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EDUCATION REPORT - Authors of Medical Studies Not Always Who They Seem

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This is the VOA Special English Education Report.

Medical journals are an important part of continuing education for doctors and other health providers. Journals say they do their best to publish high quality studies by trusted authors.

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors says: "An 'author' is generally considered to be someone who has made substantive intellectual contributions to a published study ... "

In other words, someone who did much of the work.

Just who works on a study? It is not always easy to know.
Just who works on a study? It is not always easy to know.

Credit is to be based on three conditions. The first involves designing the study and gathering and analyzing the data. The second involves preparing the article. And the third involves final approval of the version to be published.

Readers may have no way to know who did what when studies list several authors. And not all studies list all their authors.

The Public Library of Science, or PLoS, is a nonprofit organization based in California. Its journals are available free online. The editors of PLoS Medicine ask authors if anyone from a company or public relations agency suggested or paid for their article.

They also ask if a professional writer helped with the article and to what extent. And they ask if the article is similar to articles published in other journals.

By asking these questions, the editors try to guard against the use of ghost authors. A ghost author is someone who had a lot to do with an article but is not given credit.

Drug companies have been known to pay researchers to place articles in journals to support their products.

Not all ghost authors, though, are paid. And there may be nothing scientifically wrong with a study involving paid authors who are not identified. But journal editors say everyone who worked on a study needs to take responsibility.

Another issue is the honorary author. Unlike a ghost author, an honorary author gets credit in the article but had little if anything to do with it. Authors sometimes add a well-known name to increase the chances that an article will be published. For example, the person may be the head of the university department that did the study.

The chief editor of PLoS Medicine says honorary authors are a more common problem than ghost authors. Virginia Barbour says the pressure in higher education to get published may be responsible for some of this. But she says any kind of dishonesty can shake people's faith in the medical profession.

We'll have more on this subject next week. And that's the VOA Special English Education Report, written by Nancy Steinbach. I'm Steve Ember.

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