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The Dark Side

A Field Guide to Authorship Fraud

Here’s a good overview at Nautilus of the various sorts of authorship fraud that takes place with scientific publications. The authors, Adam Marcus of Gastroenterology & Endoscopy News and Ivan Oransky of Retraction Watch, are focusing especially on the schemes that invent authors, co-authors, reviewers and so on, with many useful examples. I particularly liked the professor of informatics at Göttingen, Burkhardt Morgenstern, who got tired of all the invitations from spam journals to join their editorial boards. So he sent replies in the persona of Prof. Hoss Cartwright, and the publishers were only too glad to add ol’ Hoss to the mastheads. Prof. Cartwright’s CV includes a PhD in Studies of Dunnowhat, a postdoc at the well-known “Some Shitty Place in the Middle of Nowhere”, and (of course) his current position as Cattle Manager at the Ponderosa Institute for Bovine Research. (I myself was glad to see the classic German affection for old US Westerns to still be visible, and I’ll lay excellent odds that Prof. Morgenstern read Karl May when he was growing up). I’m also willing to bet that numerous readers will feel as if their own CVs include a stint, one way or another, at SSPMW, and they may well have overlapped with Hoss while they, too, were scheming how to escape.

The article also brings the unwelcome news that the Medical Council of India has apparently now put in a rule that faculty seeking promotion have to have four (count ’em) full papers to become associate professors, and eight to become full professors. China has a big problem with this kind of thing, too, as do many other countries, which pretty much completely explains the foul engine rooms that drive the worst parts of scientific publishing. You’re not trying to “communicate” your “results” to “other people”, not at all – you’re trying to jump through the hoops and check the boxes. But before I (or anyone else) looks down on this sort of thing as applied to other countries, it’s worth remembering that the same sort of thing goes on in the US and everywhere else. It might be set at a (slightly) higher pitch, but publish-or-perish seems to be the rule most of the time.

And when you set up a system that way, you shouldn’t be surprised at what it produces. You get what you provide real incentives for, every time. In the case of scientific publications, what you get runs from (at best) a promising young professor at a good research institution decided to break up that manuscript into two manuscripts, all the way down to (at worst) some time-serving faculty member at, well, SSPMW, cranking out a piece of crap paper, whose contents may or may not even be real, in order to send it (for a fee) to some predatory piece of crap journal to impress a review committee that doesn’t know or doesn’t care what a sham it all is. The former situation is a waste of effort, and the latter is a waste of everything that can be measured. But that’s what gets rewarded, so whattaya want?



42 comments on “A Field Guide to Authorship Fraud”

  1. Dr. G says:

    Small typo: The place is called Göttingen, not Göttinger.

  2. Chemperor says:

    I think the US-based academic enterprise is moving in this direction for different reasons. I’ve noticed that new faculty start-ups are getting ridiculously large (> $1 million) at R1 schools, with the expectation that PI’s will recover their startups with external funding before going up for tenure. These resources can (and often do) lead to some pretty high-end science, but you have to consider the impact on faculty at R2, R3, or PUI institutions who may receive only a very modest startup. They still have to publish to achieve tenure, get promoted, or secure sustainable grant funding. However, without the benefit of a huge startup, it’s increasingly challenging for these smaller groups to publish as extensively in the higher tier journals, generating demand for new publication outlets. And where demand exists, predatory supply will follow. Every institution wants a bigger piece of the pie, and all of that institutional pressure is eventually placed on the backs of individual PI’s. I’m sure we’d all like to think we’d always take the high road under such pressures, but that diamond anvil is capable of breaking even the best of us.

  3. Billy says:

    Hahaha Derek, the beginning of your 2nd paragraph made me laugh about the Indian rules on faculty promotion. I, and I’m sure many others reading your blog, have worked for companies with rules on who gets hired, who gets promoted, etc., solely based on their publication record.

