• Charlesworth Author Services

Issues of Problematic Authorship in scientific publishing

Determining authorship can be one of the most vexing tasks in scientific publishing, especially in certain scenarios.

If a colleague provided an initial, internal critique, should that person be included?

Should the department head be included, even if he/she didn’t contribute to the paper? 

What about naming your highly regarded doctoral advisor who, years ago, mentioned some ideas that stuck with you?

What is “ghostwriting” and should it be considered?

In this article, which is the first of a two-article series, we look at certain authorship types in scientific publishing that are considered largely unacceptable by the community, and which you should thus ideally avoid. In the second and concluding article of the series, we look at legitimate authorship, including acknowledging professional medical writers.

Ghost authorship

Ghost authorship can involve unnamed or uncredited author(s) who write the manuscript; the actual writer is never mentioned in the paper.

There are two common scenarios of ghost authorship.

  • Ghost authors can be professional staff writers of pharmaceutical/device/other industry companies, or other consultants, whose names are not listed on the paper. After staff writers or consultants author papers, clinical physicians are recruited and paid to lend their names as authors of the papers. They are frequently placed in the first and second authorship positions, although they are not involved with the manuscript or clinical study in any substantive way.
  • In some instances, prominent scientists in the field are sometimes listed as authors, even if they were not involved in the study. This might be done, for example, in an attempt to falsely boost the credibility of the study. In these instances, “authors” are unaware their names have been attached to industry-generated publications. 

Ghost authorship is not acceptable in scientific publishing. There have been high profile cases of ghost authorship. In academic medicine, pharmaceutical industry and biomedical publishing, as well as other scientific fields, ghostwriting and inappropriate authorship is a major concern. 

Guest authorship

In guest authorship, a “guest” author has their name attached to a paper written by someone else, even if they have had no involvement in the study. This might be done, for example, as a private agreement between colleagues to help boost each other’s publication numbers. These authors do not meet the criteria of legitimate authorship. As with ghost authors, guest authorship is frowned upon by the scientific publishing community.

Gift authorship

In gift authorship, the names of prominent senior researchers are placed on an article. Often the “giftee” is the departmental chair, graduate advisor/supervisor or other senior faculty member who supervised but did not participate directly in the actual research or writing of the paper. Adding their names theoretically adds weight and name recognition to the paper submitted by otherwise unknown authors. This type of authorship is also frowned upon.

End note

Happily, clear criteria exist that will help you determine legitimate authorship attribution in your scientific papers. These are discussed in the second and final article in the series.


Read next (second/final) in series: Legitimate authorship and contribution in scientific publishing


Maximise your publication success with Charlesworth Author Services.

Charlesworth Author Services, a trusted brand supporting the world’s leading academic publishers, institutions and authors since 1928. 

To know more about our services, visit: Our Services

Share with your colleagues

Related articles

Legitimate authorship and contribution in scientific publishing

Authorship, and the role of the ‘corresponding author’

Publication ethics

Ethics in academic publishing: Understanding ‘gift’ authorships

Understanding publication ethics

Who gets the CRediT? Authorship issues and fairness in academic writing