Could Sol be right?

Sol, of course, is the ever loveable S. Rivlin, creator of many comments on DrugMonkey deriding Physioprof’s views on authorship. For the record, I agree with PP broadly on what constitutes authorship in the modern biomedical sciences. Sol has; however, raised some valid points in the debate, including what he has called “honorary authorship” — if I could find his comment on this again I would link it but I cannot find it, but I’m sure it was Sol. While Sol goes a bit further in describing this than I would, he has raised the issue of honorary authorship by dept heads as a particularly bad example of this practice. I have to say that I was skeptical that this ever actually happened anymore. I would have been wrong, and Nature has a particularly egregious example as a news feature this week.

So what happened? Well, its yet another stem cell retraction. This one was in Lancet (see the Nature news feature for the links) and concerns a clinical trial with stem cells for urinary incontinence. It would appear that the study authors failed to obtain informed consent from all participants in the study. This is a huge no-no (and can be criminal in some countries). An investigation by the university has found wrong-doing on the part of some of the authors, but then comes this whopper:

An Austrian Academy of Sciences investigation continues. The university suspended principal investigator Hannes Strasser, but took no sanctions against department head, Georg Bartsch, who was an honorary co-author on the paper. Both have denied wrongdoing.

A Lancet editorial accompanying the retraction decried honorary authorships as “unacceptable” and said that such authors still have obligations in cases of flawed research: “With credit comes responsibility — always.”

I’ll just add that this is totally f*cked-up. The “honorary” author gets off scott-free. How cool is that, all the glory and none of the punishment. I guess Sol was right… it happens and it is parasite behavior (except the parasite gets to jump ship when the organism dies).

Finally, let’s just note that PP already pointed out that department or section head honorary authorship is a BadThing. The point here is I thought that such things didn’t happen anymore. My Bad!

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2 responses to “Could Sol be right?

  1. What garbage. If you’re an author, you’re responsible. That this kind of honorary authorship actually occurs is almost mind boggling.

    But there are other kinds of authorship which verge on honorary status IMO. For example, what about when someone provides a reagent or other material that has already been published and described, in return for authorship? Maybe they provided a knockout mouse. This is more of a gray area, but I have definitely seen papers where solely the PI from the lab making the knockout is included on a paper from a different lab.

    Should this warrant inclusion on the author list? Knockouts are long to make and expensive to maintain, so should the initial creator get some consideration? Is there a time constant after the initial description where this is considered acceptable. Should they be as responsible for the data as all the other authors? It seems a very gray area to me.

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