We Wrote What?

What’s behind paper retractions? (2)
by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Labtimes 03/2011

Photo: zettberlin / Source: PHOTOCASE

The alarming problem of forged authorship.

In 1926, a US forensic handwriting expert named Albert S. Osborne cracked the case of a forged will on the strength of a sliver of punctuation. While examining the suspiciously incomplete document, Osborne, according to an article in Popular Science six years later, “found a tiny black, clawlike mark – the tail of a comma. It had separated words in the printing that had been thrown away. With the precision instruments of his laboratory, he measured its position in relation to letters in the printed form below and compared these measurements with those on the two forms printed by the concern that had produced the form under examination. This test showed that the document was spurious because it was made out on a form which had not been printed until thirty-four days after the will was supposed to have been signed!”

Those were the good old days when detectives were scientists and forgers ran scared. Imagine how formidable detectives like Osborne would have been with a Google machine or two at their disposal. Surely, nearly 70 years later, when even the finger paintings your mother put up on the refrigerator are available for everyone to see online, no-one could expect to get away with forgery, right? Right?

Cue the awkward silence.

We suppose it should come as no surprise that given the eternal problem of plagiarism – more on that in a future column – forgery also claims its victims in scientific publishing. But we find ourselves astonished that it’s more than vanishingly rare.

As we’ve written, forging author names is “an order of magnitude higher on the Bonehead Scale than cut-and-paste plagiarism, which does take at least a little effort to detect. After all, with so many eyes on the literature, the second a new article appears in PubMed or on a listserv, it’s likely to be seen by a colleague somewhere, who is liable to fire off a congratulatory email or otherwise acknowledge the paper.”

Yet, in recent months, we’ve found no fewer than five retractions, in which one or more co-authors claimed not to have been aware that he or she was, in fact, listed on the manuscripts.

In one case, a researcher in China added the names of two colleagues, presumably more senior and respected, to a manuscript published by the journal Anti-Cancer Drugs. In another case, again from China, “Dr. Wei Jia Kong’s name was used as the corresponding author without his knowledge or consent. Furthermore, Dr. Cai Pengcheng was unaware of his status as an author of the manuscript”.

Our favourite, though, has to be the retraction in December of a paper in Anaesthesia – the first ever for that title, according to the editor – for which three of the four authors had not agreed to publication. In a dose of indignity, the forger managed to misspell the name of one of his unwitting dupes.

Then there’s the case of Scott Reuben, a pain specialist and fraudster in Massachusetts, whose misdeeds led to the retraction of more than 20 articles from the medical literature. He forged the name of a co-author on at least one of his papers.

Of course, that any cases of forged authorship still occur suggests that journal editors are falling asleep at the switch. Most publications require statements from all authors attesting to the nature of their participation in the preparation of a given manuscript – at least on paper. But the fact that forgery persists, indicates that some editors are willing to accept the “I swear” of a single author.

That has to stop! Editors, it’s not that unreasonable to require physical or electronic signatures from each author. You should already be requiring a financial disclosure form from each.

But if that seems too difficult, just give us the name of your attorney. We’d be happy to, um, analyse your will for you. After all, if you let authors fool you …

(The authors run the blog Retraction Watch: http://retractionwatch.com)

Last Changed: 03.05.2012