Saturday, August 14, 2010

But that's just how we do it!

Over a round of "Friday beers" in a European capital, a group of researchers gathered who happened to be from four different fields and worked in three different European countries. We got into a plagiarism discussion, and I found there were some disturbing observations made:
  • The chemist noted that it is normal for the PI to put his/her name on any papers written in their lab. Not always do they read the papers before submitting them.
  • The chemist also noted that the last paper which was sent to the PI had three authors on it, the two doing the research and the PI. When it was returned it had four names on it - and neither researcher knew the fourth one. They questioned the PI, who responded: Oh, that's a former postdoc of mine. He's applying for a professorship in X and needs some more publications.
  • The chemist had a previous PI in a previous lab in another European country. Here a big-shot American researcher was added to a paper to "insure" that it would be accepted for Nature. Needless to say, this researcher had neither done the research, nor written or even read the paper.
  • The political scientist started into citation indices and how important they were for their field. Of particular importance is the number of quotations you get within two years of publication. The historian grumbled that it would be lovely to get papers published within two years of writing them, and having anyone read them and maybe one person publish a review within two years would be wonderful, but nothing will get cited within that time frame.
  • The computer scientist noted that conference papers are more important than journal articles in her field, much to the shock of the chemist.
From this brief, non-scientific exchange we can gather that honorary authorship is normal in some sciences, and citation metrics don't really help tell how productive a researcher is. The chemist noted that the post-docs don't like these extra names on their papers, but they don't feel that they can say anything or they will anger the PI and endanger their careers.

What can be done to get rid of "honorary authorship"? Or should we just accept it as the way things are done in some fields? 


  1. I came across this comment to a column about plagiarism by Stanley Fish in the NY Times. Not knowing German, I was wondering in you could comment on the accuracy of this claim. thanks.

    I wish you could have gone into more detail about something you touch on early in the present column, "What I say is that plagiarism matters a lot in contexts and cultures where there is a name for it". I am currently in Austrian academia and studied in Germany, and have traveled extensively in Russia and other Slavic countries. There is no German word that encapsulates the concept of plagiarism (like many other concepts that are finely dissected in English, German tends to boil it down to something cruder - one dictionary translates it as 'literarischer Diebstahl' or literary theft. As a result, it is very difficult to convey the concept to my students, who regularly and routinely plagiarize. In Russia it is even worse - I have met students who were punished and ostracized for not plagiarizing, since they were expected to regurgitate the canon they learned by heart. Are there any studies on this?

  2. One of the problems I address in my talk is a definition of plagiarism - it is very different, very fuzzy. It is rather similar to the definition of when a man is bald: It is clear when he is bald, and clear when he is not, but in between we are not so sure. And many things that are considered to be scientific misconduct are called plagiarism. I try and define the different concepts.

    I have never heard of students being punished for not plagiarizing and would look forward to having a reference to such a thing.

    I know that plagiarism is rampant in Austria - education is our only hope, as software can't help much.

  3. a) We should not accept honorary authorship.
    b) ANY scientist accepting - and probably many of those giving - honorary authorship is going to claim that this is the way it is done in their field, country or whatever. They are hardly going to say that they knowingly continue to do something they and their peers consider to be unprofessional.

  4. I have made exactly the same experiences as the chemist (I am originally a physicist but now more in the field of chemistry). The frustrating thing is that almost every postdoc/PhD-student who is doing the 'actual' work is annoyed if people are (almost randomly) added on their papers but since the PI is in a position of power, no one will complain.
    With one of my own papers I once considered writing directly to the journal editor, 'innocently' asking about the journal policy on honorary authorship (by mentionning my case) but didn't do it in the end because this would certainly have backfired.
    In fact I also blame the journal editors who, even though each journal has nice 'ethical guidelines' do not enforce those but very often knowingly accept honorary authorship or - even worse (and I have myself experienced this several times) - make decisions which are biased by the names on the author list!


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