Authors, Guest Authors, and Ghost Authors: Does it Matter to the Cosmetic Scientist?

By Gopinathan K. Menon and Roger L. McMullen
June 15, 2017

image of a female author

Aspiring scientists in academia are usually made aware of the authorship guidelines by ethical mentors, journal editorials,1 or critical commentaries,2 or by the bitter experience of becoming a ghost author. The authorship guidelines evolved to remedy a malady that existed in the “colonial” past of science, which often operated on a hierarchical basis when an unethical senior author/director of the lab undermined the junior scientists.3 They did this by by adding their own name to a paper and naming important connections as authors (guest authorship), while junior researchers who did the grueling benchwork were entirely deprived of their share of credit (ghost authors). This corrupt practice was, and still is, perpetuated by the importance given to Impact Factor—a yardstick for measuring scientific productivity, rewarded in academia by grants and in industry by promotions. A very succinct account of what goes on in academia is given in an article by David Shaw, which we read recently and motivated us to write this piece.4 To quote Shaw, “In certain disciplines and countries, it is customary to name the head of the laboratory or institute, principal investigator, or grantholder as the last author, regardless of whether they contribute to the paper.” Take this quote and change ‘disciplines’ to ‘companies’ and ‘customary’ to ‘mandatory’ to cover industry as well. Some of the practices of the pharmaceutical industry to manipulate authorship have also come under criticism.5 Many journals insist on having all the authors sign authorship declarations, but this often leads to false declarations.4 This is especially so when ghost authors are not even acknowledged, or do not even come to light, unless under scrutiny for outright scientific fraud.

Why should cosmetic scientists care about this issue? For one, we need to maintain credibility as a scientific community. If not for any higher purpose, then at least for commercial reasons since the credibility of an R&D institution is a solid base for marketing and sales. For those of us who manufacture consumer products, we interface with practicing physicians and dermatologists who act as spokespersons—and they need to be convinced of how serious we take our science. For those of us who are on the supply side (vendors) and develop active ingredients, credibility with the customers (R&D scientists of major cosmetic companies) is the life line to business growth. Unlike the pharmaceutical industry who focus on two or three major products at any given time, the cosmetic industry is often mercurial, shifting attention with what is the ‘hot scientific discovery’ of the year, month, or week—often seeking multiple applications for the same ingredient. This hectic pace and effort results in innumerable poster presentations at scientific meetings, often as many as a dozen at the same symposium for one company. Consider the multifaceted talent of a singular senior author on display in an array of disparate topics. How credible does it look for an organization based on science and technology, unless of course it is led by a certain Thomas Edison?

Apart from this, industry is notorious for managers and their bosses who take the concepts, data, and conclusions of junior scientists (or formulators) and pass it off as their own while presenting to clients. No credit is given to the junior scientists by the “company designated” spokesperson who may or may not have practiced science since arriving at the middle of the corporate ladder. The danger here is that someone less intimately involved with the research will tend to use limited jargon, and cannot explain or defend the findings when questioned.

The question of authorship becomes more critical when it comes to a patent, hence, the intellectual property of an organization. Guest and ghost authors can absolutely wreck the validity of a patent, as any patent attorney could tell us. It is not just ungraceful, but also illegal to omit the name of an inventor who has made a significant or substantial contribution to an idea or execution of a project as well as intellectual input to the body of the patent. Therefore, it is crucial that all scientists in industry are provided adequate training in the practice of authorship guidelines for both publications and patents.

Science is bigger and more important than those of us who practice it. Good science may not always be great business, but bad science could be bad business. To quote Richard Harris (author of Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions): It's always uncomfortable to point out problems, but it is also essential. We are taxpayers, we are citizens, and we support this enterprise and expect to reap its rewards. If it is not operating at full steam ... and not doing everything right, it is worth pointing that out and saying, “No. Think about this. Let us make it better.”6

Corporations spend an enormous amount of time and money providing mandatory ethics training to employees. But these ethics courses are mostly about abstaining from offering bribes to government employees, refusing to accept a Christmas gift from a client, etc. Ethics in the practice of science and technology should also be an integral part of this training.

1. J. Smith, Gift authorship: a poisoned chalice? Brit. Med. J., 309, 1456-1457 (1994).
2. L.S. Kwok, The White Bull effect: abusive coauthorship and publication parasitism, J. Med. Ethics, 31, 554-556 (2005).
4. D. Shaw. 2013. The prisoners' dilemmas: authorship guidelines and impact factors: between a rock and a hard place, EMBO Rep., 15, 635-637 (2014).
5. A. Matherson, How industry used the ICMJE Guidelines to manipulate authorship—and how they should be revised, PLoS Med., 8(8), e1001072 (2011).
6. How Flawed Science Is Undermining Good Medicine, Interview with Richard Harris, Morning Edition, NPR, April 6, 2017.