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Authorship in Faculty-Student Collaborations

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Undergraduates, and certainly graduate students, are increasingly involved in research collaboration with their faculty. Along with high grade point averages and scores on standardized testing, undergraduate research experiences are one of the most valued criteria for advanced graduate training. As a result, an increasing number of undergraduates are becoming involved in research and even authoring journal articles. Their participation in the research process raises the question as to whether current authorship guidelines that have been designed for professionals should be equally applicable to students. Fine and Kurdek (1993) who have written on these issues, offer the following sensible remarks

"To be included as an author on a scholarly publication, a student should, in a cumulative sense, make a professional contribution that is creative and intellectual in nature, that is integral to completion of the paper, and that requires an overarching perspective of the project. Examples of professional contributions include developing the research design, writing portions of the manuscript, integrating diverse theoretical perspectives, developing new conceptual models, designing assessments, contributing to data analysis decision and interpreting results..." (p. 1145).

Faculty mentors may view the above guidelines for students as rather harsh. However, consider part of the rationale for these authors’ position that awarding authorship to an undeserving student is unethical:

"First, a publication on one's record that is not legitimately earned may falsely represent the individual’s scholarly expertise. Second, if because he or she is now a published author, the student is perceived as being more skilled than a peer who is not published, the student is given an unfair advantage professionally. Finally, if the student is perceived to have a level of competence that he or she does not actually have, he or she will be expected to accomplish tasks that may be outside the student's range of expertise" (p. 1143).

On the other hand, there is evidence suggesting that students’ earned authorship credit is sometimes underrepresented or outright denied by supervising faculty (Swazey, Anderson, & Lewis, 1993; Tarnow, 1999). Clearly, such outcomes are highly unethical as they rob the deserving student of their due credit.

GUIDELINE 26: Faculty-student collaborations should follow the same criteria to establish authorship. Mentors must exercise great care to neither award authorship to students whose contributions do not merit it, nor to deny authorship and due credit to the work of students.

Ghost Authorship

Ghost authorship occurs when a written work fails to identify individuals who made significant contributions to the research and writing of that work. Although in recent times this unethical practice is typically associated with the pharmaceutical and biomedical device industry, the term is also applicable in a number of other contexts. For example, in academic contexts, it is widely recognized as cheating to have someone other than the named student author write a paper that is then submitted as the student’s own. Perhaps with some exceptions (e.g., speech writers), ghost authorship is ethically unacceptable because the reader is mislead as to the actual contributions made by the named author.

Academic Ghost Authorship

A not uncommon form of academic dishonesty that has probably always existed is to have someone else other than the student (e.g., a friend or relative), complete an assignment or write a paper. Several Internet sites now exist that, in addition to making available copies of papers that have already been written, also provide custom-written papers, including doctoral theses. The customer (i.e., student) specifies the topic and other requirements for the paper and, for a fee, a staff writer for the service will supply the custom-written product. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these practices are not all that uncommon, particularly for those students with the financial means to hire these ghost authors. For an eye-opening account of how this practice works even before the proliferation of on-line paper mill sites, I refer the reader to Whitherspoon’s (1995) personal account as a ghostwriter. More recent accounts of this emerging industry are provided by Dante (2010) and Shahghasemi and Akhavan (2015).

Situations in which authors, whether students or professionals, find themselves in need of extensive external assistance with their writing can also raise some interesting ethical dilemmas. For example, consider the doctoral candidate who, because of limited writing skills and/or considerable financial resources, relies heavily on an individual or editorial service resulting in someone other than the doctoral candidate making substantial editorial changes to the writing of the thesis. Such a situation may be acceptable as long as the author of the thesis indicates in a byline or acknowledgement section the full extent of others’ assistance. This, however, is not always done. One of the reasons is that such acknowledgement would obviously reflect negatively on the author by possibly suggesting that s/he might not have the necessary skills expected of a doctoral candidate. By mischaracterizing or by failing to acknowledge altogether the high level of assistance received, students falsely portray a level of academic competence that they either do not have or did not practice. In instances in which doctoral students anticipate relying on external assistance to help with the writing of a thesis or even term paper, it is strongly recommended that they confer with their thesis committee, supervisor, or professor to determine the accepted parameters of such assistance and to fully disclose the nature of the assistance received.

Professional Ghost Authorship

In the literary world ghost authorship is most often associated with celebrity-authored works in which a celebrity, together with a skilled writer, produce written products, such as an autobiography or a memoir. Although much of the writing may be done by the ghost writer whose contributions may not always be acknowledged and, consequently, in those instances the reader is misled into believing that the celebrity is the sole author of the work.

In the biomedical sciences ghost writing has become particularly problematic (see Ngai, Gold, Gill, & Rochon, 2005). For example, in a typical scenario, a pharmaceutical or medical device company will hire an outside researcher with known expertise in the company’s line of products (e.g., antidepressants) to write a “balanced” review of their product. To facilitate the write-up of the paper, the company furnishes the expert with a draft of the paper that had already been prepared by a ghost author employed by the company. And, as it often happens with industry-sponsored research, the resulting paper ends up portraying the product in a more favorable light than in reality it might deserve (Bekelman, Li, & Gross, 2003). It is important to highlight the distinction between ghost writers and medical writers. As Woolley (2008) points out, medical writers are professionals who assist researchers in the preparation of manuscripts. They abide by a professional code of ethics that includes full disclosure in the publication as to the medical writer’s involvement and funding source (see American Medical Writers Association, 2008; or the ethical guidelines of the European Medical Writers Association, Jacobs & Wager, 2005).

The extent of ghost contributions can range from the initial draft framing of a manuscript to the complete or nearly complete write-up of the paper. In addition to the obscuring of the true authorship of these works, the extent to which the writing encourages bias toward a particular product or point of view emerges as a concern. In the past few years, several articles and editorials have condemned the practice as ethically questionable (e.g., The PLoS Medicine Editors, 2009; Sismondo & Doucet, 2010). The World Association of Medical Editors (2005) has produced a position statement, which considers ghost authorship dishonest and unacceptable.

GUIDELINE 27: Academic or professional ghost authorship in the sciences is ethically unacceptable.