Case Two: Risky Authorship

RCR Casebook: Authorship and Publication

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Jeff is a professor who teaches advanced statistics courses and also does some outside consulting. When he makes important intellectual contributions in the projects on which he consults, he typically is listed as a co-author and always requests that his specific role be described. He is often brought in at various stages of research projects. Sometimes project leaders do it right by bringing him in at the beginning so that he can help them plan the design, procedures, data analysis, and presentation and perhaps help write the proposal. In other cases, project leaders wait until they are ready to analyze their data and then realize that they need help since they lack statistics expertise. Sometimes these projects are a bit of a mess, but most of the time Jeff can rescue them.

One day, Jeff’s institution was contacted by a journal editor to report that a reader is challenging the legitimacy of the data in a published paper and the journal is investigating the reader’s charges of potential research misconduct. Jeff had a hand in designing conducting the data analysis in the paper submitted for publication. However, the editor had deleted the part the authors’ detailed description of the roles authors played in producing the paper because the journal does not routinely include such material.

As a result, all three authors were investigated for misconduct. The first author, who was the Principal Investigator, had obtained the funding and designed the study. The second author, a post doc, had gathered the data and done the research. The third author, Jeff, had been brought in primarily to conduct the statistical analysis, which was difficult at times given flaws in their design. His job seemed pretty straightforward although the Principal Investigator and the post doc seemed edgy and defensive about their statistical naiveté.

What should Jeff do?

Discussion Questions for Facilitators

  • Under what conditions do you think outside consultants or experts should accept authorship?
  • What are the risks if you are willing to “rescue” studies for project members who turn out to know less about a methodology than they think they know?
  • What steps might a consultant or expert take to ensure that they are not held responsible for the scientific misconduct of another person on the project?
  • Should methodology consultants provide collaborators with written guidelines for their participation on a project? As a Principal Investigator, how would you feel receiving such guidelines?
  • Should every co-author be held accountable for the integrity of every aspect of a study or publication? *
  • What are some of the clues that someone with a technical background might observe that would tip them off to the possibility that the data have been falsified or fabricated?
  • What do you think are some of the reasons why some investigators fail to involve a consultant such as a statistician in the early stages of project design?
  • What do you think are some of the reasons why some investigators ask for statistical advice but then refuse to take that advice?
  • Should journals require authors to publish a description of their individual roles on a project? Why or why not?

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