The Responsibilities of Authorship

The recent BMJ article reporting that a 1998 study linking MMR vaccine and autism was an elaborate fraud brings to mind how important issues of authorship are, particularly responsibility. Aside from the lessons about good science and conflicts of interest, there are important lessons about authorship to be taken from this situation as well. (See How the case against the MMR vaccine was fixed by Brian Deer published online January 5, 2011 in BMJ

The study in question was published in Lancet in 1998 and was retracted in early 2010.  After publication the findings were interpreted as showing a link between MMR vaccine and autism and many parents refused to vaccinate their children, leading to serious public health consequences. There were 13 authors on the paper; 10 of them retracted the interpretation in a statement in Lancet in 2004. The senior scientific investigator and lead author, A.J. Wakefield, never retracted anything. (According to the BMJ article he was removed from the medical registrar.)

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) lists three criteria for authorship: 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data or analysis and interpretation of data, 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content, and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Potential authors have to meet all three criteria to be credited with authorship.

All of the authors who retracted the interpretation were involved in the data collection. In the BMJ article, Wakefield is quoted as saying that the other authors “generated and ‘prepared’ all the data” and he put it in tables and “narrative form for the purpose of submission for publication.”

Were the other authors involved in writing or revising the article for publication as required by the ICMJE criteria? How closely did they read the manuscript before it was submitted? Did these authors take the time to carefully review this manuscript before they signed off on final approval of it? And, once it became clear that the message being heard by the public was the wrong one, why did it take six years for these authors to retract the interpretation?

As authors we cannot always control reactions to what we write, sometimes information is misinterpreted or purposely misused to send a message we never intended. However, it is our responsibility to pay attention to how our work is being presented and our words are being used. And if you are listed as an author on a paper – they are your words, whether you actually wrote them or not.

Authors must take seriously the expectation that they meet all three of the ICMJE criteria for authorship and the responsibility that comes with them. Being an author doesn’t mean just taking credit for an article – it means taking responsibility for it too.

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