Fraudulent authorship

The metrification of research assessment, one symptom of the corporatization of universities and research institutions, is especially driven by the perceived need of those who don’t really understand research to administer and oversee those who do. As a consequence, we see the ascent of metrics which are as easy to misinterpret as they are to calculate. Foremost among these are, of course, numbers of publications and citation counts. Elsewhere on these pages, we have touched upon some of the shortcomings of these metrics, but in this blog we want to talk about one of their negative outcomes: fraudulent authorship.

Fraudulent authorship is a vexing problem for all researchers and organizations involved in the research enterprise. By fraudulent authorship we mean unjustified claims to authorship of a paper. Elsewhere, this has been referred to as ghost authorship, gift authorship and, with no lack of irony, honorary authorship. Many forces drive fraudulent authorship, but one force cited widely by authorities on research ethics is the pressure on researchers to produce more publications with more citations.

As stated in one study supported by the NIH, “Authorship is at the heart of the reward system of science and serves as the basis for decisions regarding funding, career advancement, salary, and prizes. Authorship also enhances a researcher’s recognition and credibility, and increases opportunities for further research and collaboration in a competitive research environment. Authorship has been called the ‘coin of the realm’”.(1) These sentiments are shared by a number of other influential papers on research ethics.(2-4) Hence, growing interest in alternative methods of evaluating research and researchers. As summarized nicely in the Bonn PRINTEGER Statement, “strong incentives related to only one performance indicator… may be counter-productive to research integrity.”(3)

The strong recent interest in fraudulent authorship reflects not just its importance, but also its prevalence. The numbers, of course, vary according to methodology, but one study reported that 37% of surveyed authors reported the improper inclusion of an author on one of their papers.(5) Another recent study in the realm of pain put the prevalence at about 40% of papers surveyed.(6)

More junior researchers, including graduate students, may particularly feel the pressure to include fraudulent authors on their papers.(7)

Notwithstanding these unsettling findings, there is hope that the recent attention paid to this problem will also lead to solutions. A number of authorities have spoken of the importance of education of researchers, including adequate mentoring, institutional policies, and clear, if difficult, discussions at the beginning of each project to manage expectations regarding authorship.


  1. Smith E, Williams-Jones B, Master Z, Lariviere V, Sugimoto CR, Paul-Hus A, Shi M, et al. Researchers’ perceptions of ethical authorship distribution in collaborative research teams. Sci Eng Ethics 2020;26(4):1995-2022.
  2. Resnik DB, Shamoo AE. Fostering research integrity. Account Res 2017;24(6):367-372.
  3. Forsberg EM, Anthun FO, Bailey S, Birchley G, Bout H, Casonato C, Fuster GG, et al. Working with research integrity – guidance for research performing organisations: the Bonn PRINTEGER Statement. Sci Eng Ethics 2018;24:1023-1034.
  4. Moher D, Bouter L, Kleinert S, glasziou P, Sham MH, Barbour V, Coriat AM, et al. The Hong Kong principles for assessing researchers: fostering research integrity. PLoS Biology 2020;18(7):e3000737.
  5. Aldughmi M, Qutaishat D, Karasneh R. Knowledge and Perceptions of Honorary Authorship among Health Care Researchers: Online Cross-sectional Survey Data from the Middle East. Sci Eng Ethics 2021;27(3):39.
  6. Matawlie JHS, Sharma JRJA, de Rooij JD, Mishre GS, Huygen FJPM, Gadjradj PS. Honorary authorship in high-impact journals in anaesthesia and pain medicine. Br J Pain 2021;15(3):246-248.
  7. Jensen LB, Kyvik KO, Leth-Larsen R, Eriksen MB. Research integrity among PhD students within clinical research at the University of Southern Denmark. Dan Med J 2018;65(4):A5469.

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