Responsibilities of co-authors

Nature has an editorial as to

How the responsibilities of co-authors for a scientific paper’s integrity could be made more explicit.

It has several interesting things to say about co-authorship, the responsibilities of all the co-authors as to the contents and correctness of what is reported in the paper and so on. Finally, they also make a suggestion:

We suggest that journals should require that every manuscript has at least one author per collaborating research group who will go on record in a way that collectively vouches for the paper’s standards.

They go on to indicate who should sign such an undertaking:

Principal investigators traditionally bask in the glory of a well-received paper. We are proposing now that they willingly open themselves to sanctions that could be brought to bear should the paper turn out to have major problems.

I think the key word here is “principal investigator”; if it is not made mandatory for the PIs to sign such a declaration, I can think of one particular form of abuse that this system is prone to, keeping in mind some of the recent incidents that I have come across. For example, in the Anna University plagiarism scandal, one of the co-authors, who happens to be a student is reported to have said that

… he believes he was made a scapegoat in the entire affair and added that his mouth was sealed because he was a student.

Or, in other words, if one of the co-authors is forced to sign such a declaration, and, if the hierarchy in the University/Institution where she/he works is such that she/he has no choice but to sign such a declaration, then it makes it much more easier for the senior co-author to exploit the same to pin the blame on a junior colleague, should something go wrong. One way to overcome this problem is to make it mandatory that the senior-most person in the hierarchy sign such a declaration. Pinning the responsibility on the senior co-author also makes sense when we remember scandals like this, involving researchers who are at the pinnacle of the scientific administration pyramid.

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