Scientists are meant to be scrupulously honest and objective. Acting unethically or misrepresenting information could spell the end of a career.
Except, there’s one instance where it’s acceptable for scientists to lie: when fraudulently claiming authorship of a paper.
Too often, researchers attach their names to reports when they have contributed nothing at all to the work. The problem gets worse the higher up the academic ladder you go. The “publish or perish” motto of academic careers is true – and professors and group leaders take it seriously.
It’s a vicious circle: the more papers you write, the faster your career progresses, and the more money you get from funding bodies. This means you can hire more people, who will publish more papers - which you can put your name to - progressing your career even further.
A lot of well-known professors have groups so big that it is practically impossible for them to spend enough time on each project to warrant authorship of papers. Yet in most cases they still claim authorship.
By the rules of my own university, my professor shouldn’t be listed as an author on many of my papers, but I still add him because he demands it.
My professor is in a position of power, and refusing to do so could limit my own career opportunities. He could refuse to assign any master’s students to my projects, meaning I have less manpower or refuse to nominate me for prizes. If he is invited to write a review in a very good journal or to be editor of a special issue of a journal, he would be less likely to ask me to collaborate with him.
Unfortunately, all these things are crucial to becoming well-known as a scientist. Becoming a faculty member is less about good research than it is about all the trimmings.
I know of many professors at world-class universities who put their friends on papers, confident that the favour will be returned in due course. There are people listed as authors on several of my papers who were unaware of the work being done.
I know of a PhD student whose work was attributed to a postdoctoral researcher in his lab, but there was nothing he could do because the group leader was complicit in the fraud. I know of a research group where students submit papers without their professor having read them, let alone contributing to the work.
The irony is that once you have a permanent position - and essentially have a job for life - the pressure to bolster your own CV diminishes. On the other hand, spuriously adding professors to all your papers is hugely to the detriment to junior researchers, who desperately need to demonstrate research independence.
We need to transform the academic system so that integrity and honesty are the norm in terms of authorship as well as data and results.
Academia needs to be more sceptical about researchers’ reputations. At the moment being known as a scientist is the most important part of your career. You can do excellent science, but if no-one knows your name and it has no impact on the community - no-one cites your paper - then it is completely useless.
As a recent tongue-in-cheek research paper proved, a scientist can become well known for having a big social media presence, even if their publication record is modest. This means they are invited to speak at more conferences, which in turn means that people invite them to give more invited talks at universities. They effectively become famous for being famous.
This is kind of the key point in this piece: reputation matters hugely to scientists, but only with regards to the number of papers you publish (which is why people steal authorship) or (in the best case) how good the research is.
However, we don’t care whether a scientist has a reputation for being honest or rigorous because it gets you nowhere in the current model of academia. And yet honesty and rigour is what science is all about.
We’ve broken the scientific model, we want the fame but we forget the key underpinnings. So I guess I mean “best” as in most well-known or most likely to do well in an academic career, which effectively means research councils and employers.
That is another reason why scientists are so desperate to publish “sexy science” in Nature, because the media will pick it up, your name will get known outside your university … you become famous and fame brings money. The concept of sexy science is a whole other can of worms.
Interview panels and funding councils need to be more sceptical when looking at CVs, and universities should do their part to stamp out foul play.
One way would be to set up research integrity panels where researchers (especially junior ones) can anonymously report problems associated with misattributed research or superiors who force themselves onto papers. It is very important that this is done in a way that has no repercussions on the careers of whistleblowers, and has strict penalties for the perpetrators.
Superstar professors with massive research groups - and even bigger egos - are bad for science. There should be limits on the size of research groups that are based on how much time and input it is possible for one group leader to spend with each junior researcher on each project.
This will require the creation of more junior faculty positions, which will in turn balance the top-heavy academic hierarchy. The other option is for professors to have the guts to allow their group members to publish without them when they haven’t contributed enough to merit authorship. After all, integrity should count for so much more than numbers of papers published.
This week’s anonymous academic previously worked at a Russell Group university and is now based overseas.