] But with the increase in worldwide researches being conducted and ease in the dissemination of knowledge through the internet, the art of publication had grown more complex. Over the past decades, the average number of authors in scientific publications had increased dramatically, making the authorship a complex issue.[5],[6],[7]

Authorship in scientific publications is the best evidence of creativity and originality of the researchers.[8] For young and upcoming researcher with creative and motivated minds, authorship of scientific publications hold a special place and act as a reward for hard work and inspiration in building a good academic portfolio with a bright future career in academic and research field.[9] Unluckily, this opportunity of inspiration for young researchers can be blunted and vandalized by the greedy and dishonest senior researchers or fellow seniors academic guides.[10],[11]

With the introduction of new regulations by the Medical and Dental Council of India for making scientific publications mandatory for promotion and tenure of teachers in various colleges and institutions throughout the country, publications in indexed and peer-reviewed journals has become proof of academic competence and essential component in the list of evaluation criteria for promotion, peer competence, and fundraising.[12],[13],[14],[15] Besides these benefits to authors, it has also become a prestige issue for academic institutions.[6] This is clearly seen by drastic increase in numbers of authors on scientific manuscripts over the past decades.[16]

Keeping in view of all the issues related to authorship, it has become extremely essential to raise an important question that what really should count as authorship, and whether the award of authorship should be given where it is not due. Hence, this narrative review is an attempt to understand the authorship, authorship issues in research publication and methods to avoid them in scientific publications.

What is the role of an author?

Merriam-Webster's dictionary which is the most comprehensive but concise dictionary of the English Language defines the word “author” as: “a person who writes something, or a person who starts or creates something.” However, unluckily these meanings do not hold any value when we refer to someone listed in author or co-author list in a scientifically published manuscript.[17]

Considering the first part of the description “a person who writes something,” this part has no importance in scientific publications as it is common for a researcher and authors whose primary language is not English to seek the help of professional language editors in writing manuscript completely or a part of it. Moreover, even the second part of the description “or a person who starts or creates something” also is not very much relevant as it is practically very hard to define “something.” Hence, it is difficult to describe the role of the word “author” in scientific publications. So to understand who can be the authors in scientific publication first we need to learn what Authorship is?[18]

What is authorship?

The word “author” or “co-author” is used to refer an individual or a person who had made considerable contributions in uplifting scientific information or had played a major role in the conduction of research and writing/drafting in the form of the manuscript. The word necessitates that the person in the authorship deserves some sort of credit for his/her contribution in scientific publication. However, the honor of authorship has two sides, first is credit and second is responsibility. But, in multi-author publications credit side of the authorship is so complicated, messed up, and overvalued that no one can actually judge the real contribution and value of each author in authors list, thereby giving all the authors' free hand to claim any amount of credit they want. This makes the multi-author publications a bottomless pit with full of treasure for everyone to enjoy. However, when considering the responsibility side of the authorship, it is so undervalued that none of the authors' wishes to take any serious responsibility.[18],[19]

Over the past decades, issues related to authorship misuse has raised drastically, with the increase in average number of authors on scientific manuscripts. Currently, we are facing a situation where authors included in the authors list are in win-win situation and claim any amount of credit and are quick to waive off from their moral responsibility when the work is found to be fraudulent, flawed, or fabricated. A well-known example of this is a case study of, the “Darsee affair,” elaborated in detail by Strange (2008).[19],[20]

Therefore, discussion regarding authorship of any publication should never involve credit side which is a win-win situation for every author and is relatively easy part, instead of it should focus on accountability and responsibility of each author listed which is relatively a difficult part and on which authors are quick to waive off from their moral responsibility when the work is found to be fraudulent, flawed, or fabricated.[18]

At present, many guidelines had been formulated to simplify the complex decision of authorship in a scientific publication, for example, Guidelines by Rennie et al., 1997,[21] Guidelines by Savitz 1999,[22] and Osborne and Holland 2009,[5] International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) 2010,[23] and National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2013.[24] Apart from this, there are various other methods to determine authorship order like authorship matrix method by Clement 2014[18] and Ahmed et al.[25]

Among all these guidelines, the ICMJE is the most accepted guideline for the majority of journals.

