Adventures in Ethics and Science

Dr. Isis considers a downside to having coauthors and an ethical question it raises:

Imagine a hypothetical postdoc that has just left graduate school, although this could easily be an assistant professor that has just left a postdoc. She has some minor publications either published or in press. The draft of her major publication from her thesis work is written, ready for submission, and has been sent to the coauthors for their approval. Her major advisor has approved the work. Of the additional four coauthors listed on the paper, three have replied to the postdoc that they approve of the manuscript . One has been completely and entirely silent for many weeks.

Despite repeated attempts in multiple media (phone calls, email, letters) by the postdoc to contact the missing coauthor, he remains silent. What does our poor, not-currently-publishing postdoc do?  Several of the participants in this discussion have suggested the postdoc publish the paper without the missing coauthor’s assent.  Almost every time I have heard this type of scenario discussed, the advice is to include the coauthor and submit the work.  I’m not sure that is the best course of action.

Of course, this is at least an instance where there was a serious attempt made to contact the coauthor, to show him or her the manuscript before it is sent to the journal. It doesn’t always happen that way.

But, as Dr. Isis notes, this state of affairs is still suboptimal, especially in light of official policies and procedures at a number of the scientific journals that might receive such a manuscript:

[H]ere is the statement of authorship from one of the journals I have submitted work to, emphasis a la Isis:

The Editors of the journals of the American Physiological Society (APS) expect each author to have made an important scientific contribution to the study and to be thoroughly familiar with the original data. The Editors also expect each author to have read the complete manuscript and to take responsibility for the content and completeness of the manuscript and to understand that if the paper, or part of the paper, is found to be faulty or fraudulent, that he/she shares responsibility with his/her coauthors. The Mandatory Submission Form, which is published in the journals, should be signed by each author. In cases in which obtaining a signature from each author would delay publication, the corresponding author’s signature is sufficient provided that the corresponding author understands that he or she signs on behalf of the other authors who have not signed the form. An author’s name can be removed only at his/her request, but all coauthors must sign a change of authorship agreement for any change in authorship (additions, removals, or change of order) to be made.

Key to the publication of an article is the authors’ agreement about the work and shared responsibility in cases of misconduct.  So, I wonder about the ethics of including an author who does not explicitly assent to the publication of an article when one cannot guarantee that all of the authors have read the work.

I also wonder why the default is to include the author.  Seems to me that, based on these types of statements from journals, the appropriate course of action would be to exclude the author from the authors list and acknowledge their work in the body of the work.

Here, there are several ethical issues that are intertwined.

The most immediate one is the question of whether a manuscript submitted to a journal meets that journal’s official policy as far as who is listed as an author and what responsibilities each of the persons listed as authors have met prior to the submission of the manuscript. If the form that needs to accompany the manuscript requires the signature of all five authors (in the scenario Dr. Isis discusses), clearly it would be out of bounds to forge the signature of author #5 who hasn’t been responding to emails about getting the manuscript polished off and submitted. Such a forged signature would be misrepresenting to the journal editors that author #5 was actively involved in preparing the final version of the submitted manuscript, or that author #5 was explicitly endorsing the submitted manuscript.

Radio silence is not an explicit endorsement under these circumstances.

Now, the statement of authorship Dr. Isis cites does seem to have an exit clause for circumstances in which getting the actual signature of author #5 “would delay publication,” namely, that the corresponding author signs on behalf of author #5. But, is this a good move in circumstances in which author #5 has not weighed in at all on the final manuscript being submitted with his or her name on it as an author?

This may depend on what level of involvement author #5 has had in the steps leading up to the final version of the manuscript.

Has author #5 made an important contribution to the study? Presumably the answer to this question is yes, else the other four authors could simply acknowledge his or her contribution to the project rather than trying repeatedly and unsuccessfully to elicit a response on the final version of the manuscript.

Is author #5 thoroughly familiar with the original data? This might be something the other authors can assure if the five authors have had serious discussions about the whole body of results on which the manuscript rests. But if author #5 hasn’t been an active participant in these discussions — especially in discussions about the data obtained by the other four authors — then this might be too big an assumption to make.

Does author #5 agree with the conclusions the manuscript offers about the data? Again, this may be something for which the other four authors can vouch on account of earlier discussions of the results with author #5. But if author #5 hasn’t been a part of such conversations with the coauthors, who really knows what author #5 thinks of the conclusions?

Given that the names in the author line on a published paper are supposed to communicate something to the people reading that paper (and perhaps using it as the starting point for a new research project themselves, and maybe assuming that they can contact the listed authors to ask detailed follow-up questions about the techniques, data, or conclusions described in that paper), it seems like the corresponding authors should get a clear read on where author #5 stands.