    1. Ed says:

      Billy, I have worked in the chemistry and pharmaceutical industry for more than twenty years in both the US and Europe and have never even once heard of hiring or promotions based “solely based on their publication record”.

      1. ex-London Chemist says:

        Parke-Davis had a system where you got points for publications and promotions wouldn’t go through if you didn’t have enough points…..

      2. anon says:

        Should we believe you?

        1. Some idiot says:

          I’ll chip in on Ed’s side here. With 20+ years in the industry I am not aware of promotions (in companies I have been in) to be a function of publications.

          1. anon2 says:


          2. lynn says:

            Merck [at least it used to]

      3. Grumpy old man says:

        My perspective from 25 years in Big Pharma: people won’t be evaluated “solely based on their publication record.” Depending on your level, there will be some expectations for publications, with patents/patent applications generally considered to be part of your “publication record”; however, what you get promoted for is advancing projects and solving problems. Number of publications is a nice quantifiable and seemingly objective thing for lazy managers to mention in the cover memo supporting your proposed promotion, but a big number won’t get you promoted if you aren’t doing your job well, nor is a small one likely to hold you back for long if you are a contributor to things that matter. (It may help a bit if you are in the middle of the herd, but being part of the herd isn’t much protection in today’s environment.)

        1. anon the II says:

          I think Grumpy old man is pretty much correct about pubs in industry.

          I’d add that if they like you and you have lots of pubs, it’s important and if you don’t have lots of pubs, it’s not important. If they don’t like you and you have lots of pubs then it’s not important and if you don’t have lots of pubs, you’re in trouble.

      4. Isidore says:

        Those out of a post-doc sting with no other work experience may be hired “solely” on their publication record, which, presumably, reflects the quality of their research. Otherwise, in my experience after working years working in the industry (from startups to big pharma) for 20+ years, publications can help with promotions etc. for those in the scientific ladder.

        1. Isidore says:

          Sorry about the garbled text and other errors. Here’s the edited comment:
          Those out of a post-doc stint with no other work experience may be hired “solely” on their publications record, which, presumably, reflects the quality of their research. Otherwise, in my experience after having worked in the industry (from startups to big pharma) for 20+ years, publications can help with promotions etc. for those on the scientific ladder.

      5. Billy says:

        I apologize, it would’ve been clearer had I said: I’ve seen people rejected for hiring/promotion solely based on their publication record. In the case of hiring, it’s very disappointing to have a management board who rejects a candidate based on publication record, having never even talked to him/her.

        Based on the comments I’ve read, this doesn’t appear to be a widespread practice. Just confirms what I already knew about my former employer.

  4. In recovery from academia says:

    Back when I was in academia (US), I co-authored a paper with a Chinese student. The PI wanted to have me removed from the manuscript to favor said student when he went back to China to become a PI. There you go.

  5. pete says:

    If my memory serves (..dubious), Mark Twain quipped that he’d judged student essays (when he taught at Yale) by standing at the top of a staircase, tossing an armful of papers and those that went farthest got the better grades.

    How does this pertain to the issue at hand ? Well — more authors (real or not), then weightier papers. Bingo!

  6. hn says:

    Friends at Genentech and Merck told me that at their companies, publications play a major role in deciding promotions.

    1. Anon says:

      Hence the proliferation of useless reviews and perspectives articles from said companies…

    2. ScientistSailor says:

      The primary consideration for hiring at the Scientist level at Genentech is number of publications in Cell, Science, and Nature. Because that’s the best way to discover good drugs…

    3. SciGrunt says:

      100% true. It was said that these publications will help the company’s public image…

  7. gippgig says:

    Has this ever happened to anyone else? I spotted an interesting article in a journal, then noticed that I was listed as an author! (The paper was based on something I had pointed out to the (real) authors but I had absolutely no idea the paper existed.) I raised a bit of hell about that one.

