Another weird authorship shenanigan for your consideration

August 26, 2013

This is, vaguely, related to an ongoing argument we have around here with respect to the proper treatment of authors who are listed as contributing “co-equally” to a given published paper. My position is that if we are to take this seriously, then it is perfectly fine* for the person listed second, third or eighth in the list of allegedly equal contributors to re-order the list on his or her CV. When I say this, my dear friend and ex-coblogger Comrade PhysioProffe loses his marbles and rants about how it is falsifying the AcademicRecord to do so. This plays into the story I have for you.

Up for your consideration today is an obscure paper on muramyl peptides and sleep (80 PubMed hits).

I ran across Muramyl peptides and the functions of sleep authored by one Richard Brown from The University of Newcastle in what appears to be a special issue of Behavioural Brain Research on The Function of Sleep (Volume 69, Issues 1–2, July–August 1995, Pages 85–90). The Preface to the issue indicates these Research Reports (on the original PDFs; termed Original Research Article on the online issue list; remember that now) arise from The Ravello Symposium on ‘The Function of Sleep’ held May 28-31, 1994.

So far so good. I actually ran across this article by clicking on an Addendum in the Jan 1997 issue. This Addendum indicates:

In the above paper an acknowledgement of unpublished data was omitted from the text during preparation. This omission could affect the future publication of the full set of data. Thus the author, Dr. Richard Brown, has agreed to share the authorship of the paper with the following persons: J. Andren, K. Andrews, L. Brown, J. Chidgey, N. Geary, M.G. King and T.K. Roberts.

So I tried to Pubmed Brown R and a few of the co-authors to see if there was any subsequent publication of the “full set of data” and….nothing. Hmmm. Not even the original offending article? So I looked for Brown R and sleep, muramyl, etc. Nada. Wow, well maybe for some reason the journal wasn’t indexed? No, because the first other article I looked for was there. Ok, weird. Next I searched for the journal date and month. Fascinatingly, PubMed lists these as “Review”. When the print PDFs say “Research Report” and the journal’s online materials list them as “Original Research Articles”.

But it gets better….scanning down the screen and …..Whoa!

Behav Brain Res. 1995 Jul-Aug;69(1-2):85-90. Muramyl peptides and the functions of sleep. Andren J, Andrews K, Brown L, Chidgey J, Geary N, King MG, Roberts TK. Department of Psychology, University of Newcastle, Australia.

Now this Richard Brown guy has been disappeared altogether from the author line! Without any obvious indication of this on the ScienceDirect access to the journal issue or article.

The PubMed record indicates there is an Erratum in Behav Brain Res 1997 Jan;82(2):245, but this is the Addendum I quoted above. Searching ScienceDirect for “muramyl peptides pulls up the original article and Addendum but no further indication of Erratum or correction or retraction.

Wow. So speaking to PP’s usual point about falsifying the academic record, this whole thing has been a clusterbork of re-arranging the “academic record”.

Moving along, the Web of Science indicates that the original, credited solely to Brown has been cited 9 times. First by the Addendum and then 8 more times after the correction…including one in 2011 and one in 2012. Who knows when the PubMed record was changed but clearly the original Addendum indicating credit should be shared was ignored by ISI and these citing authors alike.

The new version, with the R. Brown-less author line, has been cited 4 times. There are ones published in Jan 2008 and Sept 2008 and they indeed cite the R. Brown-less author list. So the two and possibly three most-recent citations of the R. Brown version have minimal excuse.

Okay, okay, obviously one would have to have done a recent database search for the article (perhaps with a reference management software tool) to figure out there was something wrong. But even so, who the heck would try to figure out why EndNote wasn’t finding it rather than just typing this single-author reference in by hand. After all, the pdf is right there in front of you…..clearly the damn thing exists.

This is quite possibly the weirdest thing I’ve seen yet. There must have been some determination of fraud or something to justify altering the Medline/PubMed record, right? There must have been some buyin from the journal Publisher (Elsevier) that this was the right thing to do.

So why didn’t they bother to fix their ScienceDirect listing and the actual PDF itself with some sort of indication as to what occurred and why these folks were given author credit and why Richard Brown was removed entirely?


*The fact that nobody seems to agree with me points to the fact that nobody really views these as equal contributions one little bit.

h/t: EvilMonkey who used to blog at Neurotopia.


