The recent indictment of Danish researcher Poul Thorsen seems to have uncovered an instance of massive scientific fraud, but I don’t mean the kind of fraud Thorsen is being accused of.
In response to the many vociferous arguments from the anti-vaccine throng that the MMR- and Thimerosal-based studies Thorsen co-authored are now tainted and suspect, a common defense from the anti-anti-vaccine throng has been to declare that Thorsen actually played little or no significant role in the preparation of these studies and papers. For instance, this defense has been argued in some detail (and several times) by Orac over at Respectful Insolence. Highlighting Thorsen’s middling position in the authorship lists and noting various timeline and logistical details, Orac concludes that Thorsen was probably little more than a bit player in the production of these papers, and thus his involvement and subsequent alleged fraud do not warrant a scientific re-evaluation of the works themselves.
Here is what I find unsettling about that argument (well, more than just unsettling—sickening is probably a better word): I actually think Orac is probably correct in his analysis, all the way from beginning to end, but then Orac and all his scientific-minded colleagues fail to ask the obvious question that undoubtedly must come next:
If Poul Thorsen did not make a significant contribution to these studies, then what the hell is his name doing on the authorship list?
Of course I’m afraid we all know the answer to that question (wink-wink, nudge-nudge), and we all know why scientific-minded colleagues are so reluctant to ask it. They’re reluctant to ask because unfortunately this kind of scientific fraud is a little too widespread and hits a little too close to home.
There are 7 authors listed on the Thimerosal study in question, and there are 8 authors listed for the MMR study. Ask yourself this question: how many of those authors actually made a significant contribution to these studies?
If you do a PubMed search for autism and G. Dawson, you will find that Geraldine Dawson—who I must point out already holds a high-paying, supposedly full-time job as Chief Science Officer for Autism Speaks—has somehow managed to also appear as an author on more than twenty autism-related papers published within just the last two years alone. Ask yourself this question: how many of those papers do you think G. Dawson actually make a significant contribution to?
When the extent of Andrew Wakefield’s fraud began to come to light, several of his co-authors distanced themselves by pointing out how uninvolved they were with Wakefield’s study and how little they contributed to the preparation of the paper itself. Ask yourself this question: does that admission somehow make them look better?
A listed co-author is either making a significant contribution to the science or he is not. You can’t argue it both ways.
If the facts support the accusations being made against Poul Thorsen, then he is indeed guilty of fraud and deserves to have the book thrown at him. But just as importantly, if scientists are regularly claiming authorship for studies and papers for which they have contributed little or nothing of importance, then they also are committing fraud and should have the book thrown at them too—no matter how many scientists we’re talking about or how prominent they may be. In fact, in some prominent instances, that might mean throwing the book many many times.