Unethical Authorship

This article from The Conversation showed up in my inbox this morning…

Tackling unethical authorship deals on scientific publications

The article itself raises some good points, and links to a number of very interesting papers on the subject.

My experience in this arena is varied. I’ll detail a few examples of unethical authorship that I’ve personally been involved with below.

  1. Had a senior colleague add a number of additional co-authors to the list who had zero contribution to the research, because their own publication outputs for that year were limited/non-existent, and they were about to put in a grant application – therefore needed to make their track records look better. I tried to argue against it and was not so subtly told to shut up and just do it, otherwise it would be me who would have trouble finding funding in the future.
  2. Being forced by a senior colleague to add people from an external funding source to the coauthors list, who admittedly did provide the funding, but provided zero contribution to the actual content of the paper. As far as I was concerned, funding sources get acknowledged in the Acknowledgements section of the paper, not in the author list – unless they actually contributed in some way. I tried to argue this, the contract mentioned nothing about being required to add the external funding people as co-authors. Again, I was told to shut up, otherwise I would find myself without support from the department if I decided to apply for funding again in the future.
  3. Being told I had to include the lab manager as a co-author because he was the lab manager. He provided no contribution to my paper. Yes, he is in charge of the lab, but I got no help from him at any point. If I didn’t include him, I was told that I would find myself being unable to access the lab in the future.
  4. Our department had a visiting researcher for 12 months from [insert overseas country here]. During that time, the researcher was working on a topic that I provided some advice on. I had nothing to do with writing the paper that this visiting researcher wrote. However I discovered some months after they had left the university and gone home, that they’d published a paper with my name on as co-author – without my consent. Now you may be wondering why I’d be complaining about having an extra publication on my record that I really had nothing to do with? Scoring an easy win you might think? There were major scientific errors in the manuscript. This guy published a paper with myself and another colleague as co-authors without ever showing us a draft of it. If he had, we both would have picked up on the problem immediately. The journal in question requires the person submitting the paper to tick a box that says they have the permission of all co-authors to submit the paper. It’s very easy to tick that box without it being true – they don’t actually follow it up. The problems weren’t picked up in peer review (which is not perfect). So we both have our name attached to a paper that has serious scientific errors in it, and despite the paper being retracted, it had been in the public domain for about 6 months before retraction. Enough people had seen it by that point, and others had also picked up on the scientific errors. I still get asked about it at conferences. My name is forever attached to a fraudulent paper, despite it being retracted. The guilty party is in a senior position back in their home country that they got in part due to the publication of this paper, and is in a research culture where such behaviour is common enough that he will never face any disciplinary action over it.

So really, I’ve been a victim at both ends of the spectrum.

But what do you do when your continued employment is threatened as a result of trying to argue against these unethical authorship deals? I have to have a job so that I can afford to pay my rent and put food on the table. It’d be nice to be able to tell people who try to force these co-authorship deals to stick it, but I don’t have that luxury. Like most researchers, I am on a short-term fixed contract. If I make too much noise, my contract won’t be renewed. That much has been made abundantly clear to me in the last 10 years.

With funding from the ARC and NH&MRC being so heavily reliant on publication metrics, the research culture in Australia allows this kind of unethical behaviour to perpetuate.

This is unfortunately a situation where I (and many others who have been in this situation) literally can not afford to fight the man.


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