The 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