Who gets to be an author?

Decades of discussion in the scientific community over authorship have let to raise in awareness regarding issues of awarding fake and dishonest authorship. Concern regarding authorship misuse led to the development of the ICMJE, having their first meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, located in the northern part of North America, i.e. Canada in 1978 with the aim to formulate the standard guidelines for publication of research articles in biomedical journals. The ultimate aim of this meeting was to develop the first set of authorship guidelines and standard requirements for research manuscripts to be submitted to Biomedical Journals which was eventually published in 1979. These guidelines became the most prominent and widely utilized authorship guidelines since then and have been revised several times and adopted by most of the journals.[23]

According to ICMJE, authorship can be awarded in case the researcher fulfills the following four criteria to be identified as authors:[23]

The foremost important thing in determining authorship is that he/she should have carried out substantial contributions to the conception, design of the work, and in acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work. Apart from this, he/she should have been involved in drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content. All the researchers, who fulfill the above two criteria's, should be given an equal opportunity for their willful participation in fulfilling the remaining criteria like he/she should have played an important role in final approval and drafting of the version to be published. Moreover, at last, he/she should be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

Fellow researchers who do not meet the above four criteria's should be acknowledged at the end of the publication in the acknowledgment section. It is clearly highlighted in ICMJE guidelines that these authorship criteria are intended to preserve the position in authorship for giving credit to deserving researchers and who had made a substantial contribution and are ready to take responsibility of the same in the future. These criteria should not be misused as a channel to judge or disqualify fellow researchers from authorship who otherwise meet authorship criteria by denying them to fulfill the criterion number two or three. Hence, researchers and fellow colleagues fulfilling the first criterion should be offered an equal opportunity to participate in the designing, writing, reviewing, and drafting of the final version of the approved manuscript.[23]

Who gets to be a first author?

According to guidelines issued by ICMJE, the author fulfilling ICMJE authorship criteria to maximum and performs the bulk of the experimental and clinical work is the first author.[19],[23],[26]

Who gets to be a middle author?

“Middle authors” also known as “contributing authors” who are listed between the first and senior authors. In relatively simpler terms, the authors who fulfill ICMJE authorship criteria but whose work or contribution cannot be judged equivalent to first, or senior author are middle authors. Basically, the order or sequence of middle or contributing authors should reflect their relative contributions to the research being published. The last place in the authors list should be reserved for supervising senior, i.e., senior author.[19],[23],[26]

Who gets to be a corresponding author?

The author who takes the primary responsibility for communication and answering to the queries raised by the journal or reviewers during the manuscript submission, peer review, and publication process is the corresponding author. It is the primary responsibility of the corresponding author to answer the queries and administrative requirements raised by the journal or editors in a timely way, such as providing an author's list, their role in the particular research, Ethics Committee Approval, clinical trial registration, along with details regarding conflict of interest. He/she is the one to play an important role in replying to critiques after the research paper is published and in timely manner cooperating with requests from the journal for data or additional information.[19],[23],[26]

Who can be acknowledged as contributors in scientific publications, but do not qualify for authorship?

Those individuals or institutions who provide funds, laboratory materials or reagents, samples or data regarding patients and/or technical advice or general supervision has to be acknowledged. Apart from this, individuals or institutions providing students or technical personnel for routine data collection for performing studies can also be acknowledged in the acknowledgment section.[19],[23],[26]

Can head of the department or guide himself takes the first author position?

