One of my correspondents told me about a situation that raised some interesting questions about both proper attribution of authorship in scientific papers and ethical interactions between mentor and mentee in a scientific training relationship. With my correspondent’s permission, I’m sharing the case with you.
A graduate student, in chatting with a colleague in another lab, happened upon an idea for an experimental side project to do with that colleague. While the side project fell well outside the research agenda of this graduate student’s research group, he first asked his advisor whether it was OK for him to work on the side project. The advisor was reluctant to allow the student to work on the project, but agreed to give him a relatively short window of time (on the order of weeks, not months) to work on the side project and see if he got any results.
As it happened, the graduate student and colleague were able to generate enough data in that short window of time to write up the results as a manuscript.
When the graduate student discussed this with his advisor, the advisor wanted first authorship on the paper. The student, having conceived of the research without the input of his advisor and conducted the work in the lab of the collaborator, wanted to be first author, with her collaborator listed as last author.
As a not-yet-graduated student, of course, the graduate student here felt unable or unwilling to fight his advisor very hard about this – he still needed to get his thesis approved and get a recommendation letter for future positions. Ultimately, the graduate student and his collaborator met with the advisor, and they came to the solution that both the student and the advisor would be co-first-authors, with the collaborator as last author.
My correspondent views this as a bad solution to the disagreement.
Instead, says my correspondent, the graduate student should have stuck to his guns and refused his advisor’s demand to be what amounts to a guest author on this paper. If the advisor persisted in making this demand, the graduate student should have sought the intercession of the head of the academic unit housing the research group.
Would taking this stand put the graduate student’s career in jeopardy? Presumably not, at least once the head of the academic unit was involved. In the even that the advisor refused to write a letter of recommendation (or wrote a poison letter instead), the head of the academic unit could provide a letter explaining the source of the conflict and, in all likelihood, making the advisor look like an ass.
In the event that the head of the academic unit were to side with the advisor’s demand for unearned authorship here, my correspondent suggested that whistleblower protection laws would protect the graduate student when he took his grievance to the next level of the academic hierarchy.
I tend to agree with my correspondent’s analysis that, given the particulars of this situation, the advisor did not have a reasonable claim to be listed as the author of the paper. This may not be a completely unambiguous call since, as I’ve noted before, standards for what sort of contribution is required to properly be counted as an author vary from discipline to discipline, and even from research group to research group within a given discipline. Some attempts have been made to set out what authorship standards ought to be recognized within a particular discipline, and some journals even opt for “explicit authorship,” which means that the particular contribution of each person listed as an author must be spelled out.
In the event that the manuscript that resulted from this particular collaborations was submitted to an “explicit authorship” journal, it would be interesting to see how the advisor’s contribution was described: Dr. X allowed Mr. Y to spend a few weeks working on this project rather than on the other projects in Dr. X’s lab? That doesn’t seem like the sort of authorship credit that would do much to raise Dr. X’s scientific prestige.
Indeed, the advisor in this situation seems unable to fully play the role of an author in the discussion of the science reported in the manuscript that is supposed to take place among scientists following its publication – in large part because the advisor didn’t actually participate in the collaborative effort that produced this science. A long time back, I wrote of scientific collaborations:
You have to establish a level of trust with your collaborator. Given that scientific results are supposed to be scrutinized skeptically by other scientists, it strikes me that collaborators ought to bring a level of constructive skepticism to their interactions with each other. Show me how you got the result. Explain to me why this outcome doesn’t actually mean X, Y, or Z instead of what we think it means. If a group of scientists can’t handle challenges like these from each other, they probably shouldn’t be collaborators.
And I’ll add, if a scientist hasn’t been at all involved in the back-and-forth that brought the collaborators from initial idea to experiment to results, that scientist is not going to be terribly useful in responding to follow-up questions about the research. Having not actually participated in the research reported in the manuscript, the advisor’s knowledge of how it was produced will all be second-hand. The advisor just won’t have the first-hand knowledge to fullfil the duties of an author in the continuing scientific discussion about these results.
But now, let me turn to you and ask two questions.
First, are there any legitimate grounds which you think the advisor in this case could offer to support an authorship claim?
Second, are there any alternative strategies you can suggest for the graduate student in a case like this to resolve the conflict with the advisor without sacrificing either ethical standards or his future in this scientific community?