Responsibility for authors and co-authors

Responsibility for authors and co-authors

by Jörgen Sviden

In a decision from October 2017 the Expert Group on Scientific Misconduct in Sweden make some profound statements concerning whom or who of the authors can be held responsible for the scientific misconduct, the Expert Group makes the following assessment. To judge whether a case consist of misconduct or not is often difficult and take a lot of effort. An even more difficult task is to evaluate who can be held responsible.

There is no legal definition of responsibility for authorship and co-authorship, but there are several ethical guidelines for responsibility. The so-called Vancouver rules are often referred to but there are numerous others. The Expert Group established in its decision however that the four criteria’s for authorship, listed in the Vancouver rules, should be seen as a codification of the professional ethics principles in the world of – at least – medical research. Even if not all journals and scientific associations have adopted the Vancouver rules, it can be concluded that most have embraced the principles behind these rules. The following four criteria are required for authorship:

  1. Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  2. Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  3. Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  4. 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 re-solved.

In its decision the Expert Group argues that it may be regarded as good research practice that those authors who have unreservedly approved a manuscript assume a collective responsibility for it. This is also the attitude of the All European Academies (ALLEA) in the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, 2017. If a scientific article is deemed to be marred by such serious shortcomings that a conclusion of scientific misconduct can be drawn, in such cases responsibility consequently rests with all of its co-authors. The Expert Group is in agreement with this assessment.

In the light of the nature of the merits system within the academic world, the Expert Group is well aware that it is highly desirable to participate as a co-author in scientific journal articles. Authorship of articles, particularly those published in prestigious journals and with many citations, is a significant source of academic merit value in itself, which leads to greater opportunities for obtaining research grants and higher-level positions. However, this must not lead to the assumption of authorship for journal articles that the co-author cannot fully support.

In a scientific article with complex content where a number of researchers have contributed to the whole, many with specialized skills, it is not reasonable to require that all of them should have detailed knowledge of the contribution of each of the others to the final article. On the other hand however, in the opinion of the Expert Group it is not possible to completely absolve themselves of responsibility for the article as a whole and only take responsibility for their own contribution unless this is specifically stated at the beginning or end of the article. In the present case, the lack of ethics approval and the persistent claim that the health of the patients was significantly better than it actually was are deemed to be circumstances which could easily have been discovered, even by non-specialists.

According to the Expert Group, is not a reasonable system to renounce responsibility only after fault has been found with an article. A less than complete responsibility ought to be stated at the time of publication, and if this is not the case, then responsibility for any irregularities should be borne by the entire author collective. The same assessment should be applied when a person first requests that their name be removed long after publication. It is not reasonable to renounce responsibility in this way.

On these ground The Expert Group found that all the authors of the six articles bear some measure of responsibility for scientific misconduct. However, this responsibility is differentiate in regard to their contribution in the research and authorship. The primary responsibility rests with the main author and head of the research team, and with others who had a more prominent role in the research and the writing of the articles.

The particular measure of responsibility of each author and what actions should thus be taken for each of them is up to their respective employers to determine. However, the Expert Group understands that the more junior researchers have been in a position of dependence in relation to the leading persons and other leaders of the research team, which at the time when the research was conducted also enjoyed substantial support from the management of the University. While this does not absolve them of responsibility, it may be regarded as an extenuating circumstance.