There were incidences in the past where the HOD or Guide himself/herself used to award the first author position; while the PG student or junior researcher accepts, the position of authorship awarded by the senior guide and HOD. However, ICMJE guidelines highlighted the need of fulfilling all the three criterions by the authors to be listed in the authorship of a particular research. Among them, the first author is the one who has played the most substantial role in the research and is a principal investigator, and he has every right for it. Middle authors can be the ones who have contributed to the article but not to the extent of principal investigator while the last author can be the Head of the Department or Head of the institution when contributed substantially to the research in the form of data acquisition or manuscript writing. Authors will like to bring into light that, within the ICMJE guidelines, no provisions had been made to provide explicit credit to a Senior Researcher, HODs, or Academic Guides who wrote the proposal and might have initiated or helped in funding. Moreover, he/she might have not been involved in research on day-to-day basis. Hence, in such cases, it will be extremely important to recognize the extent of engagement of such researchers in the project and not just providing some brief technical suggestions for giving credit, which is one of the key factors in authorship assigning.[27],[28],[29]

Among all this, an interesting situation arises in researches conducted in Indian continent when the student shows no interest in writing it up as a research article due to workload or lack of interest or skill in writing and publishing. In such instances, it is suggested that the head of department or guide may provide a reasonable time for preparing, editing, and submitting the manuscript in a suitable journal. If still no interest is shown by the student beyond the time given, the guide can publish it keeping principal investigator as the first author with his/her consent. Another situation arises when a student who have not actually performed the study but have written manuscript. In such cases, since first and second criteria of ICMJE guidelines are mandatory for all the authors to be listed in author's list, i.e., he/she should have carried out substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; and should have been involved in drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content. Hence, he/she holds no right for credit as first place in authorship and can only be acknowledged.[27],[28],[30]

What is authorship abuse or misconduct?

Types of authorship abuse

  1. Coercion or pressured authorship: The use of actions and practices of persuading young researchers for authorship by using force or threats in the form of seniority or supervisory status. This is mainly done by Head of Departments and Guides, when he/she requires authorship in all the paper being published from his/her department but has little or no intellectual input and role in research.[15],[31],[32]
  2. Honorary, guest, or gift authorship: This act of awarding authorship is carried out of respect or friendship with fellow researchers or in a wimpish attempt to gain the advantage of legitimacy for research being published by including senior researchers or teachers in authorship.[19],[33],[34],[35],[36],[37],[38],[39]
  3. Mutual support authorship: This act of awarding authorship is carried out by mutual negotiation and agreement by investigators to award each other's name in scientific publication to achieve higher points and presenting higher productivity of each other.[19],[31]
  4. Duplication authorship: This is an act of publishing same work in more than one journal with different titles and manuscript writing to achieve more number of publications to add to once academic portfolio.[19],[40],[41]
  5. Forged authorship: These are unaware authors who had no part in the research or manuscript writing, reviewing, or drafting, but are awarded a place in authorship without their knowledge or consent to increase the chances of research being published in reputed journals.[42]
  6. Ghost authorship: Ghost authorship is a situation where one or more of the substantial contributor is omitted from the author's list generally to hide a conflict of interest from editors, reviewers, and readers.[19],[31],[33],[43],[44],[45],[46],[47]
  7. Orphan authorship: These are the authors who had contributed substantially to work, but are omitted from the authorship unfairly by the manuscript writing and drafting team.[42]
  8. Denial of authorship: This is a heinous form of authorship abuse in which the publication of research work is carried out by others without providing the credit of work to coresearchers in the form of authorship and acknowledgment.[16],[19],[48]

The example of denial authorships are the researches in which researchers are asked to participate in gathering and generating data for a particular research in which researcher presume that they are in a legitimate scientific collaboration and will be part of authorship at the time of publication. However, the other so-called “fellow researcher and colleagues” publish the manuscript using the same data gathered without giving the main researcher a position in authorship or co-authorship and even denying their contribution in an acknowledgment.[16],[19],[48]

Authorship abuse or misconduct in Indian scenario

Authorship abuse in the form of gift authorship is a common practice in India mainly resulting due to the mandatory need of publication for promotion and academic advancement in guidelines issued by medical and dental council of India. A study conducted by Dhingra and Mishra reported, that gift authorship was observed by 65.1% of the respondents interviewed and it is the most common misconduct in biomedical researches, while omission of authors from authorship was second most common misconduct reported by 33.5%. Out of 65.1 %, majority of the respondents reported gift authorship to be given to any of the seniors.[49]

