Ethics in academic publishing: Understanding ‘gift’ authorships

Gift authorship’ is one of the most common kinds of unethical behaviour seen in academic publishing. In this practice, an author is added to a paper when they have not actually made a contribution to the work, perhaps to reward a collaborator, return a favour, or for some other gain. This article discusses the currently topical issue of ‘gift’ authorship.  

Defining ‘authorship’ is one area where researchers around the world also have the most questions; this is because authorship is often open to abuse, and ECRs in particular are unsure of how to define ‘contributions’ to their research and, thus, who to include on their papers.

  • Who should be included as an author on your next academic article?
  • How can you decide?
  • What should you do if your supervisor wants to add colleagues who did not contribute to the study? (These are ‘gift’ authorships). 

Why is defining authorship so problematic?

Although clear guidelines outlining criteria for authorship on academic papers are published and available to journals and editors, most notably here by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) ( and here by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) (, these are not often enforced by journals and publishing companies. Editors tend to take it on trust when papers are submitted by academics, asking just for contributions to be listed, often at the end of an article or during an online submission system. It’s therefore easy to add authors and list their contributions in general, broad, and undefined ways. 

What about ‘gift authorship’?

This practice appears to occur in different situations and for reasons where, most often, the author who receives the ‘gift’ is another, often more senior, faculty member. Other reasons for doing this might include respect, reputation, or ‘lab ownership’, perhaps having grant money or financial resources. In all cases, the person being added to a paper has not made a significant intellectual contribution to either the research or the writing.

In many cases, ECRs are just told by their supervisors or research group leaders who to include as authors on their papers. 

How can gift authorship issues be avoided?

Academic writers, especially ECRS, need to be aware of current guidelines and best practice in this area. If you are, then if you are asked (perhaps by a supervisor or lab group co-worker) to add additional authors to your next paper you will be able to counter by knowing:

  • What’s actually required before someone can be added as an author on a research paper, and;
  • How much work on a project does someone actually have to do to justify being listed as an author on a paper?


The ICMJE notes that ‘Authorship confers credit and has important academic, social, and financial implications as it implies responsibility and accountability for published work’. This is important: Basically speaking, all individuals listed as authors of an academic paper must have contributed substantially to the work and be able to stand up at a conference and talk about it. Accountability is key here.

The ICMJE four key criteria for authorship on an academic paper state that to be included, you must have:

  • Made a substantial contribution to the conception or design of the work, or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data;
  • Drafted the work, or revised it critically, with regard to intellectual content;
  • Given final approval of the version to be published, and
  • Agreed to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

In terms of ethics, the first and last of these four points are perhaps the most important.

Why are the ICMJE criteria important to academic authorship?

In order to make a substantial contribution, it’s clear that an author needs to actually do things that are crucial to a project (= subsequent research paper) by engaging in activities that represent an intellectual contribution. This means more than just following instructions or being told what to do.

Here are some examples of activities that comprise components of research activities (in no particular order), considered substantial contributions:

  • Developing the theory, or parts of the hypothesis, that underlie a piece of research and that then are used to guide analyses;
  • Designing the scope and direction of a study, including what data to collect and where;
  • Coming up with ideas that should be addressed in research or hypotheses to be tested and then guiding subsequent research;
  • Providing, collecting, or analysing data. One might argue that simply following instructions does not constitute a significant contribution in this respect, or;
  • Contributing to the writing, either in draft or revision stage.

What about author accountability?

Just as important as making a substantial contribution, if you are listed as an author on an academic paper, then you are responsible for its contents, including if there are any issues later. Would you be able to stand up at an academic conference and give a presentation, or answer questions about a piece of research? If not, you should not be listed as an author.

Journals and publishing companies will follow up with all authors if there are ethical problems flagged down the road: All reputable academic journals follow COPE guidelines and Charlesworth Author Services is a member of this organisation.


If you have questions about academic writing in general or authorship on your next paper in particular then why not get in touch with one of our team at Charlesworth Author Services? We are particularly well positioned to help because our expert editing services are applicable to all publishing models and we can advise on journal selection.

Our Premium Editing Service actually includes pre-peer review in which one of our PhD-level editors examines your paper and provides suggestions and comments that are likely to come up in peer review and flag any ethical issues. Using this service can save you considerable time: pre-empt the comments you are likely to receive from actual journal peer review and fix issues before submission. You can find out more about this service here.

Our academic writing and publishing training courses, online materials, and blog articles contain numerous tips and tricks to help you navigate academic writing and publishing and maximise your potential as a researcher. Find out more here.

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