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Should we mind if authorship is falsified?

In a typically thought-provoking piece, Louis Menand asks, “Should we mind if a book is a hoax?” In his article, Menand (whose father taught the best course I ever took at MIT, in which we learned that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty) focuses on imaginative literature written by white people but attributed to ethnic minorities. Or, more generally, comfortable people writing in the voices of the less comfortable (thus including, for example, fake Holocaust memoirists who make up their life stories but not their ancestries). His take on it is that there’s an oversupply of well-connected white folks who can pull off the conventions of literary writing, along with an unsatisfied demand for literature sharing the experience of people who’ve suffered. Put together the supply and demand and you get a black market.

Reading Menand’s article made me wonder if there’s anything similarly going on with scientific or scholarly writing. We do sometimes see plagiarism, but that’s more about taking credit for someone else’s work—plagiarism is what lazy and greedy people do—whereas Menand is talking about the opposite, people who do the work but don’t take the credit.

Does authorship matter at all?

For a scientific or scholarly article, what does verifiable authorship get you, the reader or consumer of research? A few things. In no particular order:

– The author is a real person who stands by the work and is thus using his or her reputation as a sort of collateral. In some sense, this works even when it doesn’t work: consider names such as Hauser, Bem, or Wansink where, at first the reputation bolstered the work’s believability, but then the weakness of the published work dragged down the reputation. Reputational inference goes both ways; recall the Lancet, the medical journal that’s published so many problematic papers that publication there can be a bit of a warning sign—maybe not so much as with PNAS or Psychological Science, but it’s a factor.

– Data and meta-data, description of experimental protocols, etc. There’s a real-life person and you can go to the real-life lab.

– Information about the authors can give a paper some street-cred. For example, remember that paper claiming that single women were 20 percentage points more likely to support Barack Obama during certain times of the month? That paper had both male and female authors. If all the authors were male, I wonder if it would’ve been considered too silly or too offensive to publish or to promote.

– Responsibility for errors. Sometimes a paper is presented as single-authored even though it is clearly the work of many people. When there’s an error, who’s to blame. It should be the author’s responsibility, but perhaps the error occurred in a part of the paper that the author did not actually write? It’s hard to know.

Summary

In the above discussion I’m purposely not considering issues of fairness, scholarly due process, etc. Setting all that aside, my focus here is on the way that falsification of authorship can directly reduce the usefulness of a published work of scholarship.

Remember how Basbøll and I discussed plagiarism as a statistical crime, based on the idea that plagiarism hides important information regarding the source and context of the copied work in its original form, information which can dramatically alter the statistical inferences made about the work?

Here I’m saying that this concern is more general, not just with plagiarism but with any misrepresentation of data and metadata, which includes authorship as well as details of how an experiment was carried out, what steps were done in data processing and analysis, and so on.

22 Comments

  1. gec says:

    I agree that authorship should be treated as part of This Complete Open Science Breakfast, though it’s also important to note that authorship and author ordering are treated differently in different fields. For example, the standard in the humanities and in psychology/econ is for a fairly small number of authors focusing on just those who were directly involved in writing the paper, whereas it is common for large physics collaborations to have dozens or more authors reflecting everyone who contributed to any stage of the project.

    Obviously, it would be nice to have more complete info on the contributions of specific authors given this diversity. Some journals have sections where you can delineate this, but I think it might be better to actually include it in the main body of the paper, e.g., “X and Y had the idea that it would be interesting to do….Z suggested that this manipulation would be a stronger test….” If nothing else, this would help avoid the clunky “science-sounding” prose in which many modern papers are mired.

    I want to conclude, though, with a personal experience regarding the informativeness of authorship. Personally, when I’ve submitted things that I legitimately worked on alone under just my name, the reviews tend to be much more condescending and less helpful than when more senior names are also present on the author list. Specifically, the reviewers end up saying fewer things about my paper and more things about general trends or approaches that are only tangentially related to what I actually did/wrote. I suspect that this is because these reviewers have very strong priors about “the kind of people that write papers” such that their minimal knowledge of me personally gets swamped by those priors. Of course, this is troubling in a larger sense because it suggests these reviewers are using authorship as practically the sole dimension of information for review, rather than the actual content of the material.

    • I promise as soon as 15000 economists build a money collider at a cost of $300B over 15 years, they’ll all want authorship on all the papers…

      • gec says:

        I admit I’m not particularly financially savvy, but I think I’m going to start calling the stock market a “money collider” from now on…

        • jim says:

          “it suggests these reviewers are using authorship as practically the sole dimension of information for review, rather than the actual content of the material.”

