OBJECTIVES: To assess the prevalence of honorary and ghost authors in six leading general medical journals in 2008 and compare this with the prevalence reported by authors of articles published in 1996.
DESIGN: Cross sectional survey using a web based questionnaire.
SETTING: International survey of journal authors.
PARTICIPANTS: Sample of corresponding authors of 896 research articles, review articles, and editorial/opinion articles published in six general medical journals with high impact factors in 2008: Annals of Internal Medicine, JAMA, Lancet, Nature Medicine, New England Journal of Medicine, and PLoS Medicine.
MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Self reported compliance with International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) criteria for authorship for all authors on the selected articles.
RESULTS: A total of 630/896 (70.3%) corresponding authors responded to the survey. The prevalence of articles with honorary authorship or ghost authorship, or both, was 21.0% (95% CI 18.0% to 24.3%), a decrease from 29.2% reported in 1996 (P = 0.004). Based on 545 responses on honorary authorship, 96 articles (17.6% (95% CI 14.6% to 21.0%)) had honorary authors (range by journal 12.2% to 29.3%), a non-significant change from 1996 (19.3%; P = 0.439). Based on 622 responses on ghost authorship, 49 articles (7.9% (6.0% to 10.3%)) had ghost authors (range by journal 2.1% to 11.0%), a significant decline from 1996 (11.5%; P = 0.023). The prevalence of honorary authorship was 25.0% in original research reports, 15.0% in reviews, and 11.2% in editorials, whereas the prevalence of ghost authorship was 11.9% in research articles, 6.0% in reviews, and 5.3% in editorials.
CONCLUSIONS: Evidence of honorary and ghost authorship in 21% of articles published in major medical journals in 2008 suggests that increased efforts by scientific journals, individual authors, and academic institutions are essential to promote responsibility, accountability, and transparency in authorship, and to maintain integrity in scientific publication.
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