Academic Scandal of the Month

by Site Author

For political scientists, the past three weeks have been consumed by scandal. Ten days ago, it came to light that results published in the journal Science had been entirely fabricated by the study’s junior author, Michael Lacour, a graduate student at UCLA. Two days ago, Science retracted the paper. The study’s senior co-author, Donald Green, a top political scientist at Columbia University, had to initiate the retraction. And to date, Lacour is still arguing that he did not fabricate the data.

It is rare for academic scandals to get this much attention. All major American news outlets have covered the story. Each new development—the initial breaking of the story by Retraction Watch, the actual retraction by Science, Lacour’s response—have been front-page news. There is something incredibly compelling, it seems, about watching a liar get caught.

The case has also raised all sorts of questions regarding the process that led fraudulent results to be published in a prestigious journal. Is the peer-review system broken? Are researchers insufficiently skeptical of surprising findings? Should published data be more carefully vetted?

But there’s one aspect of the entire scandal that deserves much more attention. The scandal is not so much about a young graduate student lying, as about a senior co-author adding his name to the paper without doing any of the work. It is the norm that junior authors shoulder more of the burden than senior authors, but, in this case, the disparity is extreme. From Green’s perspective at the time, Lacour handled all of the paper’s funding, the data collection, and the data analysis. Green’s only job was to fire up Microsoft Word and help out with the prose. And for that he got his name on the paper?

That dynamic reminds me of another famous retraction. In 1998, The Lancet published a paper hypothesizing a link between autism and vaccination. The paper was garbage, and by 2010, The Lancet had fully retracted it. There were 14 co-authors on that paper, and by 2004, 10 of the 14 co-authors had disowned it. Which leads me to ask how those 10 researchers happily put their names on the paper in the first place. Is the prospect of publishing in The Lancet so alluring that actually believing the paper’s results is not a requisite for authorship?

All of this suggests that standards over authorship need to change. In both cases, otherwise-respectable researchers were listed as authors without having done much work. And when the papers proved controversial, the authors suddenly disavowed the results. That’s not how publication is supposed to work.

In a perfect world, there would be no fraud in research. Ideally, Michael Lacour and the lead author of The Lancet study would not have lied the way that they did. But in a slightly less perfect world, their co-authors would have done more than simply slap their names on the paper, acting like athletes endorsing a pair of sneakers. Authorship ought to be a privilege only given to those who have done a fair share of the work.