The responsibility of co-authors of collaborative academic papers has emerged as a key issue in the wake of the Bell Labs research fraud scandal, writes Steve Farrar.
The independent investigative committee that unearthed evidence of widespread data fabrication by Jan Hendrik Schön at the celebrated US laboratory raised the issue of professional conduct last week.
The five-strong panel cleared Dr Schön's three principal co-authors - Zhenan Bao, Bertram Batlogg and Christian Kloc - of any misconduct after falsified results were found to be at the heart of a host of fundamental advances in nanotechnology. But it asked whether Dr Batlogg, the widely respected leader of Dr Schon's research group and co-author on many of his papers, "took a sufficiently critical stance with regard to the research in question" before explicit doubts were brought to his attention.
It concluded that it was unable to resolve some questions in Dr Batlogg's case "given the absence of a broader consensus on the nature of the responsibilities of participants in collaborative research endeavours".
Co-author responsibility is an "extremely difficult issue, which the scientific community has not considered carefully", the committee noted.
Dr Batlogg, who moved to take a post in Switzerland before the scandal emerged, wrote in an appendix to the committee's report that he had directed probing questions to Dr Schön and had received satisfactory answers.
This week, he acknowledged to The THES that he had a responsibility to ensure the validity of data in co-authored publications and admitted that the measures he had taken to this end had proved insufficient to prevent or uncover scientific misconduct.
"I have placed too much trust in my highly talented collaborator and, in retrospect, scrutinised him inadequately," he said.
"I am deeply disappointed that a gifted colleague allowed himself to give in to data manipulation. As scientists, we naturally assume that our colleagues abide by the rules of the game, work responsibly and with the greatest care, and adhere to the ethical standards."
But John Singleton, a senior scientist at Oxford University who is working in the field, said there was widespread feeling that Dr Schön's co-authors should have been paying more attention to what he was doing.
"If a postdoc of mine was producing such novel results, I would have been in the lab with him that night doing the experiments," Dr Singleton said. "Dr Batlogg seems to have reaped a lot of the glory but taken a very minor supervisory role."
Eugen Tarnow, director of consulting at Avalon Business Systems and author of a report into co-authorship published in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics , said it was common practice for parties not directly involved in research to be named as co-authors.
The THES research-misconduct survey identified another serious case of plagiarism that was missed by senior co-authors.
The editor of the journal concerned that received the paper said the two scientists "allowed their names to be added and committed the sin of not reading the manuscript too carefully, even though one was the thesis adviser and the other was the institute director."