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Misconduct in scientific publications: Authorship, plagiarism and conflicts of interest

Friday, 01 Dec 2017

Publication misconduct including guest authorship and failure of authors to report conflicts of interest is the subject of new research(link is externalpublished in 
BMJ Open(link is externalthis week. It reports the results of a survey examining the views and behaviour of health researchers from low and middle-income countries (LMICs)

At a time when the public’s scepticism of science (and the people behind it) is increasing, we need to know the foundations of research are solid. Research is mainly disseminated through the publication of scientific articles, which become trusted sources of information for the rest of the community. Although people are aware of scandals of data fabrication or plagiarism, what is less known about are more minor but none-the less important aspects of misconduct, such as guest authorship, undeclared conflicts of interest, and publication redundancy –when authors recycle the same text in different articles.

The authors, including LSTM Professor Paul Garner, wanted to know to what extent these problems permeated the institutions of health researchers from LMICs. They invited health researchers to respond to an online survey, and then further explored current practices through in-depth interviews. Obtaining participants was no easy task: out of 607 invitations that were sent out, 198 survey responses were used in this study. Of these, only 15 were available for the follow-up interviews. Volunteers were corresponding authors of Cochrane Reviews based in LMICs, meaning they were aware of the ethical aspects of scientific publication and could properly assess misconduct. The anonymity of the surveys gave researchers the freedom to disclose information about themselves or their institutions. 

The most common irresponsible practice reported was ‘guest authorship’. Ms. Anke Rohwer(link is external), from the Centre for Evidence Based Health Care(link is external) in South Africa, and first author of the study, said: “Participants were concerned about widespread guest authorship. We found this in the survey as well as in the follow-up interviews. The various reasons for adding authors that had not contributed to papers were surprising and alarming”. Academic status was a ’big driver’ for this behavior, with institutions partly to blame for feeding the ‘publish or perish’ culture. “We found that the requirements for promotion played a big role in influencing poor practices among health researchers from LMICs.” Continued Ms. Rohwer: “Study participants were concerned about the overemphasis on the number of publications as opposed to the quality or impact of the publications. Researchers want academic status and power which comes with publications and promotion.” In extreme cases, this power play even resulted in the real authors of a study being left out of the final publication.

The survey shows that researchers are not familiar with existing guidelines, and the authors believe that this, combined with a lack of role models, perpetuates the situation. Participants also described the impact of the culture within institutions, with junior researchers often having to follow ‘unwritten rules’. Ms. Rohwer explains that support at an institutional level is vital. “I don’t think there is a ‘magic bullet’ to solve the problem. But a starting point would be increased awareness raising, training and mentoring. Change needs to happen at various levels – starting from the research team to the department and throughout the institution.”

Rohwer A, Young T, Wager E and Garner P. Authorship, plagiarism and conflict of interest: views and practices from low/middle-income country health researchers. BMJ Open 2017;7:e018467. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-018467(link is external)