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I've been struggling with this issue for quite some time. I'm a postdoc who recently switched fields. I transferred from a field that had numerous ethical complications to a field that has almost no ethical complications.

I deeply regret the fact that my name is on two papers from my previous field. Both have been out for ~3 years. For one, I'm a first author (~25 citations) and for another I'm a second author (~15 citations). I'm much more upset by the second author paper. Very soon after publication, I felt intensely morally opposed to the projects. I tried to "move on" -- but that did not work. I feel a very deep sense of unease, knowing my name is publicly linked to these works. I was so distraught I moved back in with my parents as I could not concentrate for about one year after my PhD. I finally mustered enough energy to accept a postdoc, but now remain (extremely) mentally ill with panic attacks multiple times per week and problems eating/sleeping. I can't focus on my postdoc, and I worry I may be fired. I am still all-consumed with an intense feeling like I need to "fix" these two papers.

Recently, I've pondered attempting to remove my name from the papers in the hopes that it could allow me to move on. I've seen related questions before (about removing names from published papers), but not for the same reason as me. Usually, people want to remove names because they think the work is scientifically flawed, poor quality, poor journal, or that they did not actually contribute any work.

This leads me to many questions, which I've been agitating over for more than one year now.

  1. Is it ethically justifiable to remove my name in this situation?

  2. Does anyone know of examples of where someone removed their name for this reason? Or for any reason? (Maybe even with someone I could speak with)?

The first question is particularly difficult for me, as I think and care deeply about ethics. I imagine it could be deemed "unethical" for me to remove my name, as it puts on a pretense to "change history" and hurts my co-authors. At the same time, I imagine it is unethical for me to keep my name on the paper, as the papers encourages more work in the area, and so as long as my name is on it, it is another name encouraging folks to do this type of work. Also, it is preventing me from living with purpose and joy; I really cannot overstate the negative impact this experience has had on me. If it were a blog post, I would erase it, and move on; but traditional publications are not that simple, and that causes some folks immense harm, especially if they feel ethically repulsed by the content.

Thank you.

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    You have two separate questions in here: What, if anything, you can do about your publication, and how to find someone to talk about your situation with. These are separate issues, and should be asked separately.
    – Arno
    Oct 29, 2023 at 13:31
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    I cannot help but notice the severe mismatch between the supposedly awful breach of ethics and the utterly piddling nature of the proposed remedy, namely removing your name from the list of authors. The idea that you on the one hand have done something so grievously unethical that you still need to torment yourself about it, but on the other hand an action as piddling as removing your name from the paper (which, let's be, honest will not have any actual causal effect on anything whatsoever) would fix it, honestly makes no sense. Oct 29, 2023 at 18:46
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    This is not a therapy site, but I still cannot help observing that it feels very much like you may be using the authorship issue to avoid (or to redirect energy from) dealing with the actual underlying issue, which is your unhealthily strict sense of ethics. The solution to the actual problem of the extremely OCD person who keeps having panic attacks due to returning a library book to the wrong shelf does not lie in figuring out how they can break in to the library and reshelve the book. Similarly, the solution to your actual problem does not lie in the mechanics of paper authorship. Oct 29, 2023 at 18:47
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    Thanks, @AdamPřenosil. The main casual effect of removing my name is removing the cognitive dissonance I feel to be attached to a paper I find immoral. The work is not grievously unethical by institutional ethical standards, but it is by my personal morals. Hence my thoughts of removing my name, but not recommending the entire paper be removed. As long as my name is on it, it implies I support it, and I no longer do. (I do data analysis and did not realize exactly how the data was collected, and that is the part I find immoral). Oct 30, 2023 at 21:33
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    @AdamPřenosil, I highly appreciate your suggestion about seeking therapy if I have an unhealthy strict sense of ethics. I think there may be truth to that, based on conversations with others and previous issues I have had, so I think it is an astute observation that maybe I can work on with a therapist. Oct 30, 2023 at 21:35

7 Answers 7

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Too long for a comment.

I sympathize.

First: get help with your immediate problems: (panic, difficulty sleeping). If no one at your university is useful you may need to find that help elsewhere. In either case that may call for more than discussing the author problem. Take care of yourself before trying to take care of the world.

Second: I think that removing your name from the published papers is probably impossible and certainly difficult and time consuming.

Third: Consider writing about the ethical issues you have belatedly realized and publishing those reflections. Then folks who encounter your name in professional circles will see both positions.

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  • Thanks, Ethan. I have been in contact with the journal and they are willing to meet next week. I may find out more then. It seems it will be difficult and time consuming though. Oct 29, 2023 at 17:24
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Get help with your health concerns from a health professional before you do anything.

Assuming you published two papers which you now feel are unethical: I see no use in removing your name from the papers. Removing your name does nothing to help people who may have been or will be harmed. It will not help you either, as the connection between you and the papers cannot be erased from the internet.