In a post about authorship from about a million years ago, I wrote:

I suppose there are possible worlds in which who is responsible for what in a scientific paper might not matter. In the world we live in now, however, it’s useful to know who designed the experimental apparatus and got the reaction to work (so you can email that person your questions when you want to set up a similar system), who did the data analysis (so you can share your concerns about the methodology), who made the figures (so you can raise concerns about digital fudging of the images), etc. Part of the reason people put their names on scientific papers is so we know who stands behind the research — who is willing to stake their reputation on it.

The other reason people put their names on scientific papers is to claim credit for their hard work and their insights, their contribution to the larger project of scientific knowledge-building. If you made a contribution, the scientific community ought to know about it so they can give you props (and funding, and tenure, and the occasional Nobel Prize).

But, we aren’t in a possition to make accurate assignments of credit or responsibility if we have no good information about what an author’s actual involvement in the project may have been. We don’t know who’s really in a position to vouch for the data, or who really did heavy intellectual lifting in bringing the project to fruition. We may understand, literally, the claim, “Joe Schmoe is second author of this paper,” but we don’t know what that means, exactly. …

Science strives to be a fact-based enterprise. Truthful communication is essential, and the ability to connect bits of knowledge to the people who contributed is part of how the community does quality control on that knowledge base. Ambiguity about who made the knowledge may lead to ambiguity about what we know. Also, developing too casual a relationship with the truth seems like a dangerous habit for a scientist to get into.

What does this mean for the four authors who are ready to publish? Do they have to just wait until they hear back from author #5, from whom they have been trying to get a response for what seems like an unreasonably long time?

Surely, in undertaking this collaboration, author #5 assumed some responsibilities to the other four authors.

One of these responsibilities is to actually participate in the collaboration — in doing his or her part of the data collection and analysis, in helping to draw reasonable conclusions from the results, in turning a critical eye to the various places in the work where bias might have crept in or where conclusions are not as well supported as they could be.

Another is to facilitate the communication of the results to the rest of the scientific community. It isn’t knowledge if it stays in the lab notebooks. Especially if the research that built the knowledge was funded in part with public monies, there is an obligation to make the resulting knowledge public.

Here, we might wonder if an author could hold up a submission on his or her coauthors an account of not being as convinced that it’s ready — maybe the results won’t feel like knowledge without more data, or an additional analysis to rule out a possible problem. That seems reasonable provided that the author with these worries is communicating them to the coauthors so they can be addressed. Keeping mum about such concerns is the exact opposite of what a responsible scientist should do.

What if, in a group of five authors, four are satisfied that the data are complete and the conclusion is well supported but one is not convinced? This might be a moment where something like explicit authorship could help.

To the extent that scientific projects are collaborative and that multiple persons have made substantial intellectual contributions to what is reported in the literature, I think the best policy is one of transparency about just what those contributions were. There are journals in which each the contributions of each of the authors on a paper are laid out in detail. Flagging who is responsible for which piece of the research makes it easier for other scientists to direct their questions to the co-author who can best answer their question. As well, in the event of some piece of the project turning out to be … problematic, there’s some sense of who fell down on the job.

While it’s not clear to me that this happens a lot in explicit authorship, I’m not sure why it couldn’t be used to specify: “Author #5 designed experiment X, generated Y data, and was part of the discussions about how to interpret Z. Despite being part of those discussions, Author #5 is not fully persuaded about the interpretation of Z presented here.” This would be a way to acknowledge the real (rising to the level of authorship) contribution of author #5 without erasing a legitimate difference in commitment to the conclusions the other four authors are comfortable presenting to the larger scientific community.

Of course, it’s hard to know whether radio silence is best interpreted as assent, dissent, or just unwillingness to be bothered.

Here, I think it’s probably wise for people who are embarking on a collaboration to discuss what they are promising each other during the phase when it’s time to get the results out to the world. Why not promise to weigh in on the manuscript in its various versions within a reasonable interval of time (and specify it at the beginning, whether it be a month or a week)? Why not talk through what the other collaborators ought to assume if one collaborator doesn’t chime in? Why not affirm the responsibility to make oneself available to participate in the necessary scientific back-and-forth, and to sign off on the finished product (or, if one cannot sign off on it, graciously decline authorship in favor of an acknowledgment of contributions to the project)?

The graduate students and postdocs reading this are already aware of a big flaw in this proposal: sometimes collaborations occur among scientists on different ends of the power gradient. What if it’s your advisor who is being poky getting back to the coauthors (of whom you are one) on the current state of the manuscript? What if you have a serious interest in getting the work published soon, not just because the data is solid and the conclusions are well-defended, but also because your funding is running out and you need to go on the job market and a publication or two would really help with that?

In this situation, it’s quite possible that a coauthor is falling down not only on responsibilities to the other authors, and to the funders (who paid for knowledge to be built and shared), and to the larger scientific community (who are supposed to be a part of the larger project of critically assessing those results, and who might well put the new knowledge to good use to make even more new knowledge), but also to his or her scientific trainees. An advisor (or a PI supervising a postdoc) is in the business of making new scientists as well as new scientific knowledge. Putting aside the legitimate needs of those new scientists in training is not ethical. Moreover, it’s pretty crappy.

