‘Nature’ requires responsible party

Nature announced today that it is modifying its authorship policies for submission to its journals. The two major changes are that one senior author will be required to take “responsibility” for the paper, and that an explicit list of each coauthor’s role in the paper must be submitted.

In a November 2007 editorial, the leadership at Nature suggested that a senior or corresponding author on every paper be required to sign a statement assuring the paper’s integrity. They made the case that:

“Principal investigators traditionally bask in the glory of a well-received paper. We are proposing now that they willingly open themselves to sanctions that could be brought to bear should the paper turn out to have major problems.”

In comments received, the scientific community disapproved of this move. Nature has thus instead taken a less drastic, but just as meaningful, step: They are requiring that one senior author name himself the steward of the paper. Duties include preserving paper’s original data, verifying that the figures, images and conclusions accurately reflect the data collected and conform to Nature journal guidelines, and making the materials, data and algorithms easily accessible.

In addition, they are now making mandatory the long-encouraged task of detailing each author’s contributions to a given paper. Because there are no guidelines for authorship within the peer-review world, this new rule is meant to minimize the number of “honorary authorships”, or authorships given to someone for non-scientific reasons, such as prestige of the person’s name. Nature leaves the structure of such lists up to the authors, and so far it looks like they will not contest authors they deem unfit. The move simply makes scientists think twice about who they include on their papers.

The change in terms comes in the wake of a recent rare occurence, the retraction of a Nature paper in which the authors disagree about the validity of the results.

Despite the increased transparency these measures will create, should journals dictate the dealings of authors on a study? Does good old-fashioned trust simply not work anymore?

Nature editors (2009). Authorship policies Nature, 458 (7242), 1078-1078 DOI: 10.1038/4581078a

Author: Christine Buckley

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  1. It rather seems that “good old-fashioned trust” is not the way to run a scientific enterprise. We don’t “trust” that someone’s results are valid without some degree of documentation within a journal article itself, and the assumption that more extensive experimental data/documentation may be available. We don’t “trust” (or shouldn’t) that people have zero conflicts of interest, unless it is so declared (and even then it’s no sure thing). Journals certainly should take some steps in reforming authorship, including verifying possible conflicts of interest or lacks thereof. And we certainly *know* that honorary authorship happens, at the least, not uncommonly. Old-fashioned trust is great, but within science, nowhere is the phrase “trust, but verify” more pertinent.

  2. But surely, if you’re relying on “the assumption that more extensive experimental data/documentation may be available”, that assumption is itself trust.

    Ultimately, unless you’re going to repeat every single experiment you ever read about, you have to place a certain amount of trust in other people. Even if you ask for the raw data, synthesising some would take only a few minutes with a computer.

    The most high profile and controversial science will be replicated. After all, that’s where people are most likely to lie. But 99% of the time, we have to cite someone’s work and trust them (or the standards of the journal it’s published in).

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