When a scientist has papers retracted for scientific misconduct, collaborators can suffer career damage.
In 2011, chemist Bernhard Biersack, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, struck a promising deal to collaborate with a well-funded cancer scientist based in the United States. They launched a multiyear partnership that Biersack says produced 12 journal articles, including seven that reported original research.
But the seemingly productive alliance soon became Biersack’s worst nightmare: He had unknowingly signed on with a scientist who would be found guilty of scientific misconduct. That researcher, Fazlul Sarkar, formerly of Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, has now had more than 30 of his papers retracted.
You don’t have to look hard for other cases of collaborators ensnared in scandals over fraudulent publications. In one high-profile case, social psychologist Diederik Stapel’s tendency to make up entire experiments led to dozens of retracted papers, most of which included junior collaborators.
So how do such disasters affect their careers? The short answer is: It depends.
Some collaborators face a frustrating struggle to clear their names. Thomas Hall, a professor of accounting at the University of Texas in Arlington, has repeatedly implored the publisher of a 2002 paper he co-wrote to reconsider its 2015 decision to retract it. Hall says the paper was withdrawn simply because another author, James Hunton, was found guilty of sweeping misconduct. Hall argues the results reported in their paper are valid and have been supported by later research. (The publisher, the American Accounting Association, didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
In other cases, co-authors escape relatively unscathed. Biersack, for instance, has not been a co-author on any of Sarkar’s retracted papers. Still, when Biersack learned about the misconduct, he was worried: Sarkar had contributed data and wording to some of his publications. So “I checked my papers with him again,” he says. “I could not find mistakes.”
Biersack remains a postdoc in Bayreuth, working on a temporary contract. He says he has seen no signs that his collaboration with Sarkar has held him back; no referees have mentioned it in their reviews of his work, for example.
His experience is consistent with findings reported by Joshua Krieger and colleagues at Harvard Business School in Boston in 2017. They showed that more prominent authors of papers retracted for fraud or misconduct often face greater penalties—in the form of fewer citations to their previous work—than do less prominent authors. But a different, 2013 study found that when it’s not obvious who on a research team was to blame for a retraction, the less prominent coauthors experience larger declines in citations, reported Ginger Zhe Jin of the University of Maryland in College Park and colleagues.
To avoid possible career damage, Krieger suggests scientists build a portfolio of papers that includes ones written with different co-authors, which can help make a researcher “less sensitive to the discrediting of any one paper or researcher.” But even if a co-author is hit with retractions, Biersack says, “it does not mean the end of your career.”