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Co-authors of retracted papers suffer serious career consequences

Even if they’re not implicated, co-authors may see their careers stalled due to another researcher’s misconduct, Quebec study finds.

By MARIE LAMBERT-CHAN | AUG 07 2013

Diederik Stapel, Eric Poehlman, Woo-Suk Hwang, Yoshitaka Fujii: these are individuals who have gone down in history for cheating the scientific system. They misused public funds, put patients’ lives in jeopardy and abused the public’s trust.

They also left in their wake dozens of researchers who had unwittingly collaborated in their deception. What happens to the careers of scientists who co-author articles that are later retracted for misconduct?

This question has weighed on the mind of Vincent Larivière, an assistant professor at Université de Montréal’s École de bibliothéconomie et des sciences de l’information, and master’s student Philippe Mongeon. They studied the career paths of more than 1,700 biomedical and clinical researchers whose names were associated with an article that was retracted for misconduct between 1996 and 2006, but who were not themselves accused of misconduct. The articles had involved fabricated data, falsified data, or plagiarism. The researchers presented their results at the Third World Conference on Research Integrity, held in Montreal in May.

In the five years following the retraction of the fraudulent article, one quarter of this group of co-authors stopped publishing their results in scientific journals. “Retraction of a published article can have a decisive effect on these individuals’ desire or ability to pursue a scientific career,” said Dr. Larivière.

The other researchers in this group didn’t come out of the experience unscathed: their work was cited and published much less frequently than before the article was withdrawn. This was most apparent among authors who had had few articles published in the five years preceding the retraction of the offending paper.

Mr. Mongeon said it is a cause for concern. “Recent studies show that the numbers of retractions are rising sharply and that over half are attributable to fraudulent activity. At the same time, the average number of authors per article is also increasing. So the number of researchers that could be affected by retractions is growing.”

Research that has been repudiated is a stain on a scientist’s reputation, and it is a difficult topic for researchers to discuss: just one researcher approached for this article was willing to discuss it, even anonymously. This professor, who teaches at a Canadian university, co-signed an article with Eric Poehlman, then a recognized authority in the field of obesity, who had fabricated and falsified data for more than 10 years while he was at the University of Vermont. Dr. Poehlman worked at Université de Montréal from 2001 to 2005, but wasn’t accused of committing any fraud there. His former collaborator was cleared of any wrongdoing, and although he said his career has not suffered, the affair has left its mark.

“It was a terrible betrayal,” he said. “Since then, I have become somewhat paranoid about the integrity of my team.  A retraction, regardless of the reason, is an embarrassment for a scientist. Our reputation is so precious. That is why authorities must do everything they can to identify fraudsters, but also to clear the names of individuals who are blameless.”

According to the Tri-Agency Framework for the Responsible Conduct of Research, institutions must make every effort “to protect or restore the reputation of those who are targets of false allegations.” Susan Zimmerman, executive director of the Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research, which is tasked with examining allegations of breaches of the policies of the three federal research-granting agencies, said, “We protect innocent collaborators in two ways: we preserve their anonymity and insist on their innocence – when it has been proven. In addition, they remain eligible for grants.”

In the field, things don’t seem quite so straightforward. “Innocent co-workers are left to fend for themselves in managing their relationship with the journal, their colleagues and the university administration. There is no agency to guide them through this maze,” said Mr. Mongeon.

“Because fraud is still rare in Canada,” added Dr. Larivière, “putting such an agency in place is felt to be unnecessary.”

Indeed, the approach taken by the tri-council secretariat focuses primarily on promoting good practices, where education plays a central role. “Integrity in research is a shared responsibility,” said Ms. Zimmerman. “We create tools to clearly explain our reference framework. Institutions, for their part, must make sure that their researchers are aware of their responsibilities – and researchers must remain vigilant regarding the work of their colleagues.”

Dr. Poehlman’s former collaborator is keenly aware of this responsibility: he has set up a number of mechanisms in his laboratory to prevent fraudulent activity. “Our data are always checked by several people,” he says. “I also strive to instill humility and conscientiousness in my team members. I keep telling them that it isn’t necessary to be the first to announce a discovery. Far better to do one’s work meticulously, even if it means coming in second.”

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