Authorship Means Responsibility

By Neuroskeptic | February 13, 2017 4:28 pm

Last week Retraction Watch covered a case of a psychology paper that was retracted after it emerged that the graduate student who collected the data had faked the results.

Here’s the retraction notice:

The retraction follows an investigation by the University of Alabama’s Office for Research Compliance. That investigation found that a former graduate student in William Hart’s lab altered the data in strategic ways. The investigation found that William Hart was unaware when the article was published that the data had been manipulated. William Hart cooperated in the investigation and agreed to this retraction.

Interestingly, the grad student in question wasn’t listed as an author on the paper. The article only had one author, William Hart of the University of Alabama, who said that “the individual who collected the data” had admitted that “the data were altered strategically to yield a particular conclusion” and that multiple papers would likely have to be retracted.


The fraud aside, is it right that someone who acquired the data for a paper isn’t an author?

When I raised this question on Twitter in response to this case, it led to a lively debate over whether collecting the data should be enough to qualify someone to be credited as a named author.

But I think the discussion missed an important point. Authorship is not just a way of assigning credit, it’s also a way of indicating responsibility. The authors are the ones who vouch for a paper and who endorse its contents. By not being listed as an author, the student in this case has effectively dodged responsibility for his or her actions.

Had the student been a named author, they would have almost certainly been named as the culprit in the retraction notice. They would now be known as a fraud, and their career in science would be over. Students have been named and expelled for less.

As things stand now, the student remains anonymous and, whatever sanctions the University of Alabama may have applied, they still have their reputation intact. Not being an author turned out rather well for them, but I’m not sure it was a good thing for science.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ethics, papers, science, select, Top Posts
  • jwirsich

    Kind of a strange thing to manipulate data for a study that you won’t get credit for. Maybe only a very creative idea from the PI to blame some imaginary grad student, who knows?

    • Neuroskeptic

      The evidence that the student exists is the University of Alabama investigation which concluded that the grad student was responsible… but it would be nice to see some details of that investigation.

  • smut clyde

    This is irrelevant to your main point, but I noticed that the same grad student is apparently to blame for faking any of Hart’s data that may turn out to be unreliable in the future:

    the student was forthcoming about which papers were at stake.
    Hart said his lab will be issuing additional retractions as a result

    Meanwhile Morey has explained why the purported effect sizes were preposterous, and Hart has no excuse for failing to notice their absurdity.
    In Hart’s account, he

    learned the data were problematic after posting the student’s data from another project online. A scientist outside the lab flagged the data as being inconsistent with what was reported

    — in other words, there were two versions of the data for that other project. The version he posted on-line were unmanipulated but did not match the results, which had been derived from the other, manipulated version. This implies that the anonymous and uncredited student, as well as collecting the data (and manipulating one version) had also performed the statistical analysis, rather than Hart analysing the intact version. Again, Hart failed to notice.
    No? Am I missing something?

    This account does not square with Morey’s experience, in which he badgered Hart for the data; then badgered the university with equally little effect; then finally enlisted the Psych.Sci. editor to start asking for the data, and that was the point when Hart realised that the data were fraudulent.

    Add me to the list of people who doubt the existence of this malicious but unnameable grad student.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Hmm! Thanks for linking to Morey’s excellent post.

      Regarding the two versions of the data, I think you’re right. The only other explanation would be that the student sent Hart the faked data, Hart analyzed that data and submitted the paper based on these faked results, and then the student later sent Hart the real data so that Hart assumed this was the “final” data set suitable for sharing.

      This seems implausible, not least because in this scenario the student could simply have *not* sent the real data, and hence never been discovered.

  • Uncle Al

    …psychology paper …faked the results.,” that being the discipline’s professional standard. “…Verb Use Affects Mood and Happiness” Obtain any valid result desired, Tony Bennett versus hip-hop. The sin was not publishing two papers. p<0.001, reaching diametrically opposite conclusions, launching two NIH/NIMH violently diversity grant-funded academic careers.

    Pink pußy hats for all involved.

  • Joanne Williams

    PI takes credit for students work, student takes revenge by manipulating data?

  • David Littleboy

    Hmm. What’s odd to me here is not the grad student not being named and shamed, but the idea that the author is not being held responsible for the bogus paper. Even if the experiments and results weren’t as dizzy as the Morey link argues, the author published a now admittedly bogus paper (as sole author, no less) and is getting away with it by blaming an unnamed grad student.
    This is “my dog ate my homework” on steroids. Science is supposed to be better than this.
    There is a bit of a subtext here, though. And that is that in many labs, the grad students and postdocs are (almost, essentially, effectively) required to get the results that their prof. wants. Failure to do so means years wasted at best, getting kicked off the path to becoming a scientist at worst. It’s possible that there was some understanding of that by the university and the student was told to not do it again and to go find another professor. That would be good news, if said student had been doing otherwise OK up to that point.

  • non_sig

    “Authorship is not just a way of assigning credit, it’s also a way of indicating responsibility.”

    Yes, exactly! I agree (and for me I decided that that’s a good enough reason not wanting to publish anything with my (past/previous) supervisor, because I don’t trust his/her claims)!

    There are a lot of people, however, who laugh about papers (because they don’t believe in the claims either) and then suddenly they are co-author. I’ve no idea who they can justifly that to themselves (and of course I dislike that they then get credit for something they themselves (i.e. it is out of question) believe is stupid).

    (I really find it hard to accept that such things happen. Though of course way worse things happen… But whatever…).

    Somewhat related:

  • non_sig

    Generally I think, journals should (require authors to) indicate who did what, i.e. who is responsible for which “part” of the paper/study.

    Then, everyone included in a project in the broaded sense should be “author” (though that’s might not be the correct title for someone who attacted the electrodes or handeld the scanner). Maybe even the people who made the decision to fund the study (personally, not just their institution). On the one hand, they had a lot of work with that as well (I assume) and on the other hand they also share some responsibility.

    I think everyone included in a project has responsibility, though not everyone the same, depending on the tasks. And if you know (in whichever position) that something is wrong that study you should neither support it nor be author.

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  • From Morocco

    “… The authors are the ones who vouch for a paper and who endorse its contents.”
    On the responsibility of authors: the document “Authorship in scientific publications” by Swiss Academy of Sciences, explains in a similar way:
    “3.6.1. Joint responsibility of all authors:
    Clearly defined responsibilities should lead authors to publish only content which they can endorse in good faith. The indissoluble link between authorship and responsibility must always be borne in mind and provides the justification for sanctions in the event of misconduct.”

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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