Gift authorship: It is 'criminal'

Greater Kashmir

Apropos the article wherein GK reports the inclusion of school going children as co-authors in highly technical scientific papers on vaccines (hepatitis E and Covid). The papers in their published form are a difficult read even for accomplished doctors working in hospitals. It is impossible to believe that school going kids could have understood even an iota of the subject.

Nonetheless, geniuses have been known to exist in literature. However a cursory look at the papers brings forth an alternate narrative. In one of the papers the author contributions mention one of the kids having contributed to ‘software’. By that logic all typists and office personnel deserve authorship. Further as carried in the report, the pre-print version of the paper mentions that ‘all authors had contributed equally’. The famed researcher (MSK) in his defence to GK query had stated  that he has previously also included other non-medical authors and that did not raise eyebrows. “Why now? Just because the co-authors are his grandchildren.” For all that we know, one wrong never justifies another. An investigative look at the papers of the researcher in the past decade or so finds his daughters and sons in law as co-authors in many papers where he is the primary author. Even if there was a suspicion of gift authorship, no one raised a brow because those are medical doctors and couldn’t be proved to have been non-contributory to the scientific content of the papers. But the current case  is different. The contribution of school going children who haven’t excelled in school in any way stamps the scenario as a clear example of gift-authorship. Because a school going child, yet to pass out of the school, can have little comprehension of the areas that are so ill understood all over the globe. At least the ResearchGate profiles of both the school kids do not mention anything extraordinary in their profile except for the co-authorships with grandpa. And if the primary concept was theirs, as claimed by the grandpa, why were they placed later in authorship. This is serious research misconduct. The argument by Dr Khuroo of having included other non-doctoral authors previously in his papers is in a way a confession of guilt and holds no water vis a vis the current inclusion of grand children as his co-authors. He seems to suggest that all scientific genius seems to have decided to come to his family.

Gift authorship is recognized as serious ‘research misconduct’ in most countries and is even considered “criminal’ in nature. According to a report in the prestigious journal ‘Nature’,  24 papers were identified in recent past where researchers had included unjustified names of their kids as co-authors in papers, to improve their chances of securing a university place. At Seoul National University, six professors had listed their school-age children as co-authors, none of whom were found to have contributed to the research, according to the university’s own internal audit. Such misconduct attracted serious penalties ranging from retraction of the papers, dismissal and reprimand of the academics at the university and even removal of a Korean Justice Minister, Cho Kuk whose school going daughter was listed as a lead author in a paper in a prestigious journal on pathology.  Probe into the instant incident must ensue as such a practice not only needs to be deprecated but elements promoting familial genius in absence of any need to be punished appropriately for deception and research misconduct. The journal also needs to explain to the  research community.
Dr Syed Mushtaq is Consultant Ministry of Health, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia