Photo: DimiTalen, CC BY-SA 3.0
A new post over at Retraction Watch has provided food for thought on the practice of scientists asking to remove their names from publications. Here’s my opinon.
The event that brings this up is the desire of a number of authors to have their names removed from a 2011 Lancet study about transplant surgery, in light of the fact that its last author has recently been accused of academic misconduct.
With that in mind, Retraction Watch is running an informal poll: “If authors sign onto a paper, should they be allowed to remove their names after publication?” Their options are yes, no, and “only in specific circumstances, such as confirmed misconduct by a co-author.”
I must admit to being a little confused by the whole idea of removing one’s name from a paper, but I imagine that’s in large part because, since I work so poorly with others, I’ve never had a publication with anyone else’s name on but my own (I’m also professionally in the humanities, so it’d be a little odd to have a host of authors’ names on a single paper in the first place). But presumably each author involved has had the option to look at the paper and decide “yes, I’d like my name on that,” or “no, this doesn’t live up to my personal standards,” so except in cases in which one of the authors has been grossly dishonest with the others, I have a hard time thinking it makes much sense to take a name off a paper and yet give it leave to remain in the general pool of scholarship.
If one author feels badly enough about a paper to have their name removed from it, they should suggest it be retracted entirely, and only if other authors choose to stand by it should it be left unretracted, but with asterisks indicating that authors X, Y, and Z have indicated that they no longer believe in the methods and/or the veracity of their results. “I don’t want my name associated with Author Z anymore” doesn’t, to my mind, cut it: if the science is good, it’s good, and if it’s not, it should be retracted.
Even in extreme cases, I believe it’s imperative that somewhere on the paper, those “removed” authors’ names remain. Even if it’s just a footnote indicating that in the original publication, the authors included X, Y, and Z, all of whom relinquished their authorship on the paper for whatever specific reasons they cite — which ought also to be included.
The solution is not less information, but more: if a study is going to remain unretracted despite the wishes of some of its authors, then the reasons for those authors wishing to remove their names should be spelled out on the document for other researchers to be made aware.
Now it would appear that in many cases the name-removals are published and searchable, as with this one over at the Lancet, in an attempt to be open and transparent, but part of me can’t help but feel it should be printed in the altered document itself as well. All the updated article says is that “This online publication has been corrected. The corrected version first appeared at thelancet.com on March 3, 2016. The second corrected version appeared at thelancet.com on March 31, 2016.” The correction’s details — including the information that it was corrected to remove a name — are published in an errata notice in the margins of the March 5, 2016 issue, in Volume 387, No. 10022, p.944.
Maybe it’s the historian in me, but this seems just a little too obscure to avoid being effectively “quietly slipping one’s name off the by-line,” as it were, and I think that damages scholarship by not telling the whole story. If you’re taking your name off a study, readers should know that you’ve done it, and for that matter why.
That’s just my two cents. You can check out the Retraction Watch post here, along with their survey, which at the time this is going live, is roughly 55% in favour of “only in very specific circumstances,” with no at about 30% and yes at only 15%.
Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.