The challenge, though, is in figuring out how to hold feet to the fire when those feet belong to someone with much more power in your professional community than you have. Perhaps some of you will offer strategies for doing this in the comments.

Comments

  1. #1 Zen Faulkes
    February 14, 2010

    In my estimation, an completely unresponsive co-author is committing professional misconduct. Depending on the details of the situation, I wonder if legal pressure could be brought to bear (though probably not, as there are rarely contracts or other documents to enforce accountability for researchers).

    Strategies for dealing with unresponsive co-author: Document everything. Records time and day of attempted phone calls, keep emails.

    Most institutions should have some mechanisms for investigating misconduct. Most people have someone else that they answer to. Faculty to a department chair, dean, and vice-presidents.

  2. #2 Special Guest Lecturer
    February 14, 2010

    My advice for this situation is to send one final email with the final version of the manuscript attached and a one week deadline to comment and accept coauthorship. If the person still does not respond by the deadline, I would acknowledge them but not include them as a coauthor.

    Regarding differences in power (at least in the physical sciences): If you are a graduate student or postdoc, you can not submit anything without your PI’s approval. If your PI is the radio silent person (hard to imagine this would be true for weeks), sorry, but you have a bad situation. That sucks, but your PI is the quality control and his/her reputation is on the line. Don’t even think about going rogue on this – I’d dismiss a student who crossed that line.

    I do not worry nearly as much about the power difference between a current graduate student trying to publish the paper and an unresponsive former group member or collaborator. These people will usually have little to no ability to mess with your career.

  3. #3 Zen Faulkes
    February 14, 2010

    “Acknowledge them but not include them as a coauthor” is the wrong way to go. What happens if unresponsive contributor goes to the journal and says, “I made sufficient contributions to this to warrant authorship under widely these guidelines. This person submitted this manuscript without proper acknowledgment”?

    Then you’re probably in more trouble than the unresponsive contributor is.

  4. #4 Special Guest Lecturer
    February 14, 2010

    I’m not sure I agree Zen. If you can document many efforts to contact the person over weeks and months, culminating in a final communication giving a reasonable grace period, I feel that the silent collaborator loses the right to complain. One could even send that final communication containing the drop-dead date by certified mail to ensure that it was received.

    In the extreme case of the silent coauthor legitimately being too busy to deal with the manuscript, they could write a single email saying “All OK – keep me on the paper” or “I have concerns about the work and would not like to be included”. That takes 10 seconds plus the time to skim the manuscript. If you can’t spare that courtesy to your collaborators within a reasonable period of time, they must be allowed to move on without you.

  5. #5 Kim
    February 14, 2010

    Has the author contacted the four other authors who were OK with the paper to see if they can prod the nonresponder to do anything? Maybe they are familiar enough with this person to call them up, get them to actually answer the phone, and ask “What gives?”. Is this a coauthor with a track record of not responding, or is there something else going on that no one knows about (illness, family crisis, etc.)?

    I’d love to say that the authors should send the nonresponder a note that “if we don’t hear from you by XXX, we will assume that you are OK with the MS”, but that won’t work. This person needs to sign off on the authorship documentation, needs to be involved enough to contribute if a journal wants rewrites, he/she need to be responsible for his/her work.

    If this individual won’t step up to take ownership of their coauthorship, I’m thinking that the remaining authors will need to decide among themselves whether this person contributed enough to hassle with getting them to jump through the authorship hoops.

  6. #6 Zen Faulkes
    February 14, 2010

    SGL: There’s some responses on Dr. Isis’s blog on a similar point. The tactic of “demoting” unresponsive contributor is more defensible than I first thought.

    But as I wrote over there, I’d still be very worried about the ramifications of submitting something without that unresponsive contributor’s input. Because, on the face of it, “I was not given sufficient opportunity to contribute” puts the burden of proof on the other authors to show that there was that opportunity.

    But this emphasizes what I said my earlier post here: document everything. And if you really feel you must submit, tell the editor everything up front. Anything else is a ticking time bomb.

  7. #7 Pinko Punko
    February 16, 2010

    What is this paper about? The Kobayashi Maru?

  8. #8 Solomon Rivlin
    February 20, 2010

    I think that journal editors should be more responsive to this type of situations, since they do occur more frequently than we are willing to admit. One way to do so is to include in the Statement of Authorship the possibility of an unresponsive coauthor where the corresponding author could justify removing the name of the unresponsive coauthor in the rare cases when several ways of communication attempts failed (copies of letters and e-mails should accompanied the submission) and enough time had been given to the coauthor (30 days?) to respond. Under these circumstances, the corresponding author can make the decision of either to drop off or to include the coauthor name on the list of authors.