COPE provides a recommended process for this situation: https://publicationethics.org/sites/default/files/concerns-published-data-risk.pdf The most common outcome of the process would be the publication of a notice describing the situation.

If you published your work in a reputable peer reviewed journal, it's probably not unethical. Peer reviewers check for ethical problems.

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  • Thanks, Anonymous Physicist. I agree it is not unethical based on common ethical standards and guidelines. However, I am morally against it (subjectively). Nonetheless, I thank you for your views. Oct 29, 2023 at 17:26
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Three points:

  1. By your own admission, you are "(extremely) mentally ill." It is therefore impossible for you to know (and correspondingly more impossible for us to know) how much of this perceived issue is a real issue vs. a complication from your illness. This does not seem to be a particularly urgent situation, so I would urge you to take no action until your mental illness is better under control.
  2. As you say, trying to remove your name from a published paper seems a bit like attempting to rewrite history. It can also lead to ethical problems, such as hiding a conflict of interest. Even in the absence of such problems, I would not necessarily expect journals or co-authors to accommodate you.
  3. Rather than removing your name from the paper, I suggest putting a brief, well-written note on your website. For example, if you have your CV posted online, you could list these papers with a hyperlink, and the hyperlink leads to a brief paragraph describing your concerns about this past work. This seems like a more appropriate, and more easily reversible, way to go "on the record" with your ethical concerns.
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    Thank you, @cag51. These are all helpful points for me to consider. Oct 30, 2023 at 21:43
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From a publication ethics standpoint, removing your name from a paper where you were rightly included is unethical.

Imagine this. A paper is written about a drug by a number of scientists from the pharmaceutical company that manufactures it, with some outside collaborators. Would it be ethical to publish the paper without showing the contribution of the company's scientists? It would be equally unethical to erase evidence their contribution.

The authors of the paper must include anybody who has significant control in the conduct and presentation of the work. It is a matter of transparency.

It may be possible to add a statement to the work. In some cases, the entire work could be withdrawn. Regardless, hiding authorship is unethical.

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    @AnonymousPhysicist You are incorrect. See this paper. Nowhere in the disclosure statement does it name the authors being employees of Merck; that is done in the author list. How are you going to disclose an author had a conflict of interest without saying they authored the paper? "Here's some random scientists who work for Company A?" What's that supposed to mean?
    – user71659
    Oct 29, 2023 at 23:49
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    Thank you both. I wonder based on comments by Federico and Shankar if removing a name from a paper due to ethical conflict is unethical, as you suggested here. It seems Creative Commons licenses have a clause that allow for author removal from published content, so one could simply be exercising their right in that case. It also seems there are Name Change Initiative that gives authors a right to remove their name if there are ethical conflicts. I can think of this arising many ways - for instance one author adding new statements last minute that others find ethically questionable etc. Oct 30, 2023 at 21:39
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    @flyingsquirrel44 Copyright and academic ethics are two different things, something may be legal but unethical, especially under academic norms. You certainly have a right not to work on research for ethical reasons. What you do not have the right is to tell people something, particularly in published literature, then hide from it. People already relied on your statements, you can't shirk from the responsibility inherent in that.
    – user71659
    Oct 30, 2023 at 21:48
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    @user71659 It is interesting to think about. Because academic norms establish a protocol where peer-reviewed publication in a journal is so final (and perhaps hence your view that redacting my association from it when I no longer believe in it is unethical). However, in other forms of academic publication (like blog posts where one discusses academics and even academic interpretations of works or preliminary academic results and their interpretations) one can remove their name if they no longer believe in it, and that would probably be considered normal (and probably ethical). Oct 30, 2023 at 23:11
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    @user71659 This is to say that I don't know how much our sense of "ethics" in regards to one removing one's name from one's previous academic works is based on the norms of different mediums of academic publication. (i.e. doing so in a peer-reviewed publication would be "unethical", but doing so on a blog where the exact same comments/statements that one wishes to redact would probably be considered "ethical"). Oct 30, 2023 at 23:15
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There are two parts to your question, and others have already commented on your personal well-being. You definitely should get support, your health is the basis for everything else you decide to do. If you are ill, you can not think, reflect, decide and take action. So, care about your health first, before anything else. This is the key for everything you are going to do, whether or not you wish to take my remaining advice into consideration.

To the second part. Personally - and that's my own opinion with no claim for universal validity, and you are invited to fully ignore it if you feel it is somehow misplaced - I find it problematic that you wish to erase your name from work you have done before that you find objectionable now.

It is not that you were part of work that was methodologically flawed and was then published without your consent (in which case, you have all right to demand removing your name). Also, at that time, your ethical considerations were either not there at all, or not strong enough to stop you from actually doing and publishing this work. In other words, at that time of your life, you consciously did contribute to this work and its publication.

