21 Jan 2007

A new meaning to the term "ghost author"

When searching for peer reviewers, I sometimes come across someone who looks extremely well qualified to review an article. I search for their homepage and to find an email address, only to discover that they are deceased. It is always a great shame when a brilliant researcher is no longer with us. The evolutionary biologist Nick Smith tragically died while I was handling his manuscript, and the respect his colleagues held for him is shown by the note in the published article by his co-author Sofia Berlin, and by the organisation of a conference in his memory.

However, my sympathy to the co-authors is sometimes turned to surprise by my discovery that they died several years previously (this is a more believable version of 'life after death' than the research conducted by Gary Schwartz).

Three of the most prolific authors post mortem that I have seen:

  1. Published more than 30 times since their death more than 5 years ago, most recently 3 months ago.
  2. Died three and a half years ago and has published more than 20 times since, up to a couple of months ago.
  3. Published 20 articles since their death five years ago, up until 9 months ago.
In publishing, there are the concepts of ghost and gift authors. Usually, a ghost author is someone who contributed to a piece of work, but is left uncredited, and a gift author is someone who is listed as an author without making the necessary contributions. Both gift and ghost authorship are quite common. The inclusion of a deceased author gives a whole new meaning to the term "ghost author". The American Geophysical Union explicitly allows inclusion of deceased authors, but this is dependent upon them meeting the authorship criteria and approving of submission.

I'm aware that there can be a considerable lag time to publication of results (and not only from delays during peer review!), but five years seems like a long time for someone to still be appearing on publications after their death. A study of articles rejected by the Annals of Internal Medicine found that the average lag time to publication elsewhere was 1 1/2 years. A Cochrane review found that publication of results of clinical trials can take five years, but that was from the time of ethics approval or patient enrollment.

Here are some possible scenarios to imagine:
  1. The authors did genuinely contribute to the intellectual development, planning and conduct of the study, and were involved in drafting, writing or revising a version of the manuscript. For obvious reasons they won't be able to meet the third requirement of the ICMJE guidelines, namely that they give final approval to the published study, but editors will often turn a blind eye to this requirement.
  2. The author did plan the study, and may have been involved in some of the experiments, but they did not analyse or write up the work. In this case, the motivation for inclusion may have been partly out of respect to the author, and partly in order to receive the benefit of their name on the paper.
  3. The deceased never knew anything of the work. This would be plain dishonesty, simply to profit from the reputation of the deceased co-author.
How we distinguish between these scenarios is hard to say, but as time passes the unpleasant options become more likely. I'm not alone in raising this issue, as The Online Ethics Center at Case Western Reserve University poses just this same question.

This is not just an issue to occupy the idle minds of editors and to upset the loved ones of those who have passed on. Jonathan Gornall writing in the BMJ about a study of sudden infant death noted that "John Emery [...] was listed as the paper's seventh author, although he died in May 2000, more than two years before the first draft was completed and three years before the paper was submitted to the Lancet. The six other authors acknowledged in the paper that Professor Emery was "largely responsible for the setting up of this study and for investigation of the earlier cases" but played no part in drafting it. However, they did not make clear that after Professor Emery's death they recategorised deaths that he had classed as unnatural or of indeterminate cause as natural deaths. Furthermore, evidence of Professor Emery's views shortly before his death in May 2000 suggests that his name has been used to support a conclusion with which he would not have agreed".

Whatever the truth of this tale, it acts to highlight that the only person who has a right to attribute opinions to someone is that individual. I believe that co-authors should be wary of including a deceased colleague as an author if they were not involved in drafting or approving the manuscript before submission, especially if more than two years have passed since they died. A full acknowledgement will give them the respect they deserve.

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