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Guidelines for authorship of biomedical journals have been available for nearly two decades now to help determine how attribution should be acknowledged.1 With an increasing number of multiauthored articles and with contributions from diverse specialties, authorship disputes will always raise their head because existing guidelines may not be followed stringently or may be misinterpreted. I analysed author numbers in the Indian Journal of Pathology and Microbiology over the past 28 years (1975–2002). The designation of various authors or their individual contributions to the authored papers was not ascertained. In total, 1861 articles comprising 1268 (68.1%) original articles and 593 (31.9%) case reports were studied.
The number of authors for original articles ranged from one to a maximum of 10 (mean, 3.4). The mean number of authors for each article showed a significant increase from 1.9 (SD, 1.4) in 1975 to 3.9 (SD, 1.2) in 2002. The proportion of original articles with single authors declined from 50% in 1975 to none in 2002. Original articles with five or more authors also showed a sharp rise from 5% in 1975 to more than one fourth (26.1%) of all articles in 2002.
The number of authors for 593 published case reports ranged from one to a maximum of eight (mean, 3.5). The mean number of authors for each article showed a significant increase from 2.6 (SD, 1.5) in 1975 to 4.2 (SD, 1.3) in 2002. The proportion of case reports with single authors declined from 40% in 1975 to none in 2002. There were no articles with five or more authors in 1975, whereas 40% of case reports published in 2002 were authored by five or more researchers.
The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (Vancouver group) drew up the guidelines for authorship based on the principle that each author should be able to defend the work publicly. However, several studies have shown that these guidelines are not followed and the literature abounds with examples of irresponsible authorship.2– 4 Some researchers have recommended doing away with the present designation of author and replacing it with that of a contributor.5 In India, with many researchers being unfamiliar with the Vancouver guidelines, authorship is, on many occasions, a political decision determined by the position of the author in the hierarchy ladder. Not many junior researchers have the courage to refuse polite implicit or explicit requests from their seniors for inclusion as co-authors, even if their contribution to the work was negligible. The complex factors in the authorship tangle can operate in the reverse direction also, with juniors including senior investigators as co-authors to increase the credibility of the paper and its chances of being accepted. The conferral of gift authorship also erodes the pillars of ethical attribution. All these practices violate the Vancouver guidelines and cause much anguish to those forced to include non-contributors as co-authors in their work or those who are denied authorship when it is deserved. Authors must accept responsibility for a publication when taking the credit for the same. Institutions also need to address authorship issues head on, and devise ways to deal with such disputes. This vital activity in the biomedical field should not be converted into a power game where only the mighty win.