In October 2020, a paper co-authored by a team of researchers at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru was found to have some concerning data soon after its publication. The committee constituted by the parent institute found some evidence of malpractice. A series of inquiries revealed that the first two authors of the paper had altered some crucial data in the paper.

These findings finally led to the retraction of the paper. Since there were some concerns raised about the National Centre for Biological Sciences inquiry, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research Academic Ethics Committee carried out further investigation and arrived at its conclusions recently.

Even though the case is considered to be resolved from the institutional perspective, the incident has raised several questions about the scientific practice that require further deliberation. One of these is the ethical aspects pertaining to the collaborative practice of scientific research.

Multiple scientists and science institutions coming together are indeed complex situations, and as anthropologists and philosophers of science have shown, the processes and pathways of knowledge production involved here are immensely intricate. Carrying out ethical evaluations and arriving at prescriptive suggestions for these is a difficult task, but not attempting that is not an option.

According to a recent study, around 94% of the retracted papers (from Web of Science core collection) in the last three decades (1978 to 2017) were multi-authored, and only about 36% of these papers (4,842 in total) were retracted because they had some error or unreliable result. The rest of the papers were retracted due to ethical misconduct like plagiarism, falsification of data, authorship issues and others.

The statistics and incidents like the National Center For Biological Sciences one raise crucial questions pertaining to the ethics of co-authoring: Who bears the responsibility for misconduct? How to understand the group’s responsibility?

Answering these is not easy and requires sustained engagement from the science community, along with philosophers, sociologists and the public. In this article, I will attempt an initial exploration of some of these in the spirit of initiating such a dialogue.

Only individuals’ responsibility?

Given that a group of individuals come together and share the work in scientific research collaborations, this kind of enterprise has to fundamentally rely on the group’s trust in its members, and the individuals, in turn, bearing the responsibility for their work.

This conception of the group’s constitution and work distribution permits quite a straightforward ethical analysis: if a concern is found in a specific activity, the person responsible for that is ethically accountable. With regard to the National Center For Biological Sciences case, for instance, this mode of thinking seems to have guided the diagnosis carried out by the concerned committees.

Since the first two authors alone are responsible for the manipulation of data, they are held accountable for the ethical misconduct and the principal investigator of the group has to take the “overall responsibility” for this incident since she is the corresponding author of the paper.

The above reasoning has some justification: individuals are definitely responsible, in a specific sense, for their actions. However, I think this understanding is incomplete in the context of science, given that the majority of its work is collaborative.

First of all, science – as a community and as a specific set of practices – has been historically notorious for absolving itself of ethical responsibilities by making only the individuals liable for their actions.

This excuse has manifested itself in various forms: “science is not bad, there are only bad scientists”, “questions of ethics do not apply to science; these are relevant only during its application by people”, and so on. The above line of reasoning also presumes that taking part in scientific activities does not demand any further ethical deliberations other than the ones generally required in society.

Having said that, in the recent past, science has realised that its activities raise unique ethical concerns and research groups, along with the scientific community as a whole, have to bear certain responsibilities. This has led to the adoption of specific practices that factor in necessary ethical aspects at various levels.

For instance, the policies for co-authorship followed by most of the scientific journals structure the co-authors such that collective responsibility is vested with the group apart from its members being ethically liable for their individual contribution. I will elaborate on this as it is relevant for thinking through incidents like this one.

Group of co-authors

What are collaborative research groups? They are formed when certain individuals come together, through a shared consensus, to perform specific research work. Of course, given the complexity of scientific practice, “research work” can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and each of these would demarcate its own group where the members are related to one another in a particular manner.

