Adventures in Ethics and Science

From time to time I get emails asking for advice dealing with situations that just don’t feel right. Recently, I’ve been asked about the following sort of situation:

You’re an undergraduate who has landed an internship in a lab that does research in the field you’re hoping to pursue in graduate school. As so often happens in these situations, you’re assigned to assist an advanced graduate student who is gearing up to write a dissertation. First assignment: hit the library and write a literature review of the relevant background literature for the research project. You find articles. You read. You summarize and evaluate and analyze, over the course of many pages.

What you write is good. Not only is it praised, but it is incorporated — in some cases, word for word — into the chapter the grad student is writing.

Uh oh.

You know (because you have been told) that just doing this kind of literature review wouldn’t be enough to make you an author of any published paper that comes from this research, but your gut tells you there’s something not quite right about the situation. And, another researcher in the lab is taken aback to learn that what you have written is being used this way. In fact, the graduate student’s supervisor makes it clear that your words can’t be used verbatim in the thesis or any manuscripts to be submitted for publication; the wording will have to be reworked.

Are you enabling misconduct? Are you being taken advantage of? And, given that you’re being asked to do some more literature reviews, what do you do now?

While it is true that culling and summarizing relevant background literature is not in itself enough to be counted as an author of a scientific paper*, taking someone else’s words or ideas and representing them as one’s own is clearly plagiarism.

Indeed, representing in a paper that one is familiar with the literature in the background when one hasn’t read the works cited is not only dishonest but also dangerous. No knock on the skills of the undergraduate intern at all, but should this dissertation writer be trusting the intern’s interpretation of the relevant articles? What if the intern is wrong? (Shouldn’t the advanced graduate student’s analysis of such literature be more sophisticated anyway?) So, problem #1 here is that getting the background literature “second hand” may undermine the reliability of the conclusions drawn from this literature — and of the conclusions drawn from the new research in the context of the (hearsay version of the) background literature.

Problem #2, of course, is that the undergraduate intern’s words are being assimilated into the dissertation and, potentially, manuscripts submitted to journals for publication without the intern getting proper credit. Some might argue that whatever salary or “experience” s/he is getting in that internship is compensation for his/her intellectual labor here. If his/her words (or mild reworkings of them) get used in print, that’s not enough. At bare minimum, the intern ought to receive official acknowledgement — and the acknowledgement ought to indicate precisely what the intern did ( i.e., “We acknowledge X for reviewing the background literature and writing parts of section Y”). Absent the acknowledgement, it’s plagiarism. (With the acknowledgement? There’s a good chance someone on the dissertation committee would have a problem with the situation — and that’s a great clue that there’s something wrong with the situation!)

So the big question for the student in this situation is, what do you do?

First, for all of your further “contributions” to this project, I’d suggest changing the nature of the “deliverables” pretty radically. Instead of turning in multipage surveys of the literature, I’d turn in photocopies of the articles or chapters, plus brief summaries of the important stuff in them. Use bulleted lists or some other format that conveys information without being easily lifted verbatim. The prominence of the articles themselves with these summaries ought to trigger some reminders that part of scholarship is actually doing the damn reading and forming one’s own opinions.

Next, you need to find a reasonably safe way to communicate your concerns about the potential (mis)use of the work you’ve already done. Here, it would definitely help to have an ally — another researcher who seems uneasy about what’s happened so far, or the lab supervisor, or a university ombudsman. But it’s really hard to know from the outside (and probably even for the undergraduate intern on the inside, since s/he’s a relative newcomer to this lab) just what the power relationships are and how it might go down. Possibly the supervisor is leaning on the disserter to ensure that s/he actually reads the literature and does his/her own writing and thinking, but possibly the supervisor is being an enabler here. Possibly the other researcher has the standing with the supervisor to get your concern taken seriously, but posssibly s/he is perceived as a trouble-maker with an axe to grind. For the undergraduate intern who wants to pursue this field in the long haul, especially given that some scientific disciplines are extremely small, incestous communities, the goal is to find a way to preserve one’s integrity without pissing off the community one would like to join.

Here, you could work the “Golly, I’d hate it if my less informed interpretations of the literature were wrong; please look yourself to see what you think” angle … but that might put you in a place where the people evaluating you judge you to be less confident and less competent than you ought to be. Or, you could just make it clear that you’re extremely troubled at the prospect of your words and ideas being used without proper attribution because you know that to do so would be plagiarism, and you know that plagiarism is a variety of scientific misconduct, whose detection could have bad repercussions for everyone involved.

Even if it takes awhile, it may well be detected. The folks who plagiarized in their masters theses at the Ohio University probably didn’t think, 20 years later, that they’d have to pay the piper. They were wrong. And, as someone who regularly detects plagiarism, I can tell you that jarring shifts in writing style are one of the tip-offs. This makes using entire paragraphs that someone else has written, and trying to pass them off as your own, an extraordinarily bad idea.

Ultimately, what to do about the pieces one has already written may rest on what kind of risk one feels like one can handle. But once you’ve registered the feeling of ethical uneasiness, it only makes sense to ensure that the rest of what you turn in makes plagiarism unfeasible.

As always, I welcome additional advice from those in the trenches.
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*I should note that hard-core summary, interpretation, and analysis of a chunk of literature does merit authorship. This is where review articles come from.

Comments

  1. #1 John McKay
    August 13, 2006

    Just for the record, I’m a complete hardass about plagiarism. While working on my thesis, I uncovered a fifteen-year old case of dissertation plagiarism and reported it to my professional assoaciation even though I didn’t know either of the people involved and neither had gone to my school. That said, as a former history major, my first reaction to your question was an astounded, “science grads get research assistants!?” Most of us history folk were happy to get a study carol on the library. I do not want to hear any more complaints from you science bloggers about grad school being difficult.

