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My co-authors and I are preparing to submit a major project manuscript. Unfortunately, we have just learned that one of the persons involved in the project has committed major scientific ethical violations related to the project, but not directly impacting this paper.

The scale of the ethical violation is quite large (think: non-consensual and dangerous medical experiments) and is directly connected to their work on the project. It does not, however, affect the validity of this manuscript or their contributions to it in any way.

Many of the co-authors, however, no longer want to be associated with this person in any way, and are likely to withdraw their names from the manuscript if this person remains an author.

Would it be reasonable to remove this person from authorship based on their ethical violation, essentially as a form of community shunning?

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    If they have contributed to the paper, then they should be a part of it. Your deleting them from the author list in response to their gross misconduct elsewhere would itself be an ethical violation. If you can remove their contribution (in a way an unbiased observer would be fine with), then go ahead and do that. Otherwise, don't stoop to their level. – Jon Custer Feb 8 at 20:21
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    Don't submit until the other ethical situation is clear, then you can decide the author list from a clear standpoint. – Solar Mike Feb 8 at 21:17
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    @JonCuster - agree completely; why not put the answer in the answer box? – cag51 Feb 8 at 21:49
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    @JonCuster Agree with cag51. This is the answer. The ethical violation should be dealt with in the appropriate channels, not by confounding it with another separate matter. There is a good reason why the modern state and law outlaw vigilantism. Canceling their authorship from a paper in which they did not commit ethics violation, and after they contributed is taking the retribution into your own hands. Of course, by all means, report your colleague to the ethics committee. – Captain Emacs Feb 9 at 11:19
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Personally I think you cannot do it, and I wouldn't even speak in terms of "reasonable" or "unreasonable". If someone makes a contribution to your work, that person is your co-author, deal with it. If a person wants to remove his/her own name, its their private decision, but I can hardly imagine doing that for other contributors without their consent.

When I engage in research with other people, I consider it a sort of binding contract: I do this for you, and I expect you to put my name on the front page. If you don't want to deal with me anymore, it's OK, but next time, not this time.

Furthermore, while I don't want to overthink it and portray pictures of possible dystopian future, I believe such ways of "community shunning" are very dangerous. Maybe today you have a valid reason for it, but you'll open a Pandora's box: first we retroactively remove people for their flaws, then for their views on sensitive topics, then for their thoughts.

  • It's not a binding contract because not publishing is always an option. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 9 at 0:03
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    @Anonymous Physicist, Well, yes. Though in practice I'd say this price is too large to pay for such a dubious cause. – rg_software Feb 9 at 0:56
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I think this is a question that requires legal advice, not ethical advice before you would make any such move. If the person has a valid claim for authorship and you don't honor it, you may, possibly, become liable. I don't know if that is the case where you are or not, but you should protect yourselves.

The ethical consideration is more complex, but I doubt that few would condemn you for shunning a person for violations such as you suggest, especially since the violation was on the same project that supported the publication.

Since the violation is, as you say, directly connected to the project, you should also examine whether the work itself is so tainted that it should be abandoned. This is a radical step, of course and would have both negative and positive impacts on the other participants. I won't guess at the proper resolution of such a consideration, but think you should probably give it serious thought and discussion. And of course, you may have to balance that against the possible good that might come from what was learned in the study.

If this study was undertaken in the US, I wonder what happened to the IRB and what they might have to say about a resolution. The same would be the case in other countries with similar ethical oversight of research.

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    Indeed, going beyond your last paragraph, I think they should go back to the IRB, explain the whole situation, and throw themselves on the mercy of the court. – Jon Custer Feb 8 at 21:30

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