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Ghostwriting in academic journals: How can we mitigate its impact on research integrity?

Research integrity

Christine Lee
Christine Lee
Content Manager






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Contract cheating–engaging a third party like an essay mill or even a friend or family member to submit work as one’s own–is an unquestionable form of academic misconduct. We’ve established that engaging in contract cheating hampers learning. To that end, there are now laws and activism against contract cheating in various regions around the world.

In academic research, other terms synonymous with contract cheating are more widely used; these words are ghostwriting or ghost authorship.

What is research ghostwriting?

Ghostwriting is a term used to describe academic research written by someone whose name is not acknowledged. The third party may be anyone who engages in this behavior, including individuals hired by private companies in the industry that may provide undisclosed influence on research.

Ghostwriting may entail taking credit for an entire article written by a third party, crediting “honorary” authors for work they did not do, or not crediting junior researchers for their participation. When authors are named without having participated in research or writing, they are called “honorary” authors or “guest” authors and this related form of behavior also qualifies as misconduct.

The most egregious forms of ghostwriting are articles completely written by an industry representative about research in which the stated authors have taken no part, or articles written by industry that provide selective research outcomes to promote products of which the researchers and acknowledged authors are unaware.

In the world of medical writing, the misconduct of ghostwriting is particularly pervasive, as pharmaceutical companies often collaborate with researchers to promote products and support regulatory requests; in fact, the term for legitimately doing so is called publication planning and strategy. But when these contributions aren’t acknowledged, research slides into misconduct. Researchers state that “We believe that critics are right to condemn the production of ghostwritten journal articles, a practice we believe to be unethical and dangerous” and while collaboration itself is not the problem, “the problem is the specific ways in which these collaborations are disguised, manipulated, and used as tools for marketing drugs” (Moffatt & Elliott, 2007).

Why is research ghostwriting prevalent?

Studies have shown that ghostwriting and guest authorship are prevalent within research. A study published in Nature stated that 10.0% of participating scientists engaged in “inappropriately assigning authorship credit”; mid-career scientists’ numbers are even more troubling, with a 12.3% admission rate (Martinson, Anderson, and de Vries, 2005). A more recent 2011 study found that “the prevalence of articles with honorary and ghost authors across three peer-reviewed journals was 14.3% and 0.9%, respectively” (Dotson & Slaughter, 2011). And a 2002 study of Cochrane reviews revealed that an astounding 39% of articles had “honorary” authorship and 9% had “ghost authors” (Mowatt, et al., 2002).

The above numbers may vary, but establish that ghostwriting is happening due to myriad pressure points.

Ghostwriting can be perceived as a way to increase economic opportunities. For medical writers employed by industry, it is a career opportunity. For academic researchers, collaboration with industry may be correlated to prestige and grant support. And “for industry sponsors, these practices are part of global publication strategies for product promotion,” by developing relationships with academics (Bosch & Ross, 2012).

The nature of research, too, can lead to ambiguity. Collaboration is a core component of good citizenship within academia. Funding, too, is more often than not tied to related industries. But these working relationships can often blur boundaries.

Propagating a perception of collaboration has encouraged the practice of multiple authors on research articles. By adding co-authors to a paper, particularly names of more established academics, researchers provide more esteem to their work and increase their chances of being published in more prestigious journals and gaining a wider audience. In fact, “Part of the problem is that good names give papers credibility. A colleague once told me that in his country it was more important to know the authors than the methods of a research paper, as some professors lent their names to almost anything if they were well paid. I have seen single-authored meta-analyses on drugs presenting sophisticated analyses that went far beyond the capability of the author, without a word about who did the analyses (and presumably even wrote the paper). Similarly, many drug reviews are unlikely to have been written by the authors, as these professors probably have more important things to do than writing book-length drug reviews in sponsored supplements or peripheral journals that few would ever read and that have no impact factor,” according to 2009 research (Gøtzsche, et al., 2009).

Such “honorary” or “guest” authorship has been linked to ghostwriting; academic dishonesty is a slippery slope.

