The first author of a scientific journal article should ensure the integrity of all of the content in a research paper, researchers suggested May 2 in PLOS One.
Katrin Hussinger and Maikel Pellens of Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium analyzed 80 misconduct cases investigated by the US Office of Research Integrity and found that a paper’s first author is 38 percent more likely to be found responsible for misconduct than the paper’s middle authors. Senior authors, usually listed last, were no more likely than any other to have acted inappropriately. Corresponding authors, typically the first or senior author or sometimes another coauthor, had a 14 percent higher chance of committing misconduct than middle authors.
“These findings suggest that a guarantor-like model where first authors are ex-ante accountable for misconduct is highly likely to not miss catching the author responsible, while not afflicting too many bystanders,” the researchers write.
Not everyone agrees with tasking the first author to carry the responsibility. “The rationale suggested [here], that the author roles that are statistically more likely to be responsible for misconduct should for that reason always be held accountable is illogical and non-tenable,” Daniele Fanelli, a researcher at the London School of Economics, tells Chemistry World. “Only whoever has knowingly lied, cheated or stolen should be punished.” Fanelli adds that “a co-author, no matter how vigilant, could be easily fooled by a dishonest collaborator, and holding someone accountable for the misconduct of another is ethically and legally untenable.”
Hussinger and Pellens’s model is perhaps the best option, Jeffrey Kovac, a physical chemist and research ethicist at the University of Tennessee, tells Chemistry World, but it has weaknesses. The guarantor could take the fall for collaborators who commit misconduct “that isn’t easy to detect,” he says. “In cases of alleged scientific misconduct it is important to investigate the entire teams to find out who is responsible.”