Another study conducted by Shah et al. reported the prevalence of perceived honorary authorship to be 20.9%. All the 20.9% who agreed of perceived honorary authorship reported that they had included at least one honorary author in their scientific publication. This study also revealed that the senior members of the department were automatically included by a matter of respect or force was listed as a coauthor in 25.5% instances. The results of the study by Shah et al. shows the ugly side of researches being carried out and published in various esteemed journals of Indian Medical and Dental Institution. The prevalence of the ICMJE defined honorary authorship was reported to be 60.0%.[50]

Although not much of studies had been carried out regarding the authorship issues in Indian continent, still from the findings of the above-mentioned studies, it is clearly evident that the ethics of authorship are deteriorating in Indian scientific publication.

What can be the remedies for authorship abuse?

Inappropriate and false claims of authorship in scientific papers should result in negative consequences for those who choose to do so. Remedies for authorship abuse can be classified into two subheadings as follows:

Nonjudicial remedies

When an authorship issue is being encountered, the first person to be contacted should be the editor of the journal in which the research paper is published. This is the first and most often sought remedy in authorship issues. When proved guilty for violating the policy of the journal, editorial team can act as a judicial authority to punish the involved author's ranging from simple retraction/withdrawal of the published article to blacklisting of authors depending on the severity of authorship abuse. In such cases, editorial board can act as a judicial body and ensure justice is given considering the facts and evidence of both the parties involved. In this case, it is a legal right of petitioner to approach professional bodies such as the DCI, institution or university where necessary; action can be taken to provide justice.[51]

Judicial remedies

Judicial remedies can be obtained through the court of law where an aggrieved person can approach district court by filing a complaint through proper counsel. Section 62 provides the liberty to file a suit where the complainant voluntary resides or work, while section 55 is the section under which civil remedies are provided. The remedies which can be sought are, either may ask for restraining from further violation or seize the issue, i.e., injunction or may even claim for compensation, i.e., fine. On obtaining injunction, a copy of the decision can be provided to the journal editor for taking proper action regarding the published matter. Section 63 of the Indian copyright act provided justice related to infringement of copyright, and the magnitude of violation of law may attract a fine not < 50 thousand with an upper limit up to two lakh. In addition, it may also attract imprisonment of minimum 6 months with an upper limit of 3 years.[51]

What role does copyright plays in authorship?

Although copyright has no clear role in authorship, it automatically sets in, no matter when and where the matter was written and published. There is no need for registration of copyright to make it enforceable as mentioned in copyright laws. Copyright is a legal tool which can benefit us as researchers and authors. The term copyright in India is for a lifetime of the creator, i.e., from the day of origin of that respective material to 60 years thereafter creators death.[51]

Section 57 of the copyright act which is termed as “author's special rights” or better known as “Moral Rights” is the heart and the most essential component of the act which considers the “special rights” of the authors in research authorship. This section says that an author can claim authorship of the work and can restrain or claim damages in respect of any distortion, mutilation, modification, or other act in relation to the work which are prejudicial to his honor or reputation even after assignment of either wholly or partially of the said copyright.[51]

This can play an important role in instances of ghost authorship and denial of authorship. However, still several authorship issues are observed due to loopholes and inadequate coverage of research-related issues in copyright laws. The copyright act enacted in the 8th year of Indian republic was drafted with consideration of English and American legislation in addition to international conventions. But still, the copyright act is not primarily intended to protect research-related publications from unethical practices. In short, a desirable step should be taken for formulating a strong legislation regarding the elimination of all research related malpractices such as authorship abuse and misconduct. When an author is not given due credit for their contribution in the form of authorship and whomsoever, if found guilty under copyright laws, it could directly affect the author's career and limit future local and international publication opportunities.[51]

Do a gifted author holds any liability if that article is found plagiarized or caught in authorship abuse or other misconduct?

