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I recently observed that a faculty (husband) was a corresponding author in all the publications of his wife (first author) while she was doing her Ph.D. in the same department. Although the wife had a different advisor and her husband (a professor) was not on her Ph.D. committee, all the papers she published had her husband as the corresponding author. While talking to her it is apparent she has very little idea about her research and publications.

Would this be considered a conflict of interest? If so, are there any rules governing this type of research misconduct?

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    Note that "corresponding author" means different things in different fields. In some, it literally just indicates which author is handling correspondence with the editors and readers, and connotes no kind of prestige or relative effort in the project. If so then it might make sense for the more senior author to take on this role (more experience with the publication process, more stable contact info, etc). Feb 10 at 17:20
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    Specifically for correspondence purposes, it can also make sense for the corresponding author to be whoever is in the most stable job, since their contact info is less likely to change soon after the paper is out. Presumably the author who is a faculty member isn't likely to change their professional email address etc., whereas the PhD student might once they graduate.
    – civilstat
    Feb 10 at 19:23
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    As Ethan Bolker points out, the title of this question does not appear in good faith. Rather you seem to be making a separate accusation that has little to do with the question title.
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 11 at 15:24
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    I see no evidence of research misconduct in the question, but I see evidence of judgmental behavior by its author. Feb 11 at 19:37
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    Or maybe she understood your malintent and was less inclined to speak with you about her research.
    – just BE
    Feb 12 at 4:01

4 Answers 4

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Yes, a person can be a corresponding author in their spouse's research, even in all of their publications. Whether this occurs during the spouse's PhD studies or not is irrelevant. Who the spouse's advisor is or who is or is not on their Ph.D. committee also has no bearing on anything.

On the other hand, people who have not contributed to a paper at a sufficient level to merit co-authorship should not be authors. Your description of the situation is entirely consistent with a normal situation where the wife is a junior researcher and the husband is a senior researcher. It is certainly a possibility that the wife could have been gifted authorship of those papers by her husband without meriting it, but you provide no compelling evidence for this.

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    OP said "While talking to her it is apparent she has very little idea about her research and publications"
    – toby544
    Feb 10 at 11:28
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    That could also simply mean they are junior researcher working on a particular aspect of the paper. We really don't know what kind of standard the OP is applying to her when they say this. Feb 10 at 11:31
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    @toby544 I’ve met a striking number of PhD students to whom such a description would apply. A specific marital or supervision status isn’t necessary for this. Feb 10 at 11:41
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    There can also be a sharp difference between how well a person actually understood something when they wrote it, and how well they are able to convey this in conversation. Especially when, as seems to be true in this case, many years have elapsed in between. The researcher may have switched to other topics, and may not have thought about this one for a long time. Feb 10 at 17:17
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    @toby544 We have no evidence that the OP possesses sufficient expertise in the topics of these research papers to have an accurate judgment of the author's knowledge. Feb 10 at 19:01
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The last sentence of the first paragraph suggests that you are really asklng about whether the wife's academic record is fraudulent. That question has nothing to do with the title you provide or the circumstances you outline. I don't think you have enough information to ask that question, let alone answer it.

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No, this is not unethical. People get to choose who their coauthors are, and not surprisingly people tend to cooperate with people they like. It is not uncommon for spouses who work in the same discipline to cooperate on projects, nor is that inherently problematic.

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    Your answer, and the preceding answer, appear to agree with one another in substance, yet you being with "No" and the other answer begins with "Yes" ... clearly because the OP actually asks the same question in two contrary ways (!!)... one in the title (answered by the previous question), one in the body. Your answer would be clearer if, for you said, "No, this is not unethical" Feb 10 at 11:17
  • I just would like to point out that I don't quite agree with"People get to choose who their coauthors are": co-author is, or can be, who substantially contributed to the work; the distinction to acknowledgements is always difficult. But just putting someone on a paper "because I like them" or refusing to put, because you don't like them" is unethical and possibly problematic.
    – Mayou36
    Feb 12 at 18:58
  • @Mayou36 It's clear (to me) that by cooperate on, the answer means substantially contribute together.
    – jpaugh
    Feb 13 at 1:48
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    @jpaugh my comment (too late to edit) was meant for CrimsonDark, not for the answer. My bad!
    – Mayou36
    Feb 13 at 3:22
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Without a timeline of their relationship, which you didn't provide, there's no way to say whether or not there was a conflict of interest or not, so I won't bother to opine on that.

But yes, when there is a romantic relationship between two people, when those people work together there is always a potential for a conflict of interest.

However, a "potential conflict" is not necessarily "a conflict".

When there is a potential conflict, many universities require a reporting of that potential conflict up the chain of command. After that, a usual action is to put some sort of conflict resolution plan in writing, and then to abide by it. The plan can range incredibly, from simply notifying all that are involved in an impacted project that there is a potential for conflict of interests, all the way to external data monitors, depending on the nature of the conflict and the work in question.

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