Author malpractices: Be a co-author if you edit my research paper for free
Case: One of our publication experts had been in talks with a non-native English-speaking researcher to conduct a research study in collaboration. After some initial discussions, the researcher agreed to the proposal, and our expert sent him a list of tasks for the study and manuscript preparation, with clear allocation of responsibilities between the two of them. Our expert had also indicated timelines and specific points at which collaborative discussion and review would be needed. Some of the tasks allocated to our expert included literature review, some aspects of manuscript preparation, manuscript editing, and journal selection.
The researcher agreed to the proposed timelines and task allocation but subsequently did not get back to our expert for many months. We assumed that the researcher was busy with other projects and had deprioritized this collaborative study. Then, one day, the researcher wrote to our expert, saying that the study had been completed and the manuscript was attached with his email, and that the expert could proceed to edit it and select an appropriate journal.
Action: We explained to the researcher that since the study was already completed and the manuscript was written without any intellectual input from our expert, our expert no longer qualified to be a co-author on the study. We explained the criteria for authorship and cited the guidelines of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). However, the researcher reverted saying that these guidelines do not apply to his case because his was not a medical study. He insisted that our expert could be a co-author if he edited the manuscript and helped in selecting a journal for free.
We explained that although the guidelines are formulated by the ICMJE, they are accepted as standard for all research disciplines, and that merely editing the manuscript and selecting a suitable journal would not entitle our expert to authorship. We also provided other examples of cases where someone would not qualify to be an author on a particular study. However, the researcher was not convinced, so we decided to part ways amicably.
Summary: According to the ICMJE guidelines, authorship can be granted only if a person has fulfilled all of the following criteria:
- substantially contributed to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data;
- drafted the article or revised it critically for important intellectual content;
- provided final approval of the version to be published; and
- agreed to be accountable for all aspects of the work.
Researchers do not understand the criteria for authorship sufficiently, and cases of authorship-related malpractice, such as guest authorship, honorary authorship, and ghost authorship seem to be rampant. Isolated instances of author education will not resolve the problem. Universities, academic societies, funding agencies, and publishers should work together and emphasize the importance of authorship criteria, directing authors to appropriate guidelines such as those by the ICMJE and the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).