Perish and publish: Dynamics of biomedical publications by deceased authors.


The question of whether it is appropriate to attribute authorship to deceased individuals of original studies in the biomedical literature is contentious. Authorship guidelines utilized by journals do not provide a clear consensus framework that is binding on those in the field. To guide and inform the implementation of authorship frameworks it would be useful to understand the extent of the practice in the scientific literature, but studies that have systematically quantified the prevalence of this phenomenon in the biomedical literature have not been performed to date. To address this issue, we quantified the prevalence of publications by deceased authors in the biomedical literature from the period 1990-2020. We screened 2,601,457 peer-reviewed papers from the full text Europe PubMed Central database. We applied natural language processing, stringent filtering and manual curation to identify a final set of 1,439 deceased authors. We then determined these authors published a total of 38,907 papers over their careers with 5,477 published after death. The number of deceased publications has been growing rapidly, a 146-fold increase since the year 2000. This rate of increase was still significant when accounting for the growing total number of publications and pool of authors. We found that more than 50% of deceased author papers were first submitted after the death of the author and that over 60% of these papers failed to acknowledge the deceased authors status. Most deceased authors published less than 10 papers after death but a small pool of 30 authors published significantly more. A pool of 266 authors published more than 90% of their total publications after death. Our analysis indicates that the attribution of deceased authorship in the literature is not an occasional occurrence but a burgeoning trend. A consensus framework to address authorship by deceased scientists is warranted.

  • Boutros PC
  • Corcoran NM
  • Hovens CM
  • Jung CH
  • Park DJ
  • Pope BJ
PubMed ID
Appears In
PLoS One, 2022, 17 (9)