    1. Some idiot says:

      Thankfully not me, anyway (sounds a bit unpleasant). Having said that, a couple of times I have been in the acknowledgment section “for useful discussions” or similar, after I chatted the authors at a poster session, and we came up with possible solutions. I didn’t know about the acknowledgement until after the paper was published, but I’m fine with that. Since I was not an author I did not have responsibility for the science (having said that, in all cases I felt the papers were good, too).

      1. gippgig says:

        I’ve also had a bunch of acknowledgements. That seemed appropriate and I never expected advance notice for an acknowledgement.

  8. Specialty guy says:

    In specialty chemicals we always felt that publications meant you were not doing anything important. Successful products were kept proprietary. You only worked on projects that could be profitable. Didn’t have time to write and publish.

  9. Anon says:

    I have been named on patents but then NOT included as a co-author on the paper. (Sometimes that can be the case, but I made significant contributions to the works and I felt that I should have been on the papers as well as the patents.) … Now that I think about them: (1) The PI wanted to be sole inventor on the patent. I pointed out that several of the ideas and solutions to the problems came from me and lawyers agreed with me. The next thing I knew, there were two additional co-inventors who had done nothing “inventive” – they were the biologists doing the assays. I was left off the paper. (2) On another patent, I came up with a major conceptual breakthrough to solve a key problem to make things work and I came up with the mechanistic explanation of another piece of chemistry in the patent. The patent was submitted with me and one co-inventor (the whole project was his idea; I just helped). After several iterations, another name had been added to the patent! Someone who had made no original contribution to the project or patent. I was specifically and deliberately omitted from co-authorship of the paper, even tho’ my ideas and mechanistic explanations were included in the paper. There were additional authors on the paper who had contributed little or nothing to the work. (3) I and several co-workers were not included on a patent app to which we had contributed most of the major ideas. That patent, written up and submitted secretively, was 100% prophetic in that none of the chemistry actually worked. But the patent was prosecuted and eventually published and the 3 listed co-inventors have another publication. I only found out about it when I was looking for a solution to a long-standing synthetic problem and here was a patent that did EXACTLY what we were trying to do! Wait a moment … that patent is from “us”!! My co-workers were not pleased. (The last time I checked, several years ago, it remains an unsolved synthesis problem.)

    1. Mark Thorson says:

      Patent attorneys tend to be very inclusive on lists of inventors. A U.S. patent is invalid if it fails to list all of the inventors. The reverse is also true — a patent is invalid if it lists as an inventor someone who made absolutely no contribution, but that’s a less likely source of a challenge to a patent’s validity. Any contribution no matter how small can qualify someone to be listed as an inventor.

    2. SciGrunt says:

      I was always told by my bosses that conceiving of IP, that’s not obvious or routine, is what the patent lawyers really want to hear when adding co-inventors. If you just made compounds and didn’t think about the problem, you are not included. Other places may think that is enough to include you.

      1. Derek Lowe says:

        Absolutely – there has to be an inventive step for you to be an inventor. If you’re doing the things that someone else thought of, you’re not considered one.

  10. pressure says:

    At least one publication (primary work, not a review) in a reputable journal (TL then BMCL for chemists) was required for the first promotion (generally four to five years) at the company mentioned earlier. Interestingly, there were quite a few scientists (American born, so English was not the issue) who could not get promoted because they could not publish a single paper after as many eight years. The management did make some exceptions but those were scrutinized and generally for scientists on the fast track.

    1. catalysis_drone says:

      No earlier than last month I had to submit my h-index as one of the KPIs to the overlords of the research department of the biggest oil company in the world. Which is particularly ridiculous, since we have not published a single paper as a division since it’s start a few years ago, while mostly focusing on protecting the precious IP.

