“Publish or Perish” has become a norm in the academia these days. Not only that, to enter the academia itself, one needs to show a list of publications before he is even considered for a post. Whether a person with higher quantity or quality gets an academic post all relies on the mindset of the committee who decides on who gets the job. After getting an academic post say an assistant professorship, that person has to prove himself again to get in the higher ladders of the academia. For all of this, from the very beginning of getting to a job, to reaching and surviving at one peak level like a tenureship requires ‘publications’.
In order to get as many publications as one wants most people in academia would like to be in big labs with lots of research going on. There will be many graduate students, post-doctoral researchers (post-docs), research professors etc in that lab. With many experiments being conducted by various persons in that lab comes the ethical dilemma of who gets to be an author and who doesn’t in the research papers to be published from that lab. As an example, we can actually take the “Boss” or the professor who owns the lab. There are instances where the generation of ideas, doing the required experiment, writing and reviewing of the paper is mostly done by the graduate students and the post-docs. The so called “Boss” or the Principal Investigator (PI) just attracts funding for the lab or does some editing at the end when the manuscript is ready. So, does that give him the privilege of gaining an authorship? Some may argue that without his money nothing could have been done. It might be true in one sense, but if there are no regular meetings, no regular inputs from that professor (the PI) and it’s the funding that is the only deciding factor, then I think it would be better to put him as a contributor rather than an author of a manuscript.
In medical science, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) is a respected group whose recommendations are followed by many of the world leading medical journals. It gives recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals. It defines an “author” as a person who fulfills all of the following 4 criteria:
• Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work;
• Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content;
• Final approval of the version to be published;
• Agreement to 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.
Now comes the problem of whether all the authors in a manuscript have fulfilled all these criteria or not. There might be scientists who just looked at certain aspects of the experiment like the statistics. Or, someone else might just have conducted the experiment only like a lab technician or a graduate student. So, comes the question: Will it be ethical to give authorship to all the personnel involved from those who just did some technical work and did not provide any scientific input to some who have worked in all aspects from start to the end of the experiment and writing the paper. There is no clear definition of what we can actually call “substantial contributions” as mentioned in the ICMJE criteria and none of the papers are going to be published without the name of the professor who owns the lab. Whether he always provides that substantial contribution is a big question. Similarly, to get volunteers to participate in a study a lab might take help from other clinicians, who might also want to get an authorship because of the help he did. There might be a person who just edited the paper and did not contribute much to the experiments or other part of the work, but who is an influential name in that area of research. Some researchers may want to put his name in the manuscript so that it gets published. So, there are various forms of unethical practices like this one; which are termed as Gift authorship (authorship given out of favor); Honorary authorship (out of respect); Prestige authorship (to rub off prestige) and the worst one, ghost authorship (where author does not know anything about the research but has a name on it showing he did the work when it was all done by somebody else.) The last one “ghost authorship” is most prevalent in pharmaceutical companies so that the companies can prove that some big shot doctor has found their drug to be very good when in fact that person has done nothing and it is all done by the employees of the pharmaceutical company. These are some of the unethical practices that medical literature is plagued of.
So how can this are stopped? When pride, money and the desire to succeed by any means fills the mind of a scientist there are many instances where he can be unethical. Some of the journals these days have started asking authors to be divided according to the amount or part of contribution they had in the manuscript. Some might have worked in the designing of experiments, others conducting the experiments and yet others analyzing the results etc. Dividing in such a way at least helps the readers to know which author has worked for which part. Although, not fully error free, this might be one step ahead in lessening the unethical practices in authorship.
Finding out how much an author has contributed to a manuscript would be a big research in itself for the editors of journals. With the volume of articles being submitted it is virtually impossible to do that. Thus, it finally boils down to the part of scientist himself whether to be an ethical or unethical author. The culture of “Publish and Perish” has created a big question on ethics of authorship. More methods that can effectively check and balance unethical authorship need to be researched and implemented.