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Fraudulent Authorial Credit Is Growing, Troubling Issue

Jan 1, 2019

This hypothetical is derived from an investigation of scientific misconduct reported in the December 2014 online issue of Scientific American. While to date, ASCE has never received a complaint of this nature, journals across the spectrum of scientific, technical, and medical publishers have acknowledged this type of activity as a growing problem.



A reader contacts a staff member in ASCE's publications department regarding a paper that had recently been published in one of the Society's most prominent journals. The reader claims that, some months earlier, he had received an email from the paper's corresponding author with a surprising offer: the chance to be added as an author on an academic paper in exchange for a payment of several hundred dollars. The reader forwards to the staff member a copy of the writer's purported email, in which the author identifies a handful of papers available for sale. This list includes the paper published by ASCE. As part of his sales pitch, the author states that each of the enumerated papers is nearing final acceptance in one of the field's most respected journals and expresses confidence that accepting this transaction would advance the reader's career path while allowing him to devote more time to his other academic pursuits.

Upon review of the Society's author database, the staff member discovers that the paper's author has had not one paper but three published by an ASCE journal in recent years. The staff member collects all the correspondence related to the published papers, hoping to determine whether any irregularities in the papers' reviews might support or refute the reader's claim. To the staff member's dismay, her closer scrutiny reveals a number of red flags that had gone unnoticed during the original peer reviews.

In each paper, the list of authors had undergone significant change following the initial submission--with as many as five additional authors being added in the revision process. Two of the three papers included the addition of a new lead author, a position that is typically the most valuable in terms of academic publishing, as it signifies the individual who has made the greatest contribution to the preparation and development of the paper.

Even more troubling, a comparison of the text of the three papers' original and final iterations reveals several instances of changes to people, places, and similar details, with no obvious explanation for the changes. A statement in one paper that the corresponding author had developed the experimental model was replaced with language assigning credit for that contribution to one of the new authors. In another paper, the name of the laboratory in which testing occurred had been changed to one in the new lead author's home country.

Following the department's procedure for investigating potential misconduct, the staff member contacts the corresponding author to request an explanation for the changes in the papers' author lists and other information. The author responds by claiming, somewhat improbably, that his "typist" had made errors in the original submissions, which were then corrected in the revision process.


If the people identified as authors on the suspicious papers were ASCE members, would their conduct in buying or selling authorship credit violate the ASCE Code of Ethics?


While ethics and the law often go hand in hand, this hypothetical situation represents a scenario in which analysis of the facts from legal and ethical angles results in widely different assessments. From a legal perspective, intellectual property may be bought or sold in much the same manner as a piece of real estate or other tangible property, and the law offers no judgment of an individual who claims ownership of a piece of intellectual property by purchase rather than by creation.

From an ethical viewpoint, however, the concept of "ownership" is secondary to the concept of "credit," with the latter term designating the person or persons whose ideas, analyses, and efforts are embodied in the work. Unlike ownership, credit cannot be transferred by gift, rental, or sale, and anyone who acquires a work by such means does so subject to an ethical obligation to acknowledge the work's source. Guideline e under Fundamental Canon 5 of the ASCE Code of Ethics states, "Engineers shall give proper credit for engineering work to those to whom credit is due," and a necessary corollary to that language is the premise that engineers must not accept credit where it is not due- even with the knowledge or permission of the original creator. For this reason, any ASCE member who falsely accepts authorship credit of a published paper is likely to have violated this ethical guideline.

Furthermore, guideline e's language on proper credit is supplementary to the broader stricture of Canon 5 itself, which states: "Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others." Despite the sometimes troubling aspects of academia's "publish or perish" environment, the fact remains that employment, promotion, and tenure decisions in academia are often based heavily on an individual's publication record-meaning that authorial credit is of critical importance to an academician's professional career. Given this fact, an individual who obtains such credit not through his/her own efforts but rather by paying others for their work may be said to have gained an unfair advantage in the marketplace for academic advancement, which is in violation of Canon 5.

In addition, an investigation of the ethical implications of this conduct would not stop with Canon 5. The published papers bore numerous examples of untruthfulness, including the suspicious addition of new authors and the unexplained changes to factual details in the three papers. If it was determined that the purported coauthors knowingly included false information in these academic papers, this conduct would likely violate guideline b under Fundamental Canon 3: "Engineers shall be objective and truthful in professional reports, statements, or testimony."

Finally, to the extent that anyone who buys or sells authorship for a scholarly work may be said to have colluded in a scheme to deceive the journal's editors and readers, professional colleagues, and others, this conduct is also likely to have violated guideline a under Canon 6, which requires that "Engineers shall not knowingly engage in business or professional practices of a fraudulent, dishonest, or unethical nature."

While this scenario represents an extreme, and therefore uncommon, act of publishing misconduct, it is unfortunately more common for engineering researchers to make wellintentioned, or even unknowing, abuses of authorial credit. Publishers may differ on the specific language of what "authorship" entails, but common definitions typically include a substantial contribution to the design of the work or the analysis of data, review of the final submission, and a willingness to be accountable for the integrity and accuracy of the completed work. Researchers who are unsure whether a colleague's contribution merits inclusion as an author or those who offer authorship as a gesture of gratitude to someone who offered advice or other support may inadvertently run afoul of Canon 5's requirements. Researchers seeking to avoid an ethical misstep may find it helpful to review questions of authorship directly with a publisher or to consult with colleagues who have more experience in the scientific publishing arena.


Tara Hoke is ASCE's general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.

© ASCE, Civil Engineering , January 2019