          A long and strong tradition in scientific publishing. And for goodness sakes be careful who’s turf you step on if you don’t have appropriate clout behind you.

          The main difference between the stock market and a particle collider is that one is paid for voluntarily by market participants and the other is paid for by compulsory taxes.

    • Andrew says:

      Gec:

      You write, “Personally, when I’ve submitted things that I legitimately worked on alone under just my name, the reviews tend to be much more condescending . . .”

      This happened to me too! Or, at least, I remember thinking it was happening to me. I remember once including some people as coauthors on a paper of mine, just because I was paranoid that the journal would reject it, if I were sole author.

      Now, don’t get me wrong: the coauthors made contributions to the work. I didn’t just slap their names down on a finished project. And the collaboration was productive beyond that particular paper. But my motivation for approaching them in the first place was that I had a great idea, I knew it was a great idea, but I was concerned that it would not be taken seriously if I were the sole author.

      This was during a period when I was having lots of difficulty with the academic statistics establishment, Bayesian and otherwise. In retrospect, I think I was just being paranoid and the paper would’ve been accepted if I’d been the sole author. But at the time I was disturbed that many of my favorite ideas were being attacked and dismissed, so it seemed prudent to add coauthors strategically.

      • Erik says:

        Me too. Not so much to get published, but to get noticed and taken seriously.

      • gec says:

        Absolutely, my own impressions are just that and who knows whether I was imagining things or what was really going on in the reviewers’ heads. That case just sticks out to me since, fortunately, most of my experiences with peer review have been very positive and led to much better work in the end.

      • jim says:

        Andrew:

        My understanding is that several studies have demonstrated – I don’t use that word lightly – that name recognition has a massive impact in papers being accepted for publication.

        That’s hardly unique to scientific publishing, so it should be expected. The only reason we think otherwise about science is that we mistakenly exalt science as being objective and pure, somehow outside of base human motives. But of course it isn’t. It’s just another human endeavor. It has a few more checks and balances – just enough to create progress.

    • Dale Lehman says:

      Personally, I have always thought the effort to identify individual contributions to joint work a complete waste of energy. Actually, more than just a waste – I find them at odd with good research practice, and an impediment to improving the (poor) incentives in academia. My first and (almost) only sole-authored published paper was from my dissertation. And it was the worse piece of research I did. Almost everything else was coauthored – and the quality was much improved. I know what I contributed to each and I’d be the first to admit the superior contributions of my coauthors. I am actually proud that I am able to work effectively with people smarter than myself. Universities that feel it is necessary to identify individual contributions for promotion/tenure decisions are – in my mind – contributing to the poor incentives we often berate on this blog. I’d like to see this game end – how about evaluating whether someone is a good colleague and of value? Why must this value be “proven” with a quantitative metric of how many sole-authored equivalent (my just-invented SAE metric along the lines of FTE equivalents for student enrollment) publications an individual has?

      • Yes, all of this! The notion that “credit” is the main reason to publish something, instead of “getting the content out there for people to know about” is a huge problem.

      • gec says:

        I definitely agree with respect to how this information can be (mis)used in administration, I was approaching it more from the perspective of an interested reader. Given that readers/reviewers tend to make lots of assumptions about authorship which differ widely between fields, I could imagine how it would be nice to have the paper structured in such a way that it was clear what role everyone played in the story. For example, if I had a question about a specific aspect of some project or if I wanted to collaborate with someone who contributed a particularly cool idea, it would be easier for me to know who to ask. I think this would also provide more information on who might be a good colleague (as opposed to, for example, someone who just acts as a rubber stamp).

  2. Megan Higgs says:

    Speaking of authorship and statisticians — it is not okay to claim or imply that a statistician was more involved in a project than they actually were (for hope of less critical review?). It is also not okay to try to publish a paper with a statistician as a co-author and not share the entire paper with the statistician before submission (attempting to sneak around incorporating their comments) … and so on. These things happen to faculty and students and are unethical.

