Is Something Too Good to Be True? Ethics in Publication

Anthony Brian Gallagher

So here I am trying to get publications under my belt, and along comes a very kind senior who has just written his paper after the conclusion of his study. He asks me if I can check the English before he submits it to his chosen journal, and I notice he has my name written on his draft as a co-author. Surely this is too good to be true, no? Well, yes, it is.

Gift Authorship

Being listed as an author for doing little or no work on a project is called “gift authorship.” This situation is caused by a failure to follow standard ethical guidance on carrying out any sort of research (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, 2015): “The principal investigator is responsible for conducting research activities appropriately and, therefore also responsible for ensuring that all procedures are carefully followed according to various ethical policies and guidelines as well as managing personal information, data, and intellectual properties” (p. 74). In order to avoid confusion and impropriety at a later date, this is the moment to thank your senior for their kind offer and clearly point out that this would put you both in a very difficult situation. It is ethically improper and would misrepresent both of you and the research because authors are held accountable for their research; It is not okay to list someone as an author who did not actually contribute to the research. Such people can be acknowledged for their cooperation, but they should not be listed as authors (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, 2015).

Another example of gift authorship is when you have written a paper and try to include a famous or authoritative person in the same field in order to give weight to your own writing. Alternatively, you may wish to include a friendly colleague with the idea that they reciprocate someday to include you as a co-author on their research paper. These are dangerous decisions because gift authorship is improper and violates research ethics by both parties in the giving and receiving of authorship. To avoid any problems, make sure you can clearly articulate the roles that each listed author played in the project. Adopting this stance will command understanding and respect for your integrity.

Ghost Authorship

In contrast to gift authorship is the practice of “ghost authorship.” This occurs in the rather unfortunate situation when you are truly the deserving author, but the co-author does not give you credit for what you have done. This is one of the perils of collaboration—it can have a huge negative impact on your career and workload. Estimating the contributions of your time and effort on a project can be difficult to gauge unless you have a long standing, trust-based relationship with the co-author(s). Sometimes the work we do in one project does not bear fruit and fails to get published. However, all is not lost. Often unpublished work can be repurposed in other projects, serving as a building block for exploring new areas of inquiry and strengthening literature reviews.

Duplicate Posting

What happens when you have a falling out with your colleague(s) and your collaboration ends? In this unfortunate situation, the question of who can lay claim to the research becomes complicated. The difficulties may be compounded if the research involves layers of ethical committee approvals, contains sensitive or private information, or the findings are not approved for inclusion in another project. If you and your colleagues separately present on the same set of results as if it were solely your own work, this can result in a waste of other researchers’ time and resources as they go about reviewing or replicating your work for their own research. This “duplicate posting” can happen when researchers attempt to make themselves appear more impressive than they actually are. Although not as clear a violation of research ethics as fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism, this practice is prohibited by many journals and academic organizations and should be redacted where possible (MEXT, 2014).

Salami Publishing

Ok, so what happens if I am simply a single author with no large funding, no partners, and I just want to get as many publications as I can before my next job interview? There is a danger here because the act of dividing up my one research project into multiple smaller studies is referred to as “salami publishing.” It is a way of artificially exaggerating our accomplishments. Many papers that reap the same results are not promoting the advancement of science. This practice will be discovered by hiring committees that investigate your research, and won’t help your job prospects. People who evaluate candidates are obligated to recognize salami publishing and act accordingly. If you are found out by one university to have done this, it will follow you around and possibly tarnish your entire career, all because of a short-term need to increase your publication count for a particular job.

In conclusion, there are a multitude of factors that can land you in trouble when it comes to research ethics that go well beyond the basics of plagiarism, fabrication and falsification. Gift and ghost authorship, duplicate posting and salami publishing are common traps to be avoided by all researchers, new and experienced. A common theme connecting these dubious practices is the desire to cut corners and make things appear more than they really are. Stay vigilant and avoid that “too good to be true” opportunity at all costs. Your very career may depend on it.

For more information on the topics covered in this short article as well as other issues related to the ethics of research publication, please refer to For the Sound Development of Science—The Attitude of a Conscientious Scientist. This excellent book has been edited by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Committee and printed by Maruzen Publishing. 


Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Editing Committee (Eds.). (2015). For the Sound Development of Science—The Attitude of a Conscientious Scientist. Tokyo: Maruzen Publishing.

Japan, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. (2014, Aug 26). Guidelines for Responding to Misconduct in Research (pp. 1–31). Tokyo: MEXT.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (文部科学省 Monbu-kagaku-shō).

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