Halloween Special: The Ghosts and Guests of Academia

Post provided by Chloe Robinson

This Halloween, our Blog and Associate Editor Chloe Robinson explains the meaning of ghost and guest authorship, and speaking from her own experiences, the harm they cause to Early Career Researchers

From a young age, we grow up understanding that authors are people that have conceived and written something, most often a book. They do the required background research, thoughtfully lay out the plot and physically complete the main task that makes a book a book – the writing. Sure, they may have editors, cover producers, social media gurus, etc. to help make their book a success, but their name is the one on the front.

So, imagine you are in academia. You are a second year PhD student who is finding their feet in the ivory tower, and your supervisor asks you to help out a fellow student with a project which falls within your suite of, albeit green, expertise. Being the keen bean you are, you jump at the opportunity and spend what will be the next year pouring your spare time into helping to troubleshoot and optimize when things don’t quite work in the lab; spending hours making guides for the required temperamental software, doing the initial data analysis to guide next steps in the lab and putting to practice your newly acquired critical thinking mindset to suggest ideas for interpretation.

Throughout this process, you are considered a co-author. Without you, the manuscript would not exist, which is what you keep reminding yourself when doubt sets in. You go through rounds of paper revision before submission, with your name remaining there in second position. However, when the time comes to submit, your name is gone. You are officially a ghost author.

Ghosting to a New Level

Ghosting is a term that features on Urban Dictionary which has become popular since 2016. It refers to when a person cuts off communication with zero warning or notice. This is essentially what happens when people who have contributed substantially to a manuscript are omitted from the authorship list.

Now you may be thinking, ‘contributed substantially’ is a little ambiguous and open to interpretation. Many universities/journals/publishers have authorship guidelines for deciding what makes an author on a manuscript legit. The general consensus is that someone is considered an author if they meet all (that bit is important) of the following criteria:

1. Made substantial contributions to conception and design, and/or acquisition of data, and/or analysis and interpretation of data

2. Participated in drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content

3. Given final approval of the version to be submitted and any revised version

The difficult part about identifying when a manuscript has ghost authors is the fact that other authors, in particular PIs, often lie in the ‘Author Contributions’ statement, and attribute another author’s name to the task. Because, if you didn’t state who was responsible for say, data acquisition and analyses, you will surely be found out to be harbouring a ghost author.

Ghost authorship can be particularly harmful to undergraduate and Masters/PhD students, where their contributions are boiled down to ‘skill development’ or ‘helping out a friend’ or ‘learning how to manage an increased workload’. Universities may have policies for ethical authorship, however, what can you actually do as a student to dispute authorship without creating a rift between yourself and your supervisor and potentially being labelled as a ‘difficult’?

Unfortunately, the answer is not much. The problem here lies with the fact that authorship is not being taught (or caught) in undergrad research experiences. As a naïve junior, you blindly accept additional work without questioning whether your name will be on a paper at the end of it, and even if it isn’t, you are ‘grateful for the opportunity’.

We get it; authorship is complex and justifying your input can be exhausting. I am sure many of us have felt that barbed knot in our stomachs, when a paper we have been ghosted on goes into print and starts to rack up citations. But it is a whole other type of feeling when you have poured blood, sweat, and tears into a manuscript, just for your supervisor to shove in an author, who has contributed absolutely nothing to the manuscript.

Be Our Guest…or Maybe Not

We all know that person, the one who gloats about being an author on a paper despite contributing nothing. We may grimace and nod over the top of our coffee mugs, whilst they brag about how valued a person they must be to have been included for no apparent reason. We may even feel a little jealous, even though we know it’s wrong.

Guest/Gift authors are people who do not meet authorship requirements, yet still feature as an author. There are generally two reasons why people may be included as a guest author: 1) (and most commonly) because this person’s name/reputation holds certain weight to the point that inclusion may improve the chances that the paper will be published or 2) because the individual is a weaker researcher who will unlikely author many papers of their own and so needs a publication so that the PI can appease funding bodies.

Guest authors can ruin friendships and poison research group relationships. Unlike ghost authors, as a guest author you have the ability to correct the authorship. It is easy to remove yourself from a publication if you know you do not meet the criteria, and quite frankly, it is the right thing to do. Beyond what is right and wrong, there is also the accountability for the research to consider. When you are included as a guest author, you are agreeing to be held accountable for the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work. If you accept an unwarranted authorship position and unbeknown to you, another author has falsified the data, you will be held accountable.

As a student, how are you supposed to inform a journal that a guest author has been plonked on your paper? Most of the time students (or even postdocs) are not allowed to be the corresponding author on their papers, meaning the communication channels are kept just between senior author (normally supervisor) and the journal. How are you supposed to maintain an amicable relationship with someone in your research group when they have either been placed on or bullied their way onto a paper when there was nothing you could do?

Journal Roles in Authorship Ethics

Journals have recently attempted to crack down on ghost/guest authorship by including the ‘Author Contributions’ section, whereby the roles of each author are spelled out in black and white. But as I explained above, this is often completed by the corresponding author, who can tell a few porkies to justify the authorship line up.

Some journals have produced flowcharts in order to better identify and address ghost/guest authorship. However well-intentioned these may be, it is near impossible to spot ghost authors and challenging to remove guest authors. Authors who intentionally exclude or include certain people for a paper know what they are doing and know how to not get caught.

It begs the question, what more can be done? How can you truly address incorrect authorship without consulting the authors? If there was a system in place, where each author could anonymously reject another author’s stated contributions and/or name drop a ghost author and give reasoning, I’m sure many early career researchers would have used it by now.

Summary: Avoid being a Ghost and Don’t be a Guest

My authorship advice to all would be to:

1. Discuss authorship early. If you have been asked to conduct work or to help someone, bring up the conversation of authorship from the get-go. Ask if your contribution will be considered for authorship. If the answer is no, you then have the chance to step away before you devote time to something that isn’t going to benefit you.

2. Document your contributions. Keep a log of meetings, data collection/fieldwork, data analyses you have conducted (including statistical scripts etc) and exactly what intellectual input you have added to the manuscript. Receipts are your friends.

3. Find a mentor outside of your research group. If you have authorship concerns or are pre-empting another author will be dishonest when it comes to authorship, discuss your concerns with a senior faculty member outside of your research group. Try and make sure this person has no conflicting interests with your research group and has the ability to listen to you impartially.

4. Discuss authorship head on. If you know someone in your research group is happy to accept a guest author position, talk to them, ask them why they think they are an author and try to have a healthy discussion over why their position may not be valid. If you know someone is actively being ghosted, talk to you supervisor, share your opinion. Authorship can be ambiguous at times, with different research groups having different ‘traditions’, so discussions around what makes an author can prevent future dishonesty.

Collaborating on papers can be a thrilling and rewarding experience, but other times it can leave you feeling deflated and invalidated when it comes to authorship. You learn and grow from these experiences, but we can all contribute to avoiding ghost/guest authorship by being honest and regularly facilitating healthy work-place discussions on what makes an author.

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