Scientific Authorship and the Autism/Vaccinations Scandal

If you haven’t been tent-camping in the steppes of Kazakhstan for a few weeks, you’ve heard by now that the so-called “research” linking common childhood vaccines to autism is totally worthless garbage.

The first page of the Lancet paper can be found here. Sounds familiar? It should. Breathless mass-media publicity of this phony study left millions of parents around the globe aflutter with ultimately unfounded paranoia that their kids would be mired in the darkest catacombs of autism at the hands of heretofore innocuous inoculations. Worst, it caused countless children needless suffering and damage.

How was the deception revealed and scuppered? It wasn’t scientific peers, who clearly slacked off the formal review process for which they were responsible (otherwise this big lie wouldn’t have been published!). Nor was it the manuscript editor, who obviously let this slide through insufficiently thorough oversight. Instead, it took a man outside the science–several years later into a new decade–to expose the big fat fraud. It also goes to show that investigative journalism still can serve a noble purpose, at least when the reporter has more than a meniscus-thin familiarity with the subject at hand (a sadly uncommon condition in scientific reporting, as pointedly discussed by a highly accomplished atmospheric scientist).

Science matters. Excellent science matters more. It therefore troubles me to see science as a whole (even if a completely different specialty than mine) besmirched by the widely publicized and heinous actions of one ethically corrupt medical “researcher”…and as I’ll discuss more, the gross negligence of his co-authors!

Numerous children worldwide have become ill unnecessarily, and some died, as a result of the vendetta-driven agenda of one “scientist” as manifest in a bogus, contrived research paper. That’s the most important impact; and if there’s any criminal and civil law that covers Wakefield et al’s deceptions and outright fabrications, it should be rained down upon them with full shock-and-awe force.

Notice I said “them” and not “him.” Yes, Wakefield (lead author) isn’t the only guilty party. The twelve–that’s right, 12!–listed coauthors (Murch, Anthony, Linnell, Casson, Malik, Berelowitz, Dhillon, Thomson, Harvey, Valentine, Davies, and Walker-Smith), signed off on the work too by agreeing to be listed as such; and they have a direct ethical culpability in this debacle!

In that vein, a strikingly candid and forceful BMJ editorial hammered a fierce blow upon the topic of frivolous co-authorship–namely, the responsibilities of co-authors in the manuscript-composition process:

    There are hard lessons for many in this highly damaging saga. Firstly, for the coauthors. The GMC panel was clear that it was Wakefield alone who wrote the final version of the paper. His coauthors seem to have been unaware of what he was doing under the cover of their names and reputations. As the GMC panel heard, they did not even know which child was which in the paper’s patient anonymised text and tables. However, this does not absolve them. Although only two (John Walker-Smith and Simon Murch) were charged by the GMC, and only one, the paper’s senior author Walker-Smith, was found guilty of misconduct, they all failed in their duties as authors. The satisfaction of adding to one’s CV must never detract from the responsibility to ensure that one has been neither party to nor duped by a fraud. This means that coauthors will have to check the source data of studies more thoroughly than many do at present—or alternatively describe in a contributor’s statement precisely which bits of the source data they take responsibility for.

Damn right, “they all failed in their duties as authors.” This is a sore spot, a pet peeve, a topic about which I’ve written before. Frivolous and excessive authorship is a festering carbuncle inside the underwear of science, and this incident shows one major reason for that.

The cold truth: Every single person listed as a co-author is responsible for everything in a paper, by virtue of his or her name appearing there! If anything is fraudulent or more than trivially erroneous anywhere in a paper, the scientific integrity of every author (not just whichever unrecorded one who actually handled the bad portion) is at stake.

Unsolicited advice for potential paper authors:

1. Don’t be one unless you actually wrote some of the paper or contributed substantive analysis and/or insight.

2. Inform all prospective authors, right at the start, that you expect their substantive contribution to the process all the way through the end of formal reviews.

3. Do you feel political pressure to add an author? Ignore it. Screw politics! Don’t add an author unless he/she actually has contributed substantially to the research or review in some crucial way (writing and editing, data provision and analysis, key insight without which some nontrivial part of the paper is impossible, etc.).

4. If you’re the lead author, clearly implore every single co-author, individually, to proofread the entire paper (not just their contribution) at least once before submission, and during each state of revision.

5. If any “author” hasn’t fulfilled his/her role duly, drop them from the list and move them to the Acknowledgments until and unless that changes for the better. It’s a simple as highlighting and deleting the number of characters in their name and affiliation and pasting them elsewhere–a three-second exercise with mouse and keyboard.

6. Provide all reviews of the paper to all authors, along with your proposed replies, before sending back the revision.

7. If you are a non-lead author, insist on performing a timely, pre-submission review of the paper, do it with a fine-toothed comb, and save a copy of your “internal” review. Your very reputation is on the line! [You should save copies of all reviews you ever do for any manuscript, formal or informal, anyway.]

I’m sure one or more among the many scientists with more experience and education than I, will have even more handy advice; but that should suffice for starters.

[EDIT: One of those more experienced and educated scientists has posted a fine response to this topic, dealing with the issue of trust.]



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