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Unsigned Editorials, Anonymous Authors, Pseudonymous Authors

Chapter:
Ethical and Legal Considerations
Author(s):

Annette Flanagin

Unsigned Editorials, Anonymous Authors, Pseudonymous Authors

The practice of publishing unsigned or anonymous editorials provides “vituperative editorialists”22 protection from the enemies they might make when taking unpopular stands in the pages of their journals. However, without named authors and affiliations, readers lack information to judge the objectivity and credibility of the articles. Although this practice is the norm for newspaper editorial pages, it has fallen out of use in most peer-reviewed journals. One rationale for anonymity has been that editorials, signed or not, represent the official opinion of the publication or the owner of the publication. However, such anonymity distances the real author(s) from accountability. For many years, JAMA published unsigned editorials. However, beginning in 1960 JAMA began to inconsistently publish signed or initialed editorials, and since 1970 all JAMA editorials have been signed by their authors, including editorials written by the journal’s editors. The BMJ began publishing signed editorials in 1981.23 As of this writing, the Lancet continues to publish unsigned editorials that reflect an unstated consensus among the editors24 (see 1.5, Types of Articles, Articles of Opinion).

Journals that publish unsigned editorials and signed scientific articles may give contradictory messages to their readers about the merits and responsibility of authorship. Authors who submit scientific papers must publicly stand by what they write, whereas unsigned editorialists can hide behind a journal’s masthead. Unattributed editorials may also allow the publisher or owner of the journal and influential organizations to compromise the journal’s editorial independence (see 5.10, Editorial Freedom and Integrity). Therefore, all editorials in JAMA and the Archives Journals are signed.

Occasionally, an author may request that his or her name not be used in publication. If the reason for this request is judged to be important (such as concern for personal safety or fear of political reprisal, public humiliation, or job loss), the article could be published without that author’s name. However, justification for such publication is very rare and should include careful consideration of the value of the information to be published as well as the potential risks to the author. In such rare cases, the phrase “Name withheld on request” or the word “Anonymous” could be used in place of the author’s name (see 2.2, Manuscript Preparation, Bylines and End-of-Text Signatures).

If anonymity is to be used, the author must still sign statements of authorship responsibility and copyright or publication license transfer (using his or her actual name), and those records must be kept confidential as part of the manuscript file (see also 5.7.1, Confidentiality, Confidentiality During Editorial Evaluation and Peer Review and After Publication). For the rare case in which withholding of an author’s name is justified, the author’s name should be withheld from peer reviewers as well as readers. However, both reviewers and readers should be informed that the author has requested anonymity. Citations to such articles in MEDLINE will note “No authors listed” in the author field.

Pseudonyms are inappropriate in bylines of scientific reports because they are misleading and cause problems for literature citations.

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