In the wake of the Michael LaCour scandal, there’s a renewed debate over the degree to which scientists who published a paper with a co-author, who turned out to be a fraudster, ought to be held responsible.
If I agree to write a paper with you, based on your fake data, that I believe to be real, am I to blame for not detecting the fraud?
I think peoples’ attitudes here span a spectrum. At one end of the scale are those who say: only the actual culprit should be blamed for misconduct. The other authors can’t be expected to know. If you fabricate the data, and give it to me to analyze, then my job is just to analyze the data that I’m given. You are the one vouching for the data, not me. This might be called the ‘private responsibility‘ approach.
Others hold that if you are listed as an author on a piece of work, you are putting your name to it and you are therefore responsible for it. Division of labor in scientific collaboration is fine, but it shouldn’t mean dilution of responsibility. Call this the ‘shared responsibility’ view. As Gunsalus and Rennie put it on Retraction Watch recently, you should not give your endorsement to a piece of work if you can’t guarantee its integrity, because providing this guarantee is part of your job as a co-author:
Neither the peer reviewers, nor the editors, nor the readers were there as witnesses, so it is up to the authors to certify [that the paper is an accurate description of] what took place. Co-authors are the only ones who can do this. This is fundamental to the compact with the reader that all co-authors accept.
My view is that researchers ideally should check everything before agreeing to be named on a paper. That said, there are many reasons why this might be inconvenient or time-consuming, and we shouldn’t be surprised if people ‘cut corners’. Most of the time this works out fine. But if we cut corners then we do so at our own risk. It’s a gamble.
By agreeing to be a coauthor on a paper I hadn’t properly checked out, I am effectively gambling that the paper would turn out to be OK. If it is OK, then I’ll get the credit for it (i.e. I’ll get a nice paper on my CV). So it’s only fair that I share some of the opprobrium if it goes sour – especially if I’m a senior figure with more of a reputation to lose.
Maybe it’s a bit like handling stolen goods. If a fraudster is a thief, a co-author is someone who buys stolen property. They had no idea that it was stolen, but perhaps they should have asked where those products came from, and how come the price was so good. Caveat emptor, and coauthor beware.