Friday, March 13, 2009

Giving "credit" where it is not due

The NYT reports (link via Abi) on possibly one of the longest-running and most significant scientific frauds ever: an anaesthesiologist, Dr Scott Reuben from the Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, has admitted falsifying his data since 1996 -- faking data for clinical trials that were never conducted. Unlike many other cases of scientific fraud, this case directly affects "ordinary people" in that it could have affected their treatment. Significantly, many of his questionable papers are on the efficacy of specific pain-relieving drugs, specifically Cerebrex and Lyrica from Pfizer. Pfizer "underwrote much of [his] research" from 2002 to 2007.

But I found a perhaps comparatively harmless piece of fraud on the bad doctor's part equally remarkable: he apparently included other researchers' names as co-authors without their permission and without any contribution on their part. Why would anyone do that? Usually, to gain credibility from the other "authors'" reputations. Why would the other authors not object or notice? Evan Ekman says his name appears on at least two of the retracted papers despite his having no hand in that work; he calls the inclusion of his names forgeries. According to PubMed, Ekman and Reuben have co-authored four papers between 2005 and 2007; surely Ekman would have noticed earlier that he was being wrongly given authorship?

In the recent case of a paper whose lead author was from Anna University being a near-verbatim reproduction of another paper by another group in another journal, two authors distanced themselves from the work. On the other hand, most of us in science know of cases where senior figures are given authorship merely in recognition of their position or funding, without regard to any actual contribution to the work. When it turns out that some of their "co-authored" works are fraudulent, how much responsibility should they bear?

I know of two older papers where one author, famously, was not a contributor to the paper. The first is this one, regarded as a classic; the authors were George Gamow and his student Ralph Alpher, and Gamow included Hans Bethe, who had no connection with this work, purely so that the author list would read "Alpher, Bethe, Gamow." (If that joke is Greek to you, never mind.) I can't remember whether Bethe was "in" on it, but he did not protest, at least not publicly.

The second is this one, which was also quite well-received. The author was J W Hetherington. After his manuscript was written and ready to go, he was told that Physical Review Letters objected to single authors referring to themselves as "we"; and rather than be forced to rewrite the paper, he included his pet cat, Willard, as a co-author. As I remember, the initials "FDC" stand for "Felis domesticus Chester", Chester being the cat's sire. Willard, too, did not protest (as far as we know) and even "autographed" some reprints with his ink-stained paws. [UPDATE March 15: I got the names mixed up. Chester was Hetherington's cat, and Willard was the sire.]

These examples are regarded as amusing, but I wonder if people would play such jokes today.


Anonymous said...

As per wiki, Alpher did not take it too well:

though I remember reading somewhere (Hawking: ABHT?) that Bethe was sounded out and agreed.


Natasha Mhatre said...

Polly Matzinger also co-authored with her dog Galadriel Mirkwood. This time the editor minded and banned her from the journal. But really if you're willing to believe a name like that you've hardly any grounds to be pissed off!

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Sridhar -- well, the Alpher reference link on wiki is broken. I can believe he was not happy at the time, but in retrospect the paper became widely known and everyone knows that Bethe didn't actually have a role in it. So I find it hard to believe that Alpher continued to complain about it as late as 1999.

Natasha - interesting. The reasons too, apparently, were similar to Hetherington's, except that Hetherington was too lazy to rewrite and Matzinger did not want to use first person singular (many people find that style too aggressive and egocentric-sounding). Apparently Hetherington said that he heard the editors weren't happy, but a journal like PRL would be unlikely to ban an author on such grounds. He also observed that his wife sleeps with both authors of the paper.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for introducing me to Hetherington type of humour :).