C. Aycock/Science

Camille Noûs first appeared on the research scene 1 year ago, as a signatory to an open letter protesting French science policy. Since then, Noûs has been an author on 180 journal papers, in fields as disparate as astrophysics, molecular biology, and ecology, and is racking up citations.

But Noûs is not a real person. The name—intentionally added to papers, sometimes without the knowledge of journal editors—is meant to personify collective efforts in science and to protest individualism, according to RogueESR, a French research advocacy group that dreamed up the character. But the campaign is naïve and ethically questionable, says Lisa Rasmussen, a bioethicist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. It flouts the basic principle of taking responsibility alongside the credit of authorship, she says. And some journal editors are balking at going along with the protest.

RogueESR has spent the past year protesting a French research reform law that introduced new types of temporary research jobs. The group, which has no formal leader, says the changes threaten academic freedom and job security, and that the law’s focus on metric-based research evaluation—such as numbers of publications or citations—emphasizes individual accomplishment too much and is damaging to the research culture.

Amid the protests, members of RogueESR had a subversive idea: What if they slipped a fictitious researcher in their author lists? “Hundreds of articles will make this name the top author on the planet,” they wrote in a newsletter, “with the consequence of distorting certain bibliometric statistics and demonstrating the absurdity of individual quantitative assessment.” The group christened the allegorical author Camille—a gender-neutral name associated with political protest in France—and chose the surname Noûs, a play on the French nous, meaning “we,” and the ancient Greek νοῦς, meaning reason. Invoking the name is meant to be a public statement of a researcher’s values, says a spokesperson for RogueESR, who asked to remain anonymous because she’s concerned about the possible consequences of her activism.

But the idea runs into dangerous ethical territory, Rasmussen says: Responsibility and accountability must accompany the credit that comes with authorship, she says, and in the case of Noûs, no one can take on those burdens. RogueESR says Noûs would withdraw from any paper with a breach of integrity (via the secretaries managing the email account). But as Noûs grows, RogueESR might lose control of the brand, Rasmussen says. “At a certain point, if it does grow beyond them, who’s yanking Camille Noûs’s name?”

Jean-Philippe Lansberg, a physicist at CNRS, the French national research agency, says the name is “an elegant and harmless way of protesting.” Lansberg, who included Noûs on a paper in Physics Letters B—the most highly cited of Noûs’s work to date—thinks Noûs serves as a kind of sting operation to expose the weaknesses in authorship conventions. In high-energy physics, long author lists make it impossible for everyone to meaningfully take responsibility for the research. Noûs shows these authorship standards, and the metrics that draw on them, are impoverished and absurd, he says.

Some authors, like Lansberg, did not inform editors that Noûs is not a real person. A spokesperson for Scientific Reports told Science that “concerns have been raised” about authorship on a paper in the journal that lists Noûs, and the journal is investigating. And a paper in Physical Review B has published a correction stating that the inclusion of Noûs’s name was contrary to journal policy, and that it had been removed.

This potential for corrections raises another problem, Rasmussen says: Students or early-career researchers who go along with senior authors’ enthusiasm for Noûs might face a correction or even retraction. “That’s going to be with them for the rest of their career,” she says.

RogueESR did not initially offer guidance on transparency with editors, but now explicitly encourages authors to tell editors what Noûs stands for. Many editors of French journals are OK with the idea, says RogueESR’s spokesperson, but international journals have been a harder sell.

In one case, a group of mathematicians committed to the idea of Noûs chose to withdraw a paper from consideration at the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh Section A after the editorial board decided Noûs could not be included. In another case, an editor at Solar Physics declined to allow the submission of Noûs papers, citing the authorship standards recommended by the Committee on Publication Ethics, which require every author to make substantial contributions to the work and to take responsibility for its contents.

The collective goals of open and collaborative science are admirable, Rasmussen says, and there are good reasons to challenge authorship standards. But, she says, “It’s not clear to me that you need this author to achieve any of those things.”