People make mistakes, sometimes huge ones. Now, we have no idea how big your ethical problem really would be in the eyes of an uninvolved observer (not just in your subjective view). You may perhaps gauge it through your most trusted friends and whether they agree with you in the severity of your judgement.

But let's assume for the sake of the argument that it is really massive, in an objective sense that, say, main newspapers would agree with you.

Now, erasing your name is like an attempt to rewrite history. The work is there, and whether your name is on it or not, the damage is done and you, say, have contributed to it, whether your name appears or not. Pretending it did not happen with your complicity is simply untrue.

Now, it is possible that at that time you did not see the danger, or that, at that time, your ambition or political considerations were stronger than your ethical qualms, if you already had some. We do not know, and it's also nobody's business but yours. What matters is that it was a decision you took at that time.

You have now changed your perception for one reason or the other. So, rather than trying to get rid of your name in such a publication, what I would propose is that you embrace the fact that you were co-responsible for the work and you no longer are of the mindset that would want to see such work pursued further. You did it, true, but you have changed your views drastically. Face your - as you see it - ethical mistake and make clear, if prompted, that you learned from it.

You cannot change the past, only the future. However, you can change your perception of the past and demonstrate that you learnt from it. Be gentle with yourself in the past. You had your reasons to work on this. Your knowledge, or your priorities have since shifted.

Caveat: The only constellation that would be disingenious is if it was this your past work that gave you the possibility to pivot your career to your present, more desirable, field. In that case, you are probably better off just to stay silent to others (and in fact to yourself) on the matter and accepting the moral ambiguity of life which is rarely black and white, but unfortunately often grey. One secret of keeping integrity is being able to both foresee the consequences of ones actions on others as well as on oneself and having the fortitude to act in concert and consistently with the desirable moral outcome.

If you failed on that - forgive yourself and learn from it for the future.

One more thing: you worry about your name encouraging others to work on the field. Do you really suspect that your specific name carries so much gravitas that it being on the paper will invite others into the field? If so, you are probably better off speaking publicly against it and use your reputation to fight the field.

However, if the number of citations is something to go by with: while it is a respectable number of citations, certainly so, it is nowhere indicating a massive influx of work - in fact, your attempt to remove your name may cause the opposite of what you are trying to do - it may trigger a Streisand effect and in fact attract unwanted attention to the work through the scandal.

Sometimes not acting is stronger than acting.

TL;DR: You cannot undo the past, you can only change the future. It is better to accept the past and your role in it, to accept the responsibility, and move from there to the future. This makes you more believable. Forgive yourself, but learn. And, sometimes, not acting trumps acting.

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    And some of the citations may be to point out the failings of the paper.
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 29, 2023 at 17:42
  • Can you elaborate @JonCuster? I just want to makes sure I understand. Oct 29, 2023 at 18:41
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    Thanks, Captain Emacs. I can verify it is not at all a gravely unethical problem for most people. There is nothing objectively wrong with the paper. I also did not use the paper to make any career progressions or move into my current field. It is just simply that my ethical views changed almost immediately after publication, and I just feel haunted by it at a personal level. I've tried to move on for 2 years now, but it has actually felt worse for me. I do plan on therapy -- but that does not always help. Oct 29, 2023 at 18:43
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    @flyingsquirrel44 Forget all the stuff about the paper and ethics. Get to therapy. Let them help you figure out reasons for symptoms you're experiencing, rather than acting on your assumptions.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 29, 2023 at 19:47
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Is your paper open access under a Creative Commons license? If so, removing your name from it is easier, as CC licenses have a clause that allows you to remove your name from any published content:

3.a.3 If requested by the Licensor, You must remove any of the information required by Section 3(a)(1)(A) to the extent reasonably practicable.

Since it is explicitly allowed by the license, it is harder to blame you for exercising one of your legal rights.

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    Thanks @Federico Poloni. This is incredibly helpful to know about. It also makes me lean to the possibility that authorship removal may not be "unethical". I can think of many reasons why someone would ethically object to a paper after publication. For instance, if one author adds questionable sentences at the last minute without others seeing. Or, if a data analyst author does not realize how that data was collected (if it exploited a group of people etc) until after the publication etc. Oct 30, 2023 at 21:41
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Removing your name might be hard, but changing it to an arbitrary name of your choice might be good enough for your purposes.

Whatever anyone's personal views on "rewriting history" or whatever might be, the institutional position seems to be strongly in favor of allowing this, evidenced by the list of signatories to the Name Change Initiative. As noted on that page, "Authors may need to change their name on already-published articles for a variety of reasons," and being "ethically repulsed" by their content sounds like one of them.

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  • Thanks so much @Shankar Sivarajan. This is an incredibly helpful resource and give me something tangible to think about while making my decision. Oct 30, 2023 at 21:42

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