Honorary Authorship, Coercive Citations and Padding in Scientific Papers

“…Academics ‘are trapped; compelled to participate in activities they find distasteful,’ including the intricate world of scientific publications, which involves a range of journal publishers, editors, book producers, open-access periodicals, for-profit series, online-journals and other venues to disseminate research; plus, of course, individuals —charming, powerful or both— that free ride at the expense of others’ work…”

Cartoon by Pedro Velica

by  Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C

In an article just published in PLoS ONE, December 2017, Eric A. Fong and Allen W. Wilhite, researchers at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, document three practices in academia: (1) the inclusion of “honorary authors” in scientific publications (i.e. the addition of individuals to manuscripts as authors, even though they have contributed little, if anything, to the actual research), (2) coercive citations (i.e. when editors direct authors to add citations to articles from the editors’ journals ‒arguably to boost the journal’s citation index), and (3) padding (i.e. when authors add superfluous citations to a paper in an attempt to increase its chance for publication). Fong and Wilhite surveyed 12,000 scholars from 18 disciplines (i.e. health-care, engineering, science, social sciences and business) at diverse universities in the United States.

The specific fields of specialization of the interviewed researchers were: medicine, nursing, biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, physics, engineering, ecology, accounting, economics, finance, marketing, management, information systems, sociology, psychology, and political science. The Fong and Wilhite’s study is comprehensive and I suggest the reader to look at the original publication for details. In the figure below, I simply share the statistical trends that summarize the research. I have adapted an image from the PLoS ONE article (open access journal) to make it more appealing to a non-specialized audience.

In the image, note the following: (1) Adding honorary authors to manuscripts was common practice among 1 in every 3 of the surveyed scholars; it reached +40% in the health-care professions. (2) About 1 in every 5 scholars added such authors to a grant proposal; and, again, about 40% was typical in the health-care professions. (3) Coercive citations were common in +5% of the scholars in science, and beyond 20-25% in engineering and business. (4) The practice of padding a scientific article with irrelevant citations was common among, at least, 1 in every 5 authors, and particularly evident among those in science and engineering (around 30%), and +45-50% in business and the social sciences. Finally, (5) padding in grant proposals was common in +10-20% of all disciplines, and up to ≈40% in business.

The responders to the survey acknowledged that the main reason for adding honorary authors in their manuscripts was the relationship of director/authority of the honorary author in respect to the “real authors” of the paper (+20% of the responders thought that way); others included as co-authors their mentors, colleagues, individuals-for-reciprocity-reasons, for their reputation, or for funding. However, 60% of all responders added honorary authors to their grant proposals simply due to the latter’s “reputation,” and, thus, to increase the chances of getting the projects funded.

Interestingly, between ≈60% and +90% of all responders disapproved of the coercive citation practice across disciplines. But keep in mind that, despite the quantitative approach to the study, the responses were also based on perception, i.e. the researchers’ insight about honorary authors, coercive citations or padding in scientific publications and grant proposals.

Fong and Wilhite concluded that:

“…there is a significant level of deception in authorship and citation in academic research and while it would be naïve to suppose that academics are above such scheming to enhance their position, the results suggest otherwise. The overwhelming consensus is that such behavior is inappropriate, but its practice is common. It seems that academics are trapped; compelled to participate in activities they find distasteful…”

“…misattribution, spans the academic universe. While there are different levels of abuse across disciplines, we found evidence of honorary authorship, coercive citation, and padded citation in every discipline we sampled. We also suggest that a useful construct to approach misattribution is to assume individual scholars make deliberate decisions to cheat after weighing the costs and benefits of that action. We cannot claim that our construct is universally true because other explanations may be possible, nor do we claim it explains all misattribution behavior because other factors can play a role. However, the systematic pattern of superfluous authors, coerced citations, and padded references documented here is consistent with scholars who [are] making deliberate decisions to cheat after evaluating the costs and benefits of their behavior…”

To close: In my (our) own experience, I (we) have never included honorary authors in my (our) publications, or have never been an honorary author of a paper. But some colleagues have asked me (us), more than once, why have I (we) included such and such person in that or that paper, assuming that that individual did not deserved it. My (our) rationale has always been that if a substantial aspect of a manuscript had not been possible to be completed, unless that person had contributed directly or indirectly to the research, that individual ought to be acknowledged as co-author. This includes the very conceptual transformation of a manuscript due to crucial feedback, interpretation of results, and substantial modification of the scope with which an article was put together. — In cases like that, I have expected my name to be included as co-author, but that has happened sporadically (more during the times I was a postdoc and contributed with conceptual, methodological, analytical and copy-editing feedback to graduate students’ dissertations). In various occasions, I have requested to not be included in manuscripts as a co-author; this practice is not unusual among researchers.

In terms of coercive citations, I have never been asked by a journal editor to cite an irrelevant paper with the purpose of contributing to boosting the journal’s citation index (which, by the way, would require hundreds of authors to be simultaneously coerced to cite multiple articles to have a statistical influence on the journal’s performance), although I have been suggested by journal editors to take a look at some studies (published in other journals), of which I was not aware, and that I actually found very helpful to come across, and decided to discuss and cite them in a paper. However, and this is a big “however,” peer-reviewers have attempted to coerce us (Avelina Espinosa and I), more than once, to cite their papers (or their close collaborators’), or papers of their liking, in our studies. In many cases, such papers were irrelevant, or we disagreed fundamentally with them to even give them a citation in our manuscripts. On one occasion, a well known individual in a field insisted that we should cite non-scientific books in our work, and did so with assertive authority (plus specifically stated where in our text we had to acknowledge the merits of the organization with which the individual was affiliated ‒sounds surreal, right?), an issue we later resolved with the journal editor, who agreed with us and considered the suggestion to be imprudent. So, yes, coercive predators do exist and attempt to exert power at will… if you let them. But journal editors are very experienced, for the most part, and tend to not allow such approaches to peer-reviewing.

On grants, we have never included potential honorary recipients to increase our chances of getting funded. But, when attending a national-funders meeting in Washington DC, a few years ago, we were advised to add a specific anchor-individual to our team, otherwise “we will continue to be seen as outsiders” (verbatim) in that specific community of peer-reviewers. Of course, we declined to include that person in our proposals (three of which were not funded by the agency), although we did complete the research and publish the papers (N = 14) that we projected in the proposals to be the outcomes of the projects. Not only that, we were fortunate to publish an academic best-seller-2017-book summarizing all the research and with no strings attached to any honorary contributor.

I alert the reader that Fong and Wilhite are not suggesting in their paper that the academic system is unethical, which, at our current times of anti-intellectualism, the general public might be susceptible to believe (i.e. in response to anti-science campaigns, anti-evolution, anti-climate-change, anti-vaccines). Not at all. Broad unethical behavior has not been, or is, the case in academia. And Fong and Wilhite are not implying that in their PLoS ONE article. Although, it is true that academics “are trapped; compelled to participate in activities they find distasteful,” including the intricate world of scientific publications, which involves a range of journal publishers, editors, book producers, open-access periodicals, for-profit series, online-journals and other venues to disseminate research; plus, of course, individuals —charming, powerful or both— that free ride at the expense of others’ work. — EvoLiteracy © 2017

UPDATE: I thank George A. Lozano for pointing at his article “The Elephant in the Room: Multi-authorship and the Assessment of Individual Researchers. Current Science 105 (2013): 443-445 [PDF]” in which he proposes a solution to the multi-authorship problem.

You can contact Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C via email at guillermo.pazyminoc@gmail.com — Follow us on Twitter @gpazymino and Facebook.