    Last year, I got quite a surprise when I read a grant proposal and learned I was “the Study Statistician” (caps were used) and listed first in the names of “significant contributors.” Previous to this, I had met with the PIs for one hour and provided advice about the design, but I was not given a draft of the proposal to read and was not told how I would be included or referenced in the proposal. It was not clear from the writing in the proposal what my contributions were (or were not) and referring to me as “the Study Statistician” implied I had contributed for more than I had. I was able to speak up in this case, but only because I was involved in the review process. Are there other proposals out there with my name on them that I haven’t seen? Statisticians have as much right to have control over their reputations as anyone else — I do not understand how it can seem okay to not give the statistician a chance to read a document they are implied to have co-authored. This may seem an extreme example, but in my experience, less severe variations on this are not uncommon.

    • jd says:

      Maybe this is due to the view “oracle” view of statistics. I read a comment on this blog one time (that I can’t find now) that was describing that many PI’s view statistics as the “oracle” that needs to “bless” their research before it is submitted for publication. Once the results are seen and, from the PI’s misinformed perspective, pronounced as ‘due to chance’ or ‘not due to chance’ by the oracle, then it’s story time, and the story is already mostly already written anyway. So, the oracle must be consulted and given special status simply because the oracle is required for the blessing. Box checked.

    • jim says:

      But aren’t you just thrilled that you’ll get another tick on the pub count meter? Isnat what we’re all here for?

  3. PsychBrief says:

    Does writing under a pseudonym count as falsified authorship? I write under a pseudonym that isn’t linked to my real name (though I have talked a bit about myself in the past e.g. career stage) so on first blush it would seem so. But arguably my use of a pseudonym reaches all 4 points raised. I am a real person but the reputation of my work and my blog are collateral; if I say something offensive or incorrect and don’t admit it I lose credibility (though the negative consequences don’t necessarily reflect on work under my real name). All the data I’ve collected for work under my pseudonym is freely available on the OSF. I have built up a bit of a reputation that I say sensible things, though I doubt it is enough to protect against obvious wrong-doing. I claim responsibility for my errors and am open about them on my blog and social media.

    I guess there are different ways to use a pseudonym and the way I do it is almost identical to how I would act if I was writing under my real name. So whether you view it as falsified authorship is influenced by that.

    • jim says:

      Ben Franklin frequently wrote under a pseudonym.

      Writing under a pseudonym isn’t falsification unless you’re using someone else’s name and reputation. You’re hiding your identity, but not faking, misattributing or steeling the work.

  4. Ben says:

    Another thing authorship is useful for is connecting the dots. Like was this one-off research, or is there a line of crumbs to follow. Who is involved where, etc. That’s super super important for me finding other research.

    > whereas Menand is talking about the opposite, people who do the work but don’t take the credit

    I don’t think this is the correct analogy. I don’t think Menand is arguing that the work is the writing. In fact from the article:

    “Some hoaxers like to boast about how easy it was to pull off, and this may be the key to what is truly scandalous about them. Jack-Alain Léger claimed that his entire preparation for writing about Beur life consisted of a few afternoons hanging around cafés in the Barbès neighborhood of Paris. The Ern Malley hoaxers said that they wrote the entire Malley œuvre in a single day.”

    Isn’t a large part of what’s bothersome about these hoaxes that the authors have it easy? They’re somehow taking credit for lives they didn’t live.

    I also disagreed with the second sentence of the opening quite a bit (what evidence? or qualify “many readers”):

    “If a book is good, if it’s artful, entertaining, and informative, should it matter who the author is? Once upon a time, many readers would have said no.”

    and then:

    “But that was then, and this, to put it mildly, is now. The rules have changed… If you were not born it, you should not perform it.”

    Not sure that’s the point. Isn’t the message just don’t misrepresent yourself?

    But the rest was interesting. I read two of those books non-ironically lol.

    I remember another story I read. Search for in “Devil’s Guard” in https://theintercept.com/2017/01/10/the-crimes-of-seal-team-6/. The two paragraphs it is referenced in stand alone.

    Also I think the supply/demand argument wasn’t Menand:

    “Miller thinks that one answer is the book business”

    Speaking of authorship :D!

  5. Lee Rudolph says:

    I believe (but maybe just because I’ve “known” it for 50+ years–it certainly is/was folklore, and maybe it was never anything else?) that at least at the beginning the members of the Bourbaki collaboration were not known (albeit possibly suspected?) outside the collaboration itself. If this is true, it would be a stellar example of “people who do the work but don’t take the credit” (at least, not at first).

  6. Felipe says:

    Disagree on the ‘street cred’ argument: do papers on cancer have more street cred if the authors have had cancer themselves? Probably not. How about research on forensics or forensic sciences? It doesn’t make sense that research related to menstrual cycles is more (or less) credible if the authors have had menstrual cycles.

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