Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ghost authors remain a chronic problem

Journal articles often list a long string of putative authors. I once counted 47 on a physics paper. But where journal articles in the natural sciences often appear overly conscientious about acknowledging all contributors, the opposite has become a nagging problem in biomedicine. Here, not all authors on a research project – or even, necessarily, the most important ones – may be identified as a contributor.

The existence of these ghost authors, as they’re called, evoked frustration and anger yesterday in a large share of the 400 journal editors and clinical research scientists taking part in a quadrennial international workshop on peer review and biomedical publication. This year’s venue: Vancouver, British Columbia.

The concern, speakers complained, is that ghost writers can be little more than hired guns. The expectation is that they will describe research findings in ways that aid their benefactors – drug or biomedical device companies that wish to avoid the appearance of directly influencing a clinical trial’s interpretation.

Often aiding and abetting the situation is another group of poseurs known as honorary authors. Their names show up on papers – despite their having done nothing – to lend credibility to research, to reward a friend of someone connected with the study, or to help hide the contributions of a ghost.


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