A high level of ethical and professional consciousness - not knowledge of legal paragraphs - is essential for researchers” credibility and impact in the society
Jon Sudbø”s fabrication of research data has shaken the medical community and impaired the faith in Norwegian medical research. The extent of this matter is not yet known. What we do know is that it has already caused much adverse commotion. Confidence in research being built on the highest ethical standards has diminished and confidence in the quality control performed by medical journals has been weakened. One is no longer sure that those who say they have conducted the research will still say so when subjected to pressure.
The matter is serious and difficult. It has been further complicated by the fact that many concepts that should not be difficult have become problematic. What does it mean to be the author of an article? For most people this is not difficult to answer. I asked an 11-year-old girl I know about who she meant could put their name on group work done at school. She looked at me with a puzzled expression - how stupid was I? - and answered that it was of course those who had contributed who could put their name down. Journalists likewise do not question who can put their name on an article - but they do doubt whether the same rules apply to researchers. The commentator Peter Normann Waage wrote in Aftenposten (the major Norwegian newspaper) 31.01.2006: “The system with co-authors, revealed for us common mortals during the Sudbø fraud, strengthens the suspicion that so-called “research” might as well be a conspiracy within some kind of sect or group of friends. Actually, they do not have to be especially good friends. In the debate that has followed, one speaks about “return of favours” when it comes to co-authorship.”
It is correct that in some research environments, including the medical community, it has been discussed which criteria should be met in order to qualify as an author of a scientific article and which ones should qualify for co-authorship. There was in fact so much discussion and uncertainty about this that the medical-scientific journals felt a need to develop guidelines, so there could be no doubt about what the journals - and writers, readers and the general public - could relate to. This necessarily had to be written down. They are the so-called Vancouver guidelines (1).
The Journal”s last editor, Magne Nylenna, contributed substantially to this work. He especially engaged himself in the question about co-authorship. In 2000 the Vancouver group”s criteria for co-authorship were even more emphasized. Nylenna then wrote in an editorial in the Journal (2): “There are at least two reasons for having consistent rules for co-authorship: Our responsibility towards readers have as a prerequisite that the author(s) can vouch for the message presented. In more than one instance of scientific unaccountability authors have tried to back out of this responsibility by stating that they did not know what had happened and that they did not have an important role in writing the article (3). Authorship has developed into a system of merit for researchers, and different requirements for co-authorship give an incorrect and unjust foundation for comparisons (4). And further: “If scientific authorship shall still have a value; editors, assessment committees, academic institutions and researchers should together show that it is possible to acknowledge mutual guidelines”. Nylenna also participated in the Vancouver group in 2001 when the section on publication ethics was revised and strengthened (5).
There is therefore no doubt about the attitude this Journal and journals who comply with the Vancouver guidelines have about authorship and co-authorship. There is likewise no doubt about what researchers who wish to publish in such journals oblige themselves to do. In short: The Vancouver guidelines state; Those who write take on a responsibility. Those who wish to share the honour cannot withdraw from the co-responsibility this implies. It does not mean that everyone has contributed equally and it does not mean that co-authors are as guilty as the one who fabricates data. But, it does mean that the surrounding world expects co-authors to have done everything they can to ensure that what they present is correct. This is important, not only because of the reliability of research, but because publication counts when it comes to positions and distribution of money for research. One shall therefore not take the credit for work done by others. It must be the original work - not the fabricated data, copied content or minimal contribution - that counts.
The uncertainties that have arisen around authorship are unfortunate also for another reason: If one shall publish internationally, one must comply with international rules. If the impression should be given that Norwegian researchers do not know about nor wish to comply with international research and publication standards, it will become more difficult for them to publish in the international scientific journals.