Research supports the slippery slope theory. “It is this culture,” states 2010 research, “that pharmaceutical companies have tapped into, rather than inventing a new type of author. But by flattering academics into being guest authors, they have created, and then filled, a need for ghost authors to actually write the papers. The academics accepting the apparent honor of authorship thus provide cover – as accomplices or as dupes – for manipulative marketing practices” (Barbour, 2010).

Finally, ghostwriting is a growing practice because it is often viewed as a slight, rather than as uncontested research misconduct. (Plagiarism, on the other hand, is an uncontested ethical failing). So in the face of economic and career rewards, the incentives to engage in ghostwriting outweighs the low risk of discipline.

How does ghostwriting impact academic integrity?

When authors collaborate with industry and do not reveal this collaboration in clear ways, research loses integrity and thus erodes trust.

Transparency is a key component to research integrity. Knowing exactly who is writing the article and making clear any bias or influence is critical to accurate findings and research conclusions. According to medical writer Langdon-Neuner, “Articles ghost-written by medical writers engaged by pharmaceutical companies who have a vested interest in the content have caused concern after scandals revealed misleading content in some articles” (Langdon-Neuner, 2008)

Advertisements carry the name of the manufacturer whereas ghost-written articles do not reveal affiliation. Confusing the two results in medical decisions made by doctors and policy makers that affect health.

Scientific communication and scientific objectivity is a clear line that delineates research from marketing. This line must be upheld, according to Barton & Elliott, who state, “One approach to scientific objectivity holds that science is objective because of its procedures. According to this view, the foundation of scientific objectivity rests in the way scientists communicate and contest results. Helen Longino (2001) argues that scientific communities are objective insofar as their communication procedures are open and contestable. But ghostwritten papers conceal the interests of authors and sponsors in a way that makes it difficult to assess and contest the scientific data, which undermines the objectivity of science itself” (Moffatt & Elliott, 2007, p. 27).

Bosch and Ross go even further in saying that “ghostwriting and guest authorship are acts of research misconduct and deserve such widespread indignation because they entail maintaining secrecy, falsifying credentials, and fabricating the attribution of writing to another, representing an intentional and significant departure from accepted practices within the research community” (Bosch & Ross, 2012).

When practitioners and policy makers make decisions for others based on research, that research needs to be transparent and accurate. The consequences of ghostwriting are widespread; by undermining the integrity of research, it removes critical data that influences how that data will then be used, whether it be policy decisions or a basis for further research.

How can we mitigate ghostwriting’s impact on research integrity?

First and foremost, raising awareness is the first step in preventing ghostwriting from occurring in research articles. #Pleasedontstealmywork in Denmark, for instance, documents instances of ghostwriting in order to make clear the prevalence of ghostwriting. When unknowing researchers understand that ghostwriting is a form of misconduct, they are dissuaded from engaging in dishonesty. And when those who knowingly engage in ghostwriting are under the spotlight, they are less likely to engage in research misconduct.

Journals can take part by requiring contributorship statements for publication. Additionally, they can ask authors to make clear any written contributions by private industry. It is not the participation with industry that makes ghostwriting unethical but the lack of transparency with partnerships. Acknowledging medical writers can clarify conflicts of interest–and make their contribution legitimate (Yadav & Rawal, 2018).

From the initial steps of awareness and journal participation, institutional involvement helps enforce a culture of academic integrity around research. Encouraging universities to define ghostwriting as research misconduct is a way to impress the importance of authorship. Other institutional-level support involves forming a standing committee or task force to sanction ghostwriting (Bosch & Ross, 2012).

Some suggestions are punitive, and go as far as making it standard practice that ghostwriters and guest authors be named as defendants in litigation against the pharmaceutical industry, per Moffatt and Elliott (Moffatt & Elliott, 2007, p. 29). Certainly, this would be a deterrent. The lack of disciplinary measures to date has contributed to widespread ghostwriting. Plagiarism results in retractions and negative reputation; the same must happen when it comes to ghostwriting.

As with all academic integrity issues, we hope it doesn’t come to punishment and that such breaches are avoided through education. We hope that spotlighting ghostwriting helps spare unknowing participants of misconduct.