Guest authors are plagiarists


All too often, academic misconduct is dismissed because a particular example is considered a mere “authorship dispute” – when, in fact, plagiarism has occurred.

The ambiguity appears to result from incomplete contemplation of the meaning of plagiarism: a concept that is more recognisable as dishonest. In variant forms, the definition offered by the US Office of Research Integrity is widely accepted. This describes plagiarism as “the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit”. The question is, what is – or, more pertinently, what is not – “appropriate credit”?

It is not “appropriate credit” to copy or slightly modify the text of other authors and provide a citation to the original source without an explicit indication that the text itself, rather than merely its content, is being repeated. Such an indication is normally provided by quotation marks or indentation. Without it, the reader is given the false impression that the text originated with the later authors, who are therefore committing plagiarism.

Those who allow themselves to be included as authors on an article to which they made no substantial contribution is another example – though not as easy to spot at first glance – of failing to give “appropriate credit” to those who did make such a contribution. This can occur when senior members of a hierarchy demand or expect to be included as authors, or when junior authors wish to curry favour with them. It can also occur when the legitimate author expects that their gift will be reciprocated in future by the “guest” author.

A prominent recent scandal in South Korea involved children being included as authors without significant participation in the described research. The goal was to give the children an advantage in their own academic careers. However, the inclusion of more senior academics as authors on articles to which they have not contributed is no less deplorable.

The malfeasance is obvious when there are two authors on an article and only one of them participated materially to its composition. However, it is no less present when there are multiple authors. This is because guest authorship (also known as “gift” or “honorary” authorship) undermines the assumption that all listed authors made a substantial contribution, thereby raising a question mark even against those who deserve the credit.

Other examples of denying others appropriate credit include when prominent scientists permit their names to be added to a paper to enhance its chance of acceptance. A particularly striking example is when US National Academy of Science members join author lists to make possible “contributed submissions” to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which allow academy members to choose their reviewers. The inducement to engage in these dishonest practices would be eliminated if peer reviewers were not provided with the names or affiliations of authors.

Another variation on the theme of denying appropriate credit occurs when articles are ghostwritten or data are ghost-manufactured. Sometimes this is merely a commercial transaction, whereby the purported authors pay others to write articles or conduct experiments and fail to acknowledge their contribution. Reportedly, it is also common for pharmaceutical and medical corporations to enlist prominent physicians as lead authors on publications that the companies themselves researched and wrote. The corporations may or may not attempt to minimise their roles; in any case, the physician is obviously guilty of plagiarism.

It is also worth noting that for much of the academic community, providing general supervision of or obtaining funding for the project or the researchers associated with an article is not an independent criterion for inclusion as an author.

I believe that we need a better definition of plagiarism, which includes the other forms of equally egregious misconduct beyond those readily encompassed by the standard definitions. How about defining it simply as “taking credit for another person’s ideas, processes, results or words”?

Adopting this definition would make it clear that joint authorship means joint effort. It would enforce the employment of proper citation and quotation practices. It would mean that becoming an author for illegitimate reasons would be recognised for what it is: plagiarism.

Author Bio: David A. Sanders is AssociateProfessor in the department of biological sciences at Purdue University.