    The last sentence was sarcasm, the rest was not.

  2. #2 Honeybee
    August 13, 2006

    I was horrified at the mere idea of this happening. And no John, as a biology grad student, I do NOT get a research assistant! At most one of our undergrads would help me on something at the request of the PI.

    I would think that a graduate student would know better than to a)not read the primary literature themself and b)blatantly plagarize from the person assisting them.

    As for a solution, I think you’re right on. I can’t think of a better way.

  3. #3 John Wilkins
    August 13, 2006

    You had a study carrol? I had to work on the train (no, that is not a joke. I did both my masters and PhD on trains, commuting to and from work). I had three hours supervision in my masters in three part-time years. I would have killed for a research student, but I didn’t know any medical researchers at the time…

  4. #4 Abel Pharmboy
    August 13, 2006

    Jeebus, am I also an old-fogey hardass, too? Dr McKay, I *am* a biomedical scientist and also share your disbelief. If I may be so bold, “WTF?”

    Graduate students, by definition, do their own literature searches and get their own papers, even if it means walking to the library and cracking the binding on a print journal not available on-line. The analysis of background literature and the assignment of one’s work in the context of the field is the sole responsibility of the graduate student. If anyone provides any assistance, it is I, not an undergraduate intern.

    An undergraduate intern may be trained by a graduate student, but usually in hands-on experimental procedures (i.e., we don’t have the fiscal luxury of having undergrads pull papers for us, much less write background summaries for others). However, I prefer that postdocs gain this training experience so the grad student can focus and get done; postdocs, on the other hand, need the experience of balancing/managing both their own research and mentoring their own trainees (usually just one, an undergrad or a grad student) while in my lab. (Note to my much-dumped-upon early grad students, yes, I have changed my philosophy.)

    All undergrads in my lab submit a final report of what they did, in the format of a scientific journal in our field. Together with weekly lab meetings, it is clear who contributed to what in terms of both experiments and writing. Over 14 yrs, I have been blessed with three tremendous undergraduate students whose writing, synthesis, and experimental skills garnered them co-authorship on peer-reviewed, original research publications. One ended up getting her PhD at a school near Prof Stemwedel that would have never even accepted me as a grad student.

    I share Prof Stemwedel’s skill of not only noticing changes in writing styles, but also remembering who wrote what when and in which paper, review, internal report…

    How to prevent these conflicts?: A graduate student’s dissertation/thesis is comprised entirely of their own writing…period.

  5. #5 dlamming
    August 13, 2006

    I’ve never heard of using undergrads to write literature reviews – and I’ve had 5 undergrads doing lab work for me over the past three years.

    In truth, I’m pretty skeptical about this being the real situation. The undergrads I’ve worked with have all been pretty smart, and some have been quite dedicated, but – I know the literature better than they will for some time to come, if ever. It’s simply a fuction of time – I’ve been living and breathing this stuff for 50-60 hours/week for 4 years, and they have classes etc to contend with. Even if I could have them write up literature reviews, why would I want to?

  6. #6 Corkscrew
    August 13, 2006

    You could always include a printout of a news article about the Oxford folk in your sheaf of papers, “by accident”…

  7. #7 Elf Eye
    August 13, 2006

    Does the intern have an academic advisor or some such person assigned to mentor him/her? This person needs to be informed of this situation. If there is no advisor/mentor, consider this: somebody had to assign the intern to assist the grad student. The undergrad needs to get in touch with that somebody. The issue of plagiarism is bad enough; in addition, there are issues of exploitation. To protect the integrity of the institution, the intern, the grad student, and the grad student’s supervisors, the following need to be stated explicitly and in writing: (1) the tasks that may be appropriately assigned to the intern and (2) the uses to which the intern’s efforts may be put. I can envision an intern completing a literature search and gathering the resulting citations and printouts for delivery to the grad student. That is exactly the sort of thing that I did way back in the eighties, and it was a useful task for me because I learned the ins and outs of search tools (such as they were in those days). But reading and assessing the relevance of the articles? I was welcome to read them, and out of curiosity I did read some of them, but in the end my supervisor had to be familiar with those sources in order to make his own case with authority and integrity . And, yes, it would be plagiarism if the grad student in this case presents a fa├žade of having read and assessed these articles him/herself. If a case like this came up in front of the Conduct Court and I were a hearing officer, I would be ‘throwing the book’ at the grad student because, at that level, there is no way a person should not recognize that s/he is committing plagiarism by allowing the impression that the work and words and his/her own.

  8. #8 Pinko Punko
    August 14, 2006

    I’m not skeptical at all about this situation, even though I’ve never had the experience of an undergrad working with me. That grad student needs to be smooshed, and fast. Odds are they’ll just hand out the degree. Terrible.

  9. #9 Kyle
    August 14, 2006

    I’ve seen undergrad students do literature searches, interpret the material and give talks on it. It was every bit the bad idea some here make it sound like it might be in those cases, but I can imagine others where it makes sense.

    Stemwedel asks why the grad student is trusting the intern’s interpretations. The answer is that the grad student is just looking for filler; they arleady know what they want the reference to say, so they have an undergrad make a big list of what lots generally say and reference the ones they like. You don’t need insight to summarize something, and if all you’re doing is filling up pages in your thesis, you don’t need to look at it carefully.

    Let’s face it, 75% of a thesis is crap. Plagiarized crap deserves severe punishment. Using an undergrad to help furnish crap is just another way to play the game.

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