Posts Tagged ‘lead author responsibilities’

Another Nature paper retracted by authors but lead author does not sign retraction

November 9, 2010

Retraction Watch reports on the retraction of a paper at Nature by the authors but where, once again, the lead author does not sign the retraction.

In this case the paper is:

The large-conductance Ca2+-activated K+channel is essential for innate immunity by Jatinder Ahluwalia, Andrew Tinker, Lucie H. Clapp, Michael R. Duchen, Andrey Y. Abramov, Simon Pope, Muriel Nobles & Anthony W. Segal, Nature 427, 853-858 (26 February 2004), doi:10.1038/nature02356; Received 18 July 2003; Accepted 20 January 2004.

The Retraction Notice reads

The authors wish to retract this Letter after the report of an inability to reproduce their results, later confirmed by another. The studies the authors then conducted led to an internal investigation by University College London, please see the accompanying Supplementary Information for details. The retraction has not been signed by Jatinder Ahluwalia.

The lead author is usually the researcher and the last name is usually that of the senior author. There have been a number of such cases recently where the authors retract a paper but where the lead author does not sign the retraction. The inference is that there has been some misconduct or alleged misconduct by the researcher which has been “discovered” by the other authors but where the alleged misconduct is not acknowledged by the lead author. (See the cases of Shane R Mayack and Hung-Shu Chang for example). Just the fact that some data can not be reproduced does not mean that misconduct has occurred. Experimental data can never be perfect. In addition to measurement errors and procedural errors, data may also be subject to errors of interpretation and analysis. In fact the scientific method requires the publication of such data – warts and all – which can then be tested by others and retraction would not be necessary or correct merely if different results were obtained later. Erroneous data does not have to be – and should not be – deleted from the record. A retraction – and especially by a multiplicity of contributing authors but not the lead author  – carries a strong inference of misconduct.

This raises once again the question of roles and responsibilities between the different contributing authors, the reviewers and the journal editor for a published paper. Perhaps the number of retractions is at an “acceptable” level, but I am sure that the number of retractions must follow the “Iceberg Principle” and what is finally made visible can only be the tip of what must be there. The senior author must bear some responsibility and have some accountability for such events.

It seems to me that senior authors (as supervisors of the research reported) get away too lightly and merely pass the responsibility onto the researcher’s failings or his misconduct. They abdicate their responsibility for quality and integrity rather too easily. I would like to see a statement by the senior author whenever such a retraction is made “at the request of the authors”.

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