The practice of gifting authorship is most common in medical research publication because of the need to achieve high academic positions and promotions. According to ICMJE criteria, all the authors should fulfill the criteria to qualify for the authorship in any particular research. It is the responsibility of authors for the authenticity of the research and the way it has been published and displayed to the world. The gifted author is equally responsible and cannot waive off from the liability as copyright act does not recognize the position of gifted authorship in authorship sequence.[51]

Can coercion or pressured authorship be prevented?

The unethical practice of taking advantage of seniority, reputation, and position by the HODs or senior researchers to gain undeserving credit in the authorship of all the publications from their respective departments makes this practice of authorship abuse the most heinous one. Provisions should be made for anonymous reporting of such practices by HODs and senior researchers at postpublication stage and when found guilty should be punished according to policies of the journal or even by judicial remedies. Each journal should compulsorily publish a section in the article with the role of each researcher well marked. This will make authorship in biomedical research more transparent and meaningful by evaluating the role of each researcher.

Ethics in manuscript authorship

Today, the scientific community is undergoing through great pressure of publish or perish. The unethical practice of credit/discredits of authorship cannot be eliminated easily by the setting of laws and guidelines. With the rise of publish or perish era and publications being used as a tool for laddering up or down individual's rank/promotion, had resulted in the creation of many loopholes for the unethical practices to creep in the authorship of biomedical publication. These unethical practices of taking all the credit's as first author or corresponding authors in the publications of the department by HOD's and academic guides not only destroys the creativity and inspiration of young students and researchers but also makes them fall prey to evil demons of greed and dishonesty of senior researchers and academic guides. Thus, undermining the future academic opportunities for young, inexperienced researchers which should be dealt with priority. Hence, it is a high time that all the authors and the researchers should be made well aware about their ethical liabilities toward the development of biomedical science through their contribution as biomedical researches being published and also punishing the researchers through appropriate laws dealing with unethical practices when found guilty. Corresponding authors should play an active role in not only recognizing all the people having a right to be included in authors lists but should also play a substantial role in determining their independent contribution to the manuscript. Apart from this, he/she should ethically acquire the approval of all the contributing authors listed in the submission and publication of all versions of the manuscript. This ethical inclusion of authors in authorship should create a moral and ethical responsibility in all contributing authors for genuinely acquiring the material for the manuscript, following modern ethical standards and guidelines with the sense of additional moral responsibility that the manuscripts are not copied or published elsewhere. Apart from this, each author listed as an author should be well aware about the ethical standards and guidelines regarding conducting human, animal, and laboratory experiments and their moral duties towards the subjects involved in the research.[52],[53]

   Conclusion Top

With the increase in cut-throat competition and high expectations for productivity by faculty members in various institutions and colleges, publication in biomedical indexed journals had become a need for promotion and tenure decisions. This may lead to some researchers, and academic guides fall prey to tempting benefits and may lead to violating authorship guidelines by awarding undeserving authorship to themselves in all the researches being published from their department, while some violating by not awarding authorship to deserving individual or person. Steps should be taken for formulation and strict implementation of authorship policies and guidelines. It is well-known fact that even now, very few journals follow the guidelines for authorship. Hence, these guidelines should be made mandatory to be followed by all the journals for every manuscript being submitted. Furthermore, steps should be taken that each author submitting their manuscript or research paper are aware of these guidelines and their substantial consequences on their career if violated. It is the need of time that now all the respected journals include a separate section within an article highlighting the role of each contributing author in the respective research instead of giving importance to “No one is first and no one is last” movement to curb the malpractice of fake multi-authored publication. These authorship abuses or misconducted should not be tolerated in any case as it not only distorts and dilutes the knowledge in the scientific field but also misrepresent the true productivity of the author. In the end, we hope that this narrative review of authorship issue and their probable solutions will help to facilitate these discussions toward more productive ends.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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