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The phantom of honorary authorship

Nicola di Girolamo, a professor of veterinary medicine at Cornell University, USA, analyzed 82,000 scientific articles published between 2017 and 2021 and found evidence that up to a third of their 629,000 authors did not meet the requirements needed to be named as authors and thus received undue credit for the work. The papers in question were published in seven journals from the Public Library of Science, the group responsible for titles such as PLOS ONE and PLOS Medicine.

Girolamo and his team analyzed the declarations that lead authors are required to submit to journals describing the contribution made by each of the coauthors. Then they used computer software to check whether the stated contributions were recognized as valid by two protocols adopted by scientific journal editors. One of them, the more restrictive of the two, was developed by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) and requires that all named authors must have participated directly in writing or reviewing the paper. The other, which is more flexible, was proposed in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by a group of editors of reputable journals, stating that participation in writing or reviewing a paper is sufficient but not essential to being named as a coauthor. Both guidelines consider other contributions as valid, such as curating data or developing software. Anyone who participated in the research but does not meet these criteria should be listed in the acknowledgments. According to Girolamo’s analysis, 4% of authors did not meet the PNAS requirements, while 35% would be excluded by the ICMJE guidance.

He concludes that so-called honorary authorship, where someone who did not substantially participate is named as an author of a paper, is more widespread than previously thought. In an interview with the journal Science, he gave a personal anecdote supporting this hypothesis. When submitting an article for publication based on one of his first research projects, he was asked by a collaborating institution to name certain staff members as authors, even though they had not participated significantly in the study. When the paper was published, fewer than half of the authors met the ICMJE requirements. “Being a young researcher at the time, I was helpless in that situation,” said Girolamo, who presented his study at a peer review conference in Chicago in September.