Should papers be retracted if one of the authors is a total asshole?

no cursing
Image via Chris James.

When science writer Vito Tartamella noticed a physics paper co-authored by Stronzo Bestiale (which means “total asshole” in Italian) he did what anyone who’s written a book on surnames would do: He looked it up in the phonebook.

What he found was a lot more complicated than a funny name.

It turns out Stronzo Bestiale doesn’t exist.

In 1987, Lawrence Livermore National Lab physicist William G. Hoover had a paper on molecular dynamics rejected by two journals: Physical Review Letters and the Journal of Statistical Physics. So he added Stronzo Bestiale to the list of co-authors, changed the name, and resubmitted the paper. The Journal of Statistical Physics accepted it.

27 years later, Bestiale is still listed as co-author on several papers. He also has a Scopus profile that lists him as an active researcher at the Institute of Experimental Physics, University of Vienna.

This isn’t the first time a scientist has added a fictional co-author to a paper to make a point. In 1978, Polly Matzinger added her impeccably-named Afghan hound, Galadriel Mirkwood, to a Journal of Experimental Medicine paper to protest the use of passive voice in scientific papers.

Hilarious as these examples are, it does prove a point that’s a little less fun: The scientific community needs to be on its toes about who (or what) is writing the papers they publish, to help keep merde out of the literature.

Hat tip: Fabio Turone (who inspired our tongue-in-cheek headline, too)

34 thoughts on “Should papers be retracted if one of the authors is a total asshole?”

    1. A toy rabbit is the junio author of (sorry, the paper beyond a paywall). Read its bio at the end of the paper.

  1. Retraction is for flawed or fake data and plagiarism. In such cases of joke authors on an otherwise solid paper, a Corrigendum would be appropriate. Till then, long live Stronzo Bestiale!

  2. A couple of examples from my lab…

    1) We submitted an abstract about hypoxia for an SFRBM conference a few years ago, and added the author “Ann Oksea” for fun. I pointed it out in a lecture I gave at the meeting, highlighting the student’s poster. Nobody seemed to mind.

    2) Same meeting, different year, one of my students (A) put another student (B)’ s mom in the acknowledgement section of his poster. When student B saw it and said “hey, that’s my mom!” student A just smiled and said “ooooh yeah!”

    Nowadays, such puerile activities are beyond us.
    Well, unless you count this one from last year…

      1. I think this is one of the most amazing things I have seen this week.
        Did all co-authors know before submission of the paper?

  3. Given that the paper was accepted after only a change in authorship and title, surely the ‘less fun’ point is that something is wrong with the review process?

  4. While this is funny, there is a serious point to be made about guest and ghost authorships, either as favours or purchased.

  5. It is how you choose “peers” for the “peer review” which intrigues.
    But presumably there enough “total assholes” around?

  6. I think it’s important to differentiate between issues that threaten the validity of research and those that do not. Inventing a name — apparently as a joke — hardly does any damage. It would be different if it was the name of a famous researcher added to a paper (without this person’s knowledge or contribution) in an attempt to improve the chances of acceptance. But while many researchers probably think about real people when they hear that one of the authors is a “total asshole”, it doesn’t necessarily bolster the chances of success.

    Personally I enjoy the occasional humor or inside-joke in science, whether it’s such an author name or papers like “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of “Writer’s Block” by Upper (1974). Being able to laugh about one’s discipline and oneself, while taking the work itself seriously, is probably very healthy — for the person and for science.

      1. I honestly fail to see the humor in this issue. If we were having a chat over a couple of beers, sure. But we are talking about scientific papers that supposedly passed through some sort of editorial quality control and peer review. Not only does this indicate deception by the remaining author(s), but it also indicates a sick sense of humor. Let’s be clear, there is nothing acceptable, humorous or ethical about adding a false author to a paper, much less one with a crass name. It is not only insulting to the institution of science, it is making mockery of the very peer review that we are desperately seeking to improve. I believe that any paper that has included a false author, a non-existent author or a guest author share the same level of lack of ethics. Plain, and simple. Such papers should be retracted, without discussion, to send a strong and clear message: go play your jokes elsewhere, but not in a scientific paper. The inclusion of such authors is as despicable as John Bohannon’s use of extremely unethical behavior, namely the use of false names, false emails and false institutional addresses, all in the name of a “sting operation”. While members of the scientific community are lauded for such unethical behavior, and while such non-existent authors are in fact allowed to remain in papers, including the names of pets or possibly even inanimate objects, we can confidently say that the literature is corrupted because the sense of values is corrupted.

  7. Do not forget the immortal Professor Richard Bachmer Turner – the non-existent source of any quote somebody just made up. His non-existent published works include “The Uncertainty Principle” and “Peasants in Revolt”.

  8. Reblogged this on Science Itches and commented:
    This post from Retraction Watch has made me laugh out loud. For a Friday evening that says a lot.
    Quoting them and in total agreement… “The scientific community needs to be on its toes about who (or what) is writing the papers they publish, to help keep merde out of the literature”.

  9. “Should papers be retracted if one of the authors is a total asshole?”
    If so, it would mean that I lose all mine.

  10. For very good reasons, authors are free to use pseudonyms for their publications. In some countries this is even a constitotional right. One needs to consider that when stuff like this here is “criticized”.

  11. We once put this is in the Acknowledgements to a review article we wrote: “We thank Melanie Destiny for helping us embark on this project and help with the rough draft…” Melanie was our dog, Destiny was her Kennel name. This was many, many years ago and we would not have tried it today, even though I don’t think there are any formal rules against thanking your dog. In fact, she kept us sane and reduced our stress for many years, important components for protection against fraud.

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