Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Promoting Scientific Standards" in journal authorship

"Promoting Scientific Standards" is the title of an editorial in tje January 1 issue of the journal Science. Editor Bruce Alberts discusses two principles that are being emphasized by the major science journals (Science, Nature, PNAS). Although they are phrased in terms of research done by laboratory teams, they are both relevant to archaeological publishing.

1. To discourage "honorary authorships." This refers to the practice of adding an author's name to a paper when the person made little contribution to the actual paper. For some time now, these journals have required jointly-authored articles to include an indication of the specific contributions of each author. The idea here is to avoid cases where someone, say the lab director, gets his or her name on all papers from the lab, regardless of whether they participated directly in the research tasks and the write-up.

I'm sure that you recognize this phenomenon in archaeology. We have all heard of projects where the project director seems to get his or her name on most or all papers from a large project. Students complain that they aren't allowed to publish single-author papers. All publications from a project come out with a single party-line view. I won't name any names here, but clearly some colleagues engage in this practice. In my case, I sometimes have the opposite problem: getting students on my projects to write up and publish their results. In these cases I couldn't get many "honorary authorships" even if I wanted!

2. To "require that the senior author for each laboratory or group confirm that he or she has personally reviewed the original data generated by the unit..." This aims to cut down on errors and even cases of scientific fraud by having the director take some responsibility for the results coming out of his or her project. This is almost the inverse of the first principle. It is aimed at reducing the chances that loose-cannon subordinate project members will go off and publish things that are invalid or incorrect. Again, there are archaeological parallels.

I recall an episode during grad school when Professor A came stomping into the office of Professor B (where I happened to be at the time) and demanded to know why a certain low-quality article (with a number of errors and problems), based on Professor B's fieldwork project, had been accepted and published in American Antiquity. Why did Professor B permit such a thing? This was a case of a renegade subordinate project member (a graduate student at a different institution) ignoring relevant project data and thus coming to erroneous conclusions based on a small and limited set of fieldwork data. I don't think Professor B knew about the publication in advance. The result was that faulty interpretations made it into print, and it took several years before the errors could be corrected.

(You may wonder why Professor A was so incensed; he had nothing to do with the project or the data or the personnel involved. But some of you will be able to guess who I am talking about and will not be at all puzzled at all by this strange behavior. Actually, I wish we had more scholars like Professor A around, although perhaps not in my own department!)

With so much poor quality work being published in archaeology, it is important to do what we can to maintain high standards. The guidelines being promoted by Science, Nature, PNAS, and other science journals are relevant to our field, and we should work to make them part of our disciplinary culture.


Mark Hilverda said...

These are two very important principles that surprisingly are not always followed in many disciplines. The entire peer review process can also sometimes be undermined when reviewers may second guess themselves due to the stature of one of the primary authors. Ultimately it would be nice to not have to choose between minimal publications (as some archaeologists have unfortunately practiced) vs. error-prone publications. A balance of timely publication with proper, supportive review mechanisms may be difficult to consistently achieve in some areas, but definitely worth the pursuit. This is particularly true in archaeology where in situ site data is only obtainable one time. There is no going back to try again once that portion of a site has been excavated.

Hans said...

There's a related article just published in PLoS Medicine (Lecasse and Leo, 2010) on the practice of "ghostwriting" in the medical literature. This takes the issue of inappropriate authorship from dishonest to dangerous. These ghostwritten articles are attributed to big-name researchers when they are written by drug companies.

As the article notes, this practice is something we don't tolerate from students. That it became an acceptable professional practice (at least to some) is astonishing.

Lecasse, JR and J Leo. 2010. Ghostwriting at Elite Medical Centers in the United States. PLoS Medicine 7: e1000230. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000230

Michael E. Smith said...

Hans- Wow, the ghostwriting issue is scary indeed. If a student in a class did this, it would be plagiarism, leading to sanctions (if caught). But when professional scientists do this, it can have serious health consequences for thousands of people; yet the practice is not banned by their employers.