  11. ablanb says:

    True first hand story about authorship fraud—I was a grad student at an institute in san diego. I already had 1 first author paper in a respected journal. One day, without warning or clear reason, professor calls me into meeting. Transfers me off of the project, conveniently control of project goes to collaborators at a Pharma. This Pharma developed small molecules with my adviser’s lab in several areas, and is likely a candidate to buy his company. But, during the meeting my PI says, ” you will still be first author”. Year later, i was told that ” I was not guaranteed first authorship”. Keep in mind that I initially discovered all of the key findings on this paper. All subsequent emails were ignored and I was barred from interacting with the other co-authors during drafting by a legal note. Last I checked, the first author will be a Pharma la jolla employee, and a co-senior author will also be another Pharma employee. Summary: Pharmaceutical companies are nakedly abusing the academic system.

    1. Some idiot says:

      Ouch, that’s nasty… Just a thought… you could tell them that unless you are (a) actively involved in the paper, plus (b) first author, then you will oppose any patent applications that come out based on the work. That should get their attention…

      And maybe take some photocopies of all of your documentation just for safety’s sake…

      1. Phil says:

        By oppose, I think someidiot means “file a motion of opposition against” any patents resulting from the work. And yes, you better get ahold of copies of your lab notebook ASAP if you plan to do this.

        I recall overhearing an opinion that pharma companies consistently undermine the validity of their patents by leaving off collaborators such as CROs. If that CRO can demonstrate that they had intellectual contribution to the inventive step, they could potentially invalidate the patent in an opposition proceeding/re-examination.

        However, this would mean filing a motion against a client, and would not make the CRO very popular…

        1. ablanb says:

          Thanks for the suggestions. They took the notebooks and deleted my email storing the data electronically. But, ill do what damage i can when the article is submitted. Message to all would be fucker professors: a)postdocs and grad students are not animals and b)if you work in pharma, im sorry, your retarded.

  12. nile says:

    The review process for academic scientists in the United Kingdom counts the papers and weighs the ‘impact’ of the journal.

    A better word would be ‘prestige’ but the principle is defensible.

    It goes without saying that the yearly ‘REF’ assessment is constructed so as to be bureaucratic, burdensome, and destructive; and this brings in distortions of its own.

    But the risk of crap journals was obvious when the REF was devised, and you can get a consensus on which journals have the ‘impact’ of Nature, and which ones are worse for your career than Retraction Watch.

  13. Daen de Leon says:

    “But before I (or anyone else) looks down on this sort of thing …”

    I had honestly hoped you were going to use the phrase “before I … git on mah high horse …”

  14. There is such thing as criminal plagiarism. Council of Science Editors called this Piracy. This is when someone like PhD supervisor publishes the unpublished research of her Phd student as her own. In my case, she removed me from the university before stealing my research in her three papers.
    Now see how Canada is dealing with such problem, see 50 documents:

    1. Joe T. says:

      I heard a story long ago as a kid at a summer program, during a presentation by a guy talking about plagiarism and a case he had been privy to where the fraud was detected: professor has a grad student working on a project that’s going to be published. Near the end, when the data’s been collected and most of the analysis is done, with the paper already partially written, she died (no accusation of foul play by the professor, just your garden-variety accidental death).

      Professor immediately took her data, notes and partly-finished paper, finished it all up and published it under his own name as PI.

      I forget how they got onto him but as I recall he was terminated under whichever clause it was that allowed his tenure to be ignored. Additionally his reputation suffered even more than would ordinarily be the case with a high-profile plagiarism case because he was considered to have done the academic moral equivalent of robbing her corpse.

      1. Janex says:

        Terminally stupid as well. No one expects a tenured professor to be doing their own lab work. At that level they are expected to be guiding the work of their students/post docs. That’s how professors get the great reputation. You can see it in Derek’s blog when he says “yet another great paper out of professor X’s lab”. He should have just published her work with her name as first author and his name as last author and a nice post mortem tribute: ” I regret to report the loss of…” He’d have gotten more credit that way with no ethical challenges involved.

  15. And when you set up a system that way, you shouldn’t be surprised at what it produces. You get what you provide real incentives for, every time

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