Publication authorship and research fraud

In this month’s column I cover the interrelated issues of research paper authorship requirements and research misconduct. While some differences may exist between journals in defining who qualifies as an author, I have found a general consensus to which most journals abide either outright, or, by restatement. These requirements were established by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) (1). The four criteria that must all be met by all authors are:

  1. Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work;
  1. Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content;
  1. Final approval of the version to be published; and
  1. Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

It is important to note that all four criteria must be met, and authors are responsible for the integrity of the entire paper, not just “their part.” In essence, authors should be intimately involved with the research, not bystanders. The position of MCOM is that investigators will comply with these guidelines in addition to any other requirements of journals to which papers are submitted, and, that particular attention be paid to situations that do not warrant authorship.

Examples of activities that alone do not qualify an individual for authorship include: writing assistance, technical editing, language editing; providing patient samples, reagents, cell lines, or animals; acquisition of funding for the project; general supervision of a research group; providing general advice or discussion at lab meetings; and providing salary support for investigators (1, 2). Senior faculty within a group who insist on being an author for minimal or no contributions, or manuscript editing, may be practicing “coercive authorship” (2), which is considered to be scientific misconduct (2). There are other forms of misconduct related to authorship, such as mutual support, honorary, and ghost authorship, which are discussed elsewhere (2).

Research fraud often reveals instances where authorship has been inappropriately assigned or accepted – those who were minimally involved (i.e., they cannot take responsibility for the integrity of the work) run for the hills when data fabrication is uncovered, saying they were not “that involved” with the paper. The details of infamous fraudulent investigators such as John Darsee (3-5) and Robert Slutsky (6, 7) are worthy of study. In both cases individuals were padded to the author list to give credibility to papers, which backfired when extensive fabrication was found in hundreds of their papers. The bottom line here is if you are asked to be an author on a paper, and you did not intimately participate in the research (fulfilling the above criteria), just say “no.”

The USF policy on scientific misconduct provides definitions of fabrication, falsification, questionable research practices, unacceptable research practices, research misconduct, and other terms. Of particular note are the definitions of:

Fabrication: making up data or results and recording or reporting them.

Falsification: manipulating research materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research method or result is not accurately represented in the research record.

As indicated, such scientific misconduct takes on many faces. These include manipulating images, deleting unfavorable data, purposeful influencing assay or procedure outcomes, and, of course, outright fabrication of results. Such activity can negatively impact the scientific efforts of others, undermines public confidence in research, and in many circumstances is illegal. Such activity derails science.

In fact, the results and conclusions from the fraudulent papers by Darsee persisted many years in the literature (3). Publishing fraudulent results can derail careers of associates and may have significant financial repercussions for institutions and the individual perpetrator. When potential research impropriety is suspected there is a standard approach for the investigations.

Good laboratory practices are key to maintaining an atmosphere of transparency while carrying out a project with multiple personnel. As principal investigators, it is our job to insist upon personally seeing the raw data from experiments, and to provide access to such data to all members of the team. Raw data, including images, must be maintained in the laboratory record, and with today’s technology, stored electronically. In this era of team science, where one or more members of the group are in different geographical areas, there are challenges to establishing this atmosphere and these procedures. Nevertheless, as much data sharing as possible should occur among all members, and extreme attention given to detail when an author reads the paper and examines the figures before submission.

In reality, misconduct related to research is not readily “policed,” but rather requires each investigator to have a commitment to honesty, integrity and rigor, and to abide by the existing policies of their institution (and in the case of a journal, to those policies as well). My feeling is that outright fraud is uncommon in biomedical research. But, I also sense that there is a slippery slope to be navigated, and we need to maintain vigilance.

  1. ICMJE. Defining the role of authors and contributors. 2016 [cited 2016 November 18]. Available from: http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html#two.
  2. Strange K. Authorship: Why not just toss a coin? Am J Physiol Cell Physiol 2008;295(3):C567-575.
  3. Kochan CA, Budd JM. The persistence of fraud in the literature: The Darsee case. J Am Soc Inf Sci 1992;43(7):488-493.
  4. Relman AS. Lessons from the Darsee affair. N Engl J Med 1983;308(23):1415-1417.
  5. Stewart WW, Feder N. The integrity of the scientific literature. Nature 1987;325(6101):207-214.
  6. Locke R. Laboratory fraud: Another damned by publications. Nature 1986;324(6096):401.
  7. Marshall E. San diego’s tough stand on research fraud. Science 1986;234(4776):534-535.

Stephen Liggett, MD
Associate Vice President for Research, USF Health
Vice Dean for Research, USF Health Morsani College of Medicine
Professor of Medicine, Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology

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