Sunday, 12 July 2009

guests, ghosts, gofers

Thanks to this paper by Peter R. Mason from Zimbabwe, I got acquainted with an interesting classification of the authorship of (scientific) papers.
Guest authors are those “important” persons who insist that their names appear on the papers of their juniors, even when they have made minimum contribution to the research. Ghost authors are those who make a significant contribution to the writing of a paper, but their names do not appear as an author on the publication. This is often a situation found in clinical trials sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. A “gofer” is a name given to someone who is regarded as very junior and so is sent to “go for” something and bring it back to the more important members of a team.
Ostensibly, the article deals with the situation in developing world; in fact it talks about the universal problem. Check the recommendations of International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICJME):
Acquisition of funding, collection of data, or general supervision of the research group alone does not constitute authorship.
Mason quotes this passage and says:
Many instances of authorship from the developing world may not be compatible with these criteria.
As if in the “developed” world the situation is different. Show me a researcher who was never bullied into accepting uninvited co-authors. It looks like the only way to ensure that you don’t have guests/ghosts/gophers is to write and publish alone. Even three co-authors (which IMHO is an optimal number for scientific paper-writing) may be one or two too much.

In his essay The demise of the lone author, Mott Greene wrote:
The appreciation of Lotka’s law has allowed the continuation, in a world of clearly shared credit and hazily specified responsibility, of citation counting as the principal means of establishing scientific prominence and reputation. No matter how many co-authors you have, the more times your name appears on a scientific publication, the more productive you are assumed to be, and the more worthy of support.
At least, current system of scientific funding favours “more authors, more publications” scenario. (Greene says that Lotka’s law may be not applicable to those mass grave papers with 100+ co-authors. I don’t think it changes much: in his original paper, Lotka himself only counted the primary authors.) Commenting on Greene’s paper and follow-up by Kevin Hallock, Writedit suggests that if the ICMJE authorship rules were strictly enforced, there will be a lot more lone authors in scientific literature, which could be not a bad thing — except
perhaps that would be interpreted as not being collegial or collaborative rather than as being independent and tenacious.

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