One-too-many authors scuttles paper on mouse metabolism

reg pepcoverRegulatory Peptides is retracting a 2010 paper by a group of five authors in China and one in Texas — and the presence of that last one was the problem.

The article, “Erythropoietin as a possible mechanism for the effects of intermittent hypoxia on bodyweight, serum glucose and leptin in mice,” had as its last (dare we say, senior) author Susan T. Howard, a mycobacterium expert at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Tyler. Trouble was, Howard disavowed any role in the paper.

According to the retraction notice:

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief.

The first five authors named infringed the basic principles of scientific co-authorship in that they included the name of Dr. Susan Howard without her permission. Dr. Howard did not make any contribution to the investigation, never cooperated with the other named authors, nor did she ever have the opportunity to see or comment on the manuscript prior to its publication. The first five authors named thereby violated the rules and ethical principles of good scientific practice.

The paper has yet to be cited, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

We reached Howard, who told us that she found the paper by chance:

I needed to find one of my articles on Pubmed but instead of searching with “Howard ST” and including a word from the title, I just used my name. There is a chemist named ST Howard so I am used to seeing his articles on organic chemistry, but this was a biology paper so I thought “great, there’s another ST Howard on Pubmed”. I clicked the link to the abstract and then saw it was another Susan Howard.  I then clinked the link to the paper, saw my institution, and realized  that she was in fact me so I contacted the editor.

Howard said she learned that a “third party,” someone not listed among the authors, had evidently put her name on the manuscript.

I did not know the third party and no one here remembered him. From the long convoluted trail of emails between the editor, the researchers, third party, and me, it seems he attended one of my seminars here, thought I communicated well, and so told his friends in China that he would ask me to revise the grammar in their paper for them. However, third party made the changes himself and sent it to them saying I had done it. He confessed that he had not had time to contact me about it.

I had not wanted the paper to be retracted. I simply wanted my name removed from it. However, I believe the editor had no choice as the rules for submitting a paper had been violated (i.e. all authors agree to content, etc.) and because there was no way to be sure whether my coauthorship had  influenced the reviewers (although the subject is not my area of expertise).

I requested that the authors be allowed to resubmit their paper but I do not know what was decided. In fact, all of this took place nearly two years ago and I thought the matter had been dropped until I saw the retraction earlier this month (I now frequently check to see if I have authored other papers I don’t know about).

14 thoughts on “One-too-many authors scuttles paper on mouse metabolism”

  1. I think the Chinese authors felt they needed a Westerner as a co-author to increase the chances of their manuscript being accepted for publication. Howard somehow alludes to this by saying that “there was no way to be sure whether my coauthorship had influenced the reviewers”. This should not be even remotely possible as manuscripts should be evaluated on merit only. But if the Chinese felt they had been discriminated against before, then this might be a serious problem for scientific journals. Notwithstanding, making some random person a senior author on one’s manuscript is an overkill.

    1. If anyone thinks that “this should not be even remotely possible” and that all manuscripts are evaluated on their novelty and merit alone, then I am afraid they’ll be in for quite a rude awakening should they ever submit a manuscript for peer review…

      Redaction of authorship identity prior to review by referees has been an idea in circulation to improve the review process for quite a while now.

  2. “…whether my coauthorship had influenced the reviewers” . This comment seems to say a lot about the review process in that field.

        I myself have had one case of a double blind review (or rather, me accepting to review without knowing the authors), which I then had to give back because I had extensively published with two of the authors, and had helped the first author with the equipment she used.
        And on at least two occasions I was very happy to know the names of the authors, because it prevented me from having to repeat a prior criticism they had received from me. I just referred to the prior criticism, saved me a few hours of pointing out all the errors.
        Not to mention the few times I found the authors had done very similar work before, without citing those papers. Not quite duplication, but close enough for discomfort.

        1. Perhaps my sub-field is unusual, but I think it would be impossible to effectively double-blind papers within it. There are generally only a handful of suspects who might have written any given paper, and once one learns their writing style, it’s easy to spot the main author. It is even difficult for reviews to be anonymous–there are also only a handful of suspects. I had the unpleasant experience of being cornered in my lab by someone who had guessed, correctly, that I was a reviewer on their grant and wanted to give me grief over it. (I subsequently refuse to review any of their work as I don’t think I could judge it on its merits.)

  3. A tangentially-related ethical question: Does helping researchers with the grammar and syntax of their paper merit inclusion as an author? I am of the opinion that it does not.

    1. It does not: and I speak as someone who has done this a lot. The appropriate response (if one is required at all) is a line in the acknowledgements for “reading and helpful comments” or similar phrasing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.