Behrooz Astaneh: Guest authorship – a vicious cycle

Behrooz AstanehThe ethics of guest authorship in biomedical publishing have been discussed for many years. A recent blog on this topic by Dr Barbour on the COPE website says that in dissertations by Swedish medical students, there are names of authors that did not have any significant contribution to the study.

Surely the case is true in many other countries, although published studies about this issue are sparse. My experience after presenting more than 100 workshops on various aspects of medical journalism for Iranian researchers shows similar findings. Of the workshops, the “Ethical Issues and Medical Publishing” is the key one.

I am usually not surprised if junior researchers breach the authorship criteria proposed by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. Because as Dr Barbour says they are taught that guest authorship is acceptable. The question is whether teaching them this is acceptable.

I would not like to believe that a senior researcher with 20 years of academic experience does not know that he/she does not have the right to put his/her name in the byline of an article without significant contribution. So what posses them to misbehave in such a way? Many attendees of my workshops believe that they, themselves have been the “victims” of similar misconducts when they were juniors. But is such a vicious cycle a good apology?

I believe that some senior researchers look at guest authorship as an “aspect of seniority”. This is an approved idea in some institutions. In some cases simply proposing a novel idea for conducting research fulfills the requirements of authorship.

The role of training is crucial here. Juniors may benefit the most but they do not have enough authority to implement their training. It will be hard to change the opinions of senior academics whose minds have been set by this type of thinking. But medium level researchers play a key role in breaking this vicious cycle. They will soon be senior researchers in their fields but their minds are still ready to be trained.  They should be trained to ignore their own background of “victimization” and move towards ethical behavior in medical research.

Behrooz Astaneh is a BMJ visiting editor

  • Sarah

    being a vicim is not a justified excuse for these misconducts.Ethical laws and regulations need to be reinforced in order to propagate honesty and ethics in all scientific feilds.Seniors should to be respected, acknowledged and cosulted with in any field.However, no senior should abuse his or her position and perform ethical msconduct.

  • foroogh

    Dear Dr.Astaneh
    Thanks for your deep point of view.
    some other causes may be involved although in less or more degree of importance.My own experience propose that guest authorship may be due to using instruments(even in canada),or head of a department that allows a researcher to use his institue,or even a way of thanksgiving
    when a research with small budget is being performed.Although these are not accepted reasons and international rules must clarify the accepted rules.I think a survey in this case in a research project froum will be necessary.

  • Sam

    Hi there,
    Guest authorship eventhough is usually a subject of misconduct by seniors, it is not always an issue about seniors. Sometimes juniors does it.
    I have a handful of examples about researches conducted a study as a junior, while still in training and when he/she was graduated and published the data, his spouse/ sister/brother who has had absolutely nothing to do with the research had been a guest author and the senior author had not been even informed about the site/date of publication and consequently the guest authorship of a family member. I believe it is more related to personality and not solely based on teaching ethics.

  • Psarveravan

    Dear great teacher Dr.Asteneh
    I agree with you and ready to do a research to estimate percentage of guest authors in Iranian papers if it hasn't been studied yet.