22 Responses to “Another weird authorship shenanigan for your consideration”

  1. Dave Says:

    I only have one co-first (I’m the second listed) and I agree with you that if it was truly a equal contribution then in theory one should be able to just switch out the authors on a CV. However, I honestly don’t think most of these papers represent true equal contribution. Mine certainly did not!!!!! It was the last study I did as a PhD student and I never analyzed any of the samples or had anything to do with writing the paper two years later. I had moved on and had left the country.

    But the point is that the first, first-author is listed first FOR A REASON. Either they finished it off, added a key piece of data, led the study from start to finish etc. That should not be changed on anybodies CV.


  2. AcademicLurker Says:

    Surely in the era of electronic journals we can arrange to simply randomly re-order the authors every time some one loads a publication into their browser.


  3. bob Says:

    Even if the contribution is totally equal, I’m with CPP. An asterisk next to a name that says equal contribution is not “co-first” as people insist on calling it in conversation. It might be fair in such a situation to flip a coin to see who is listed first, but once it’s there in print, you can’t switch it.

    If you have a paper in “Journal of Embryology and Experimental Morphology” from 1986, do you get to list it as “Development’ on your CV? They’re the same journal after all.


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    Bob, why not?

    This example shows that in some cases the “record” of who did what is changed ENTIRELY.

    AL raised an argument that I am fond of which is why not randomly resort the authors on every PDF load?

    If a journal formally changes name, why not? (of course if you are doing that, you have to list the IF of the journal as it was when your paper was *accepted* because of course you wouldn’t want anyone getting confused….)


  5. Alex Says:

    I have a project where it was so hard to figure out which student deserved first more that we did an asterisk co-first thing.

    But, we are on track to get another paper out of this project, with a similarly collaborative effort between the students, and that second paper will be another co-first with the order reversed. It isn’t perfect, but it will at least give both of the students a paper with their name in the first position.


  6. Dave Fernig Says:

    Shared authorship has its place and, as Alex states, is the right thing to do when students and postdocs have had an equal input. As for Dave’s honest comment, perhaps he has overlooked something important: discovery. So maybe he made the discovery, but someone else did the leg legwork. If this is the case, then her deserves shred authorship and his supervisor in my opinion did the right thing.
    Of course, none of this would matter if hiring committees did they work properly, rather than simply relying on journal name and/or impact factor to judge candidates. Asking a candidate a few questions about the the methods on a paper will sort out the guest author from the author who actually understands the paper!


  7. Dave Says:

    To clarify, I would say that I did all the grunt work for the study in question. Recruited patients, ran the study, collected samples etc. But there was certainly more analytical work that needed to be done to make it a paper and I was physically not around to do it. That is where the other person came in to the pic and completed the story. I never felt like I was an equal contributor, but I guess my old adviser did. I never count it as a “first-author” myself, but it is marked on my NIH biosketch and, interestingly, I have noticed that the K-grant review panel bean-counters vary in terms of whether they count it as a first or not. Surprisingly most seem to!!!


  8. DrugMonkey Says:

    Dudes! Disappearing author! Get with the program here


  9. Dave Says:

    Maybe Brown R is now Brown L. Mystery solved.


  10. DrugMonkey Says:

    Brown L was in the Addendum


  11. DrugMonkey Says:

    FFS, I feel like Mrs. McCabe.


  12. sciwo Says:

    Maybe Brown R died and they didn’t want to include him/her without having his/her specific authorization to publish the latter paper.


  13. anonymous postdoc Says:

    Maybe Brown R died…OF MURDER.


  14. Eli Rabett Says:

    Eli is with A. postdoc. Brown may have “borrowed” the data, but they didn’t want the agony.


  15. becca Says:

    Maybe Richard became Lisa, and she wanted this paper to follow her when she transitioned, but didn’t want to try to fit all of this explanation into the addendum.


  16. Dave Says:

    Just email Brown R and ask him/her. I believe the email address is


  17. DJMH Says:

    Obviously this is where multiple personality disorder made its presence known…and R Brown caved to the Voices.


  18. DrugMonkey Says:

    I can’t believe you people don’t think this is weird!


  19. Dave Says:

    OK, this is getting weirder.

    Brown R is a powerlifter:


  20. odyssey Says:

    I think it’s weird. Feel better now DM?


  21. dsks Says:

    That is so weird it reminds me this scene from Twin Town.


  22. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Dude, I think you’re weird.


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