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The prisoners’ dilemmas

Authorship guidelines and impact factors: between a rock and a hard place
David Shaw

Author Affiliations

  • David Shaw, 1Institute for Biomedical Ethics University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland

Every academic working in science, medicine, or elsewhere is familiar with authorship guidelines and impact factors (IFs). Most journals now have strict guidelines in place that govern precisely who can and cannot be named as an author on a paper. However, even honest researchers can sometimes find it difficult to adhere to authorship guidelines. The ranking of journals is normally based on the IF, which is calculated by the number of citations during the past 2 years divided by the number of articles, yet it is now widely recognized that IFs are generally not an appropriate measure for the quality of the individual articles published in a journal.

These two facts create problems for researchers, trapping them in a prisoner's dilemma in which rational self‐interest results in worse outcomes for each than mutually advantageous cooperation. Academics know that they should adhere to authorship guidelines and that they should not attribute too much importance to IFs, but they continue to do so because they fear the consequences of acting otherwise.

One of the main reasons that journals introduced authorship guidelines was to combat the phenomena of guest and ghost authorship. For decades, researchers who did not contribute to papers at all have been named as authors (guests) and junior researchers who did much of the work have not been credited at all (ghosts) [1]. Authorship guidelines aim to stop this by providing strict criteria for authorship and requiring authors to sign a statement that they adhere to these criteria (see Sidebar 1 for example criteria from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors). However, institutional pressure, whether from the university or academic tradition, sometimes makes it difficult for researchers to adhere to authorship guidelines. For example, in particular disciplines and countries, it is customary to name the head of the …

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