Letters to the editor
Medwave 2014;14(4):e5950 doi: 10.5867/medwave.2014.04.5950

Bullying in authorship: abusive mentorship and undeserved credit

Mauricio Ávila Guerra

Publishing in biomedical sciences has become necessary for many physicians/researchers/doctoral students, and even for undergraduate medical students. From the early years in medical school, the slogan “publish or perish” is often heard and is almost a motto in several research and academic settings. There is  constant pressure to publish your data, cases and experience. If we add the pressure to secure funding for new research or even to keep your position as a professor or a principal investigator, research is your top priority. The number of publications you produce will play a critical role when securing an academic position and furthering your career as a scientist [1],[2]. The  growing body of submissions of research articles to scientific journals also corroborates the importance of publishing [3],[4]. However, research by itself is not of any use to the scientific community if you do not publish your results. The goal of a research project is (most of the time) to be published. Gathering the data, writing the manuscript, dealing with the publishing process (including rejections and revisions) and, finally, taking responsibility for the published work, are not easy tasks. What I have mentioned above requires a lot of commitment to your research and, most importantly, a lot of your time.

Senior researchers - which include principal investigators, heads of departments, older professors - actively seek to publish new research. Driven by the imperative to publish, they sometimes engage in unethical behavior or “bullying “of their younger fellows. They may coerce them to include them as authors of studies in which they have not been actively involved, change the order of authorship in the final manuscript, or even have the young researcher act as ghost writer, not giving them credit for their work [5][6][7]. Mowatt et al showed that almost 40% of Cochrane reviews had evidence of such honorary authorship [8].

Kwok [9] used the term “white bull effect” describe this type of investigator conduct that  profits from younger ones, considering himself  “untouchable”.  Strange [5] provided a definition of some types of authorship abuse in biomedical literature.

During my practice, I have encountered two types of bullies: clever ones and dictators.

The clever one will manage to convince you that he has earned the right to authorship. He will review the manuscript, make a few comments on the methodology of the study and will even approve the final version of the manuscript in an effort to fulfill the authorship criteria of the Vancouver group <a href="#" data-dropdown="drop8" class="drop-link">[8]</a>. However, be aware, he will be involved only superficially in the research itself, and probably will make comments and revisions to the manuscript that will amount only to small changes. Most commonly he will “join” the research after it has already begun. This type of bully can easily convince himself that in fact he has contributed to the study and, if challenged, will use his rank to settle the dispute in his favor.

The dictator type probably will not even trouble himself as much as the clever one. He will use his position to appear as an author with or without making any comments to the actual manuscript. Sometimes he will impose his own name as primary author only because of his position. Ignoring the ICMJE criteria for authorship [10] will not bother him at all.

Unfortunately, I have encountered both types of conduct. In medicine, a common occurrence is that the department’s chair or director will impose his name as author. I have had disagreements with a department’s chair because he wanted all the professors to be included as authors, even if they didn’t even know that the research existed (of course they hadn’t even remotely seen the manuscript). At that time, I was a medical student. I was intimidated, but I knew the ICMJE criteria for authorship, so I managed to include only two of the initial six professors because only they fulfilled the criteria.

I would like use this commentary to reach out to the people that are in this situation. If you are a medical student, an undergraduate student, or maybe a junior physician, do not let bullies take advantage of your research, stick to the ICMJE criteria for authorship [10], especially in biomedical research. Unfortunately, some Latin American journals do not adhere to the ICMJE criteria, as shown by Monteiro et al in Brazilian journals [11].

My final recommendation is the following:  before beginning any new research project, discuss manuscript authorship with the principal investigator. It is crucial to remember that authorship must be earned.  The ICMJE criteria indicate who really has the right to appear in the byline of the manuscript. If these issues are clear from the start, then the study will go most likely move on smoothly.


Declaration of conflicts of interest
The author has completed the ICMJE declaration of conflicts of interest translated into Spanish by Medwave, and declares he is university professor and research assistant in the Department of Epidemiology, Faculty of Medicine, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana. He declares no other interests related to the content of this letter.

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