27 September 2020

Research Ethics

'Unconsented acknowledgments as a form of authorship abuse: What can be done about it?' by Mladen Koljatic in (2020) Research Ethics comments 

 Unwelcome or unconsented acknowledgments is an unethical practice seldom addressed. It constitutes a form of authorship abuse perpetrated in the acknowledgments section of published research, where the victim is credited as having made a contribution to the paper, without having given their consent, and often without having seen a draft of the paper. The acknowledgment may be written in such a way as to imply endorsement of the study’s data and conclusions. Through a real-life case, this paper explores the issue of unconsented acknowledgments and makes recommendations to prevent its occurrence, thereby promoting research integrity. 

 Koljatic notes 

Abuses in authorship, such as redundant publication, ghost authorships, and coerced or hostage authorship, have received well-deserved attention lately (Bülow and Helgesson, 2018; Tang, 2018; Tarkang et al., 2017). Although less conspicuous than forms of gross research misconduct—including falsification, data fabrication, and plagiarism—that garner national headlines when uncovered, abuses in authorship appear to be common and pervasive (De Vries et al., 2006). 

Concerns about authorship in scholarly publications, that is, who does and does not merit to be considered an author, have been around for decades (Street et al., 2010). The increase in the number of authors per paper became a matter of serious concern in the early 1990s (Rennie and Flanagin, 1994), and continues to be so today. Unethical practices such as awarding co-authorship to a person who has not contributed significantly to a study, euphemistically labeled as honorary authorship, gift authorship, guest authorship, gratuitous authorship, or prestige authorship (Tarkang et al., 2017), have proven difficult to eradicate. The most devious form of authorship abuse, however, is hostage authorship, a form of coerced authorship in which an undeserving person exerts their power to threaten or imply that unless they are named as an author, they will prevent the study from being published (Bülow and Helgesson, 2018; Strange, 2008). But abuses related to authorship issues can adopt other, more subtle forms than coerced authorship, for example, via the acknowledgments section in published research papers. 

The acknowledgments section in published research may appear to be quite harmless, included as a courtesy, to thank those who provided help during the research or writing process (Day and Gastel, 2011). However, it has also been the focus of bitter disputes concerning the blurred relationship between authorship and simple collaboration (Hyland, 2004; Rennie et al., 1997). While co-authorship implies active partnership, being acknowledged suggests mere assistantship, a subordinate position (Cronin, 1995). The issue here is that some contributors who should have been included as genuine authors may find themselves unmentioned (Jeffery and Fries, 2011; Sandler and Russell, 2005) or merely included in the acknowledgments section of a paper. 

The acknowledgments section may also be corrupted in a subtler way, as when an author overstates the contribution of another researcher by using their name without consent, to lend greater credibility to his or her work. In that sense, an acknowledgment, through its message and meta-message, can become a vehicle for opportunistic behavior and “manipulative strategizing” (Ben-Ari, 1987: 72), such as when it implies that the acknowledged individual is a responsible party, when they are not. 

Acknowledgments can also seek to diffuse an author’s responsibility by assigning credit to someone else (Day and Gastel, 2011; Giannoni, 2002). A classic example of an unwelcome acknowledgment is the account offered by Chatfield (2002), who received an off-print in which he was thanked for statistical advice, even though he had not seen the paper in either draft or final form. He explained the cause of his concern:

I was therefore not pleased to find at least one terrible statistical feature of the paper, namely some inappropriate graphs, incorrectly described as histograms which purported to show differences between group means. Presumably the refereeing process also bypassed statistical advice, possibly because a statistician appeared in the acknowledgments. (p. 16) 

Chatfield’s final comment above indicates how acknowledgments may contribute to diluting an author’s responsibility and adding face validity to a weak study, in this case by naming him, a renowned statistician. The matter goes beyond simple etiquette. Day and Gastel (2011: 77) warn that it is “not good ethics. . . to phrase the acknowledgments in a way that seemingly denotes endorsement.” 

To avoid such forms of abuse, editors have been advised to request written consent from those who will be mentioned in the acknowledgments section (Day and Gastel, 2011; ICMJE, 2019; Oberlander and Spencer, 2006; Tarkang et al., 2017). Yet not all editors follow this advice. 

Any researcher may become the victim of an unconsented acknowledgment. In this form of abuse, a person (usually a colleague of the author) who has not contributed to the published research, finds himself or herself identified by name (as opposed to being thanked as an “anonymous reviewer”) and being “credited” for a contribution to the paper without having given their prior consent, and often without having seen a draft or final paper. 

Some journals and associations have made recommendations on this issue with those in the biomedical field having been the most explicit about the need to avoid abuses in acknowledgments. For instance, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors first addressed the problem in the early 1980s (ICMJE, 1982). Undoubtedly, there is general agreement that formally acknowledging individuals to gain credibility or thanking individuals without their prior consent is unacceptable publication practice (Tarkang et al., 2017). Worse still is acknowledging individuals who have expressed their wish not to be thanked or associated in any way with a study. This would constitute an extreme form of abusive acknowledgment. 

This article describes and discusses a case of unconsented acknowledgment. As this unethical practice is seldom addressed in the research literature, the aim of this paper is to raise awareness of its occurrence and potential preventive measures through examination of a real-life case of abusive acknowledgment in a prestigious journal. For legal reasons, names and other information that could reveal the identity of the journal, publisher, author, and editor have been removed.