Legal liability of “innocent” co-authors for research fraud

Last week, we published a short letter in the journal Science in which we proposed extending the intentional tort of fraudulent misrepresentation to the most egregious cases of research fraud. After all, why should alleged academic fraudsters like Michael LaCour (political science) or James Hunton (accounting) be held to a different legal standard than businesses or ordinary persons? Yet many cases of alleged research fraud often involve “innocent” co-authors. To what extent might such co-authors themselves be legally liable for the primary author’s alleged research fraud? The answer to this question will depend on the scope of a co-author’s legal duty to independently investigate or verify the integrity or genuineness of the primary author’s research data. Specifically, a co-author might be liable for a primary author’s research fraud under the well-established common law doctrine of negligent misrepresentation. Broadly speaking, a negligent misrepresentation (as opposed to a “fraudulent” one) can occur when a person carelessly makes a false statement of material fact–including a misrepresentation that he honestly believes to be true but which he should have known was false. This theory of liability could thus apply to an “innocent” co-author who adds his or her name to a paper with fake data but does not make any reasonable efforts to verify the integrity of the primary author’s data. There is much more to the tort of negligent misrepresentation, however–and we are currently researching and writing up a formal law review article on this subject (legal liability for research fraud), so we will have more to say about this problem soon …

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