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Go Ahead, Be Indelicate

With recent reports of research misconduct by one member of a collaboration, one of the questions being posed asks how it got by the other researchers involved.

Donald Green, the senior co-author of the now-retracted gay marriage opinion study, told the New York Times that it's "a very delicate situation" when one researcher asks to look at another's data.

This statement struck Drummond Rennie from the University of California, San Francisco, and C. K. Gunsalus from the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics as odd, as they write in a guest post at Retraction Watch.

They note that the submission requirements for Science, where the study was published, state that the senior author "is required to have examined the raw data."

"The reason for it is obvious," Rennie and Gunsalus say. "The reader is happy to give credit for good work, but neither the peer reviewers, nor the editors, nor the readers were there as witnesses, so it is up to the authors to certify what took place. Co-authors are the only ones who can do this."

From the outset, the pair says that researchers should develop a clear understanding with their collaborators regarding who's contributing what and their access to data. Further, they note that there are non-confrontational ways to ask a collaborator about data-related concerns. As an example, they say someone could phrase their question like this: "These data confuse me, as they seem not to include as many data points as we had discussed. Can you help me understand where I'm getting confused?"

Having — and following — such policies could uncover flaws early on, they add.

"Bottom line: if you think it's rude to ask to look at your co-authors' data, you're not doing science," Rennie and Gunsalus say.