In the context of the present discussion, we need to understand who all in a collaborative research work gets to be in the group of “co-authors”. Figuring out an answer to this question has not been easy for the community, and the several debates on this have guided the scientific journals to adopt stringent policies about co-authorship. For instance, the journal, where the National Center For Biological Sciences team published its paper, specifies the following criteria for co-authorship:

  1. Each author is expected to have made substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work or the acquisition, analysis or interpretation of data or the creation of new software used in the work or have drafted the work or substantively revised it.
  2. And to have approved the submitted version (and any substantially modified version that involves the author’s contribution to the study).
  3. And to have agreed both to be personally accountable for the author’s own contributions and to ensure that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work, even ones in which the author was not personally involved, are appropriately investigated, resolved and the resolution documented in the literature.

What kind of group does this policy form? To understand this, we need to see how the three criteria have been woven together to structure the group. The first criterion – the membership criterion – stipulates what an individual should do to be a co-author.

The other two – which can be labelled as membership-entailments – mention the expectations that the group should have from its members. The three criteria are connected by “and” indicating that these need to be jointly satisfied by an individual.

An individual, thus, becomes a member by some contribution and by virtue of being part of the group, every member shares some common responsibilities. Even this straightforward interpretation of the co-authorship policy indicates how responsibilities are distributed in the group.

As the third criterion clearly says, the members are responsible for their individual contributions, and the group as a whole is responsible for every contribution. This is how collective responsibility is encoded in the very constitution of the group.

Representational image. Photo credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP

Ignoring the entailments

In the list of co-authorship criteria, identifying and distinguishing between membership criterion and membership entailments is helpful as each of these plays an important role in analysing different aspects of the group’s work. For instance, as every member might not contribute equally towards the group’s work, it is crucial to acknowledge individuals’ contributions and provide appropriate credit.

In such scenarios, the first criterion plays a prominent role in deciding the order of the authorship, the nomination of the corresponding author. In contexts of ethical concerns, on the other hand, the second and third criteria are of significance.

This clarity about contextual sensitivity of criteria helps in further understanding the shortcomings of interpreting the National Center For Biological Sciences incident only based on individuals’ responsibilities. Not demanding the group’s responsibility and partially implementing the third might be because of genuine reasons, like not knowing how to pragmatically implement it in actual practice.

However, emphasising only on individuals’ contributions in this incident suggests the continued analysis of the group’s work only based on the membership criterion and failure of realising that the membership entailments are of importance in this context.

In the National Center For Biological Sciences incident, the committees’ decision that the corresponding author should bear the overall responsibility also highlights how the scenario has been interpreted based on individuals’ roles and responsibilities. Here, it is not clear what “overall” responsibility means. Moreover, the principal investigator of the research group and the corresponding author of the paper does have specific responsibilities. But putting the “overall” responsibility solely on an individual presumes that she alone has the active agency in a collaborative practice.

Taking ethics seriously

As I have argued, ethical misconducts in science raise concerns also at the collective level, and some practices – like co-authoring research papers – already factor in the group’s responsibility. What remains to be explored is how to understand this responsibility. There are interesting interpretations of this in moral philosophy, and these can be further developed to arrive at pragmatic implementations for scientific practices.

Having said that, these developments will be hindered if science continues to mistreat ethics. Here, I am not referring to the perennial problem about science overlooking the need of ethics for its practice. I am alluding to a subsequent issue: about science not recognising ethics as a specialised discipline.

In the majority of the scientific institutes, the ethics committees are constituted only of scientists, most of whom do not have a systematic exposure to philosophy, especially ethics. And, these places rarely employ philosophers to teach the courses on ethics for research scholars.

It might be pointed out here that scientists are well suited for the analysis of ethics in science as they know science. This claim, however, is only half true. Indeed, having the experience of how science works on the ground is required.

However, considering this alone will suffice naively presumes that the everyday scientific practice will by default equip the scientists about the ethics of research. This presumption further harbours concerning views that senior scientists will be “more” ethical and thus, should bear “overall” responsibility.

Learning ethics requires training in a specific form of thinking and preliminary exposure to the repositories of moral theories. Without this, to borrow a way of characterising from science, doing ethics would be “pseudo-philosophy”.

Varun S Bhatta is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Bhopal.