Ghost authorship, the failure to name, as an author, an individual who has made substantial contributions to an article, may result in lack of accountability. The prevalence and nature of ghost authorship in industry-initiated randomised trials is not known.
Methods and Findings
We conducted a cohort study comparing protocols and corresponding publications for industry-initiated trials approved by the Scientific-Ethical Committees for Copenhagen and Frederiksberg in 1994–1995. We defined ghost authorship as present if individuals who wrote the trial protocol, performed the statistical analyses, or wrote the manuscript, were not listed as authors of the publication, or as members of a study group or writing committee, or in an acknowledgment. We identified 44 industry-initiated trials. We did not find any trial protocol or publication that stated explicitly that the clinical study report or the manuscript was to be written or was written by the clinical investigators, and none of the protocols stated that clinical investigators were to be involved with data analysis. We found evidence of ghost authorship for 33 trials (75%; 95% confidence interval 60%–87%). The prevalence of ghost authorship was increased to 91% (40 of 44 articles; 95% confidence interval 78%–98%) when we included cases where a person qualifying for authorship was acknowledged rather than appearing as an author. In 31 trials, the ghost authors we identified were statisticians. It is likely that we have overlooked some ghost authors, as we had very limited information to identify the possible omission of other individuals who would have qualified as authors.
Ghost authorship in industry-initiated trials is very common. Its prevalence could be considerably reduced, and transparency improved, if existing guidelines were followed, and if protocols were publicly available.
Of 44 industry-initiated trials, there was evidence of ghost authorship in 33, increasing to 40 when a person qualifying for authorship was acknowledged rather than appearing as an author.
Original scientific findings are usually published in the form of a “paper”, whether it is actually distributed on paper, or circulated via the internet, as this one is. Papers are normally prepared by a group of researchers who did the research and are then listed at the top of the article. These authors therefore take responsibility for the integrity of the results and interpretation of them. However, many people are worried that sometimes the author list on the paper does not tell the true story of who was involved. In particular, for clinical research, case histories and previous research has suggested that “ghost authorship” is commonplace. Ghost authors are people who were involved in some way in the research study, or writing the paper, but who have been left off the final author list. This might happen because the study “looks” more credible if the true authors (for example, company employees or freelance medical writers) are not revealed. This practice might hide competing interests that readers should be aware of, and has therefore been condemned by academics, groups of editors, and some pharmaceutical companies.
Why Was This Study Done?
This group of researchers wanted to get an idea of how often ghost authorship happened in medical research done by companies. Previous studies looking into this used surveys, whereby the researchers would write to one author on each of a group of papers to ask whether anyone else had been involved in the work but who was not listed on the paper. These sorts of studies typically underestimate the rate of ghost authorship, because the main author might not want to admit what had been going on. However, the researchers here managed to get access to trial protocols (documents setting out the plans for future research studies), which gave them a way to investigate ghost authorship.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
In order to investigate the frequency and type of ghost authorship, these researchers identified every trial which was approved between 1994 and 1995 by the ethics committees of Copenhagen and Frederiksberg in Denmark. Then they winnowed this group down to include only the trials that were sponsored by industry (pharmaceutical companies and others), and only those trials that were finished and published. The protocols for each trial were obtained from the ethics committees and the researchers then matched up each protocol with its corresponding paper. Then, they compared names which appeared in the protocol against names appearing on the eventual paper, either on the author list or acknowledged elsewhere in the paper as being involved. The researchers ended up studying 44 trials. For 31 of these (75% of them) they found some evidence of ghost authorship, in that people were identified as having written the protocol or who had been involved in doing statistical analyses or writing the manuscript, but did not end up listed in the manuscript. If the definition of authorship was made narrower, and “ghost authorship” included people qualifying for authorship who were mentioned in the acknowledgements but not the author list, the researchers' estimate went up to 91%, that is 40 of the 44 trials. For most of the trials with missing authors, the ghost was a statistician (the person who analyzes the trial data).
What Do These Findings Mean?
In this study, the researchers found that ghost authorship was very common in papers published in medical journals (this study covered a broad range of peer-reviewed journals in many medical disciplines). The method used in this paper seems more reliable than using surveys to work out how often ghost authorship happens. The researchers aimed to define authorship using the policies set out by a group called the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), and the findings here suggest that the ICMJE's standards for authorship are very often ignored. This means that people who read the published paper cannot always accurately judge or trust the information presented within it, and competing interests may be hidden. The researchers here suggest that protocols should be made publicly available so that everyone can see what trials are planned and who is involved in conducting them. The findings also suggest that journals should not only list the authors of each paper but describe what each author has done, so that the published information accurately reflects what has been carried out.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040019.
Read the Perspective by Liz Wager, which discusses these findings in more depth
The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) is a group of general medical journal editors who have produced general guidelines for biomedical manuscripts; their definition of authorship is also described
The Committee on Publication Ethics is a forum for editors of peer-reviewed journals to discuss issues related to the integrity of the scientific record; the Web site lists anonymized problems and the committee's advice, not just regarding authorship, but other types of problems as well
Good Publication Practice for Pharmaceutical Companies outlines common standards for publication of industry-sponsored medical research, and some pharmaceutical companies have agreed to these