Adventures in Ethics and Science

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?

Comments

  1. #1 Greg Laden
    February 13, 2009

    I completely agree with your analysis, and I cannot imagine a situation where the advisor should have authorship given what you have described here. (BTW, the fact that there is variation among research groups does not necessarily mean that there are variations in what is the ‘right thing’ to do. There may just be variation in levels of exploitation.)

    This is a tough call for the student. It may be an all or nothing situation. Let the advisor take authorship and lay low because you are feeling really threatened may seem like a necessary option to a lot of students in this sort of situation, but it should not be.

    What is missing here is information about the nature of the three way discussion that happened among the two collaborators and the advisors. If someone came to me with this story asking for support, I’d want to know all about that conversation.

  2. #2 Ben
    February 13, 2009

    This is a highly disappointing situation. Regarding your first question, the advisor has no right to be any kind of author on this paper, let alone first. I would advise the grad student to press a little harder than he did for first authorship, but as Greg says it could be a tough call. Fighting with your advisor is rough.

  3. #3 oliviacw
    February 13, 2009

    I have to say, it might matter a little if “colleague” were a fellow graduate student, or a faculty member. I can certainly see some faculty members thinking that if something is going to be published out of their department, it should have a faculty member on it as an author.

    On the other hand, if colleague is another faculty member, then at most advisor should be negotiating with colleague over the authorship, and not imposing on the poor graduate student.

    In any case, advisor should get no more than last author position. At the (admitted elite) university I did my graduate work at, in the departments I was familiar with it was generally considered gracious and appropriate mentoring for the advisor to take last author position on work that was substially performed by grad students.

  4. #4 bsci
    February 13, 2009

    Before the research was done, the student spoke to his advsior.
    Did the advisor argue and push the idea and at all affect design of the experiment before it was done? Generally a conversation alone isn’t enough for authorship, but since it sounds like the project itself was relatively quick, one conversation could be relevant.

    From the description here, it sounds like the advisor was brought back into the discussion after the data was collected, but before there was a paper. Was the advisor planning/willing to actively work or give significant advice on data analysis, manuscript writing and editing, and journal selection.

    If either of these are true, the advisor has a reasonable claim to authorship. The concept of first authorship for this situation doesn’t make much sense.

  5. #5 HI
    February 14, 2009

    I am interested to know what DrugMonkey and PhysioProf have to say. Most likely the adviser was paying the graduate student as well as for the cost of doing the side project from his/her grant. So, one may argue that the adviser contributed by providing the environment where this research was possible. The graduate student discussed about this side project with the adviser and the adviser might have contributed to the project intellectually, however marginally. My impression of reading their blog is that DrugMonkey/PhysioProf would think that anyone who doesn’t see the importance of contributions made by PIs (in general) by getting the grants and making the research possible is naive and ignorant about the way science is done today. I don’t think that the situation is always as simple as that, but I do see the point that the project could have been impossible without the adviser. Whether justified or not, I know that it is customary for a PI to get an authorship in a case like this in many biomedical fields.

    On the other hand, the adviser certainly does not deserves to be the first author in a case like this. The adviser is abusing his/her power over mentee by demanding to be the first author. Unfortunately, the graduate student is in a vulnerable position and I don’t know any easy solution. I hate that.

  6. #6 Dveduu
    February 14, 2009

    What field is this? It seems weird for an advisor to want to be first author…
    And the grad student’s salary etc gets paid by the advisor, who therefore implicitly contributes to the grad student’s research.

  7. #7 Tony Jeremiah
    February 14, 2009

    There’s some good coverage of authorship and mentoring issues in a text by Macrina (2000):

    First, are there any legitimate grounds which you think the advisor in this case could offer to support an authorship claim?

    In many guidelines, naming the contributions that do not merit authorship have been as helpful as naming those that do. Merely providing funding for the work, or having the status of group or unit leader does not alone justify authorship. Neither does providing lab space or the use of instrumentation. Finally, doing routine technical work on the project, providing services or materials for a fee, or manuscript editing in themselves are not sufficient justification for authorship. (Macrina, 2000, p.60)

    Based on this info, the advisor has no basis for making an authorship claim (and definitely not first authorship) given their only contribution was that of being the lab leader who gave the student permission to conduct a side research project. To extend this absurdity to its logical conclusion, if such a “scientific” contribution were the basis for a first author designation for every journal article written, it would undermine the integrity of citing and referencing particular authors, and more pragmatically, make scientific correspondence more problematic, given that scientific correspondence is usually to the first author, who is assumed to be the primary source of ideas within a paper.

    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?

    There appears to be some relevant info in the Macrina text concerning conflict management. Macrina states that academic institutions should have conflict-of-interest statutes that may contain protocols for dealing with such situations. So the student may wish to look for such a document as a type of contractual document to address the issue; alternatively, institutions should have in place oversight committees for monitoring and addressing such situations. Most likely, such a committee should not consist of persons who have a conflict of interest concerning the issue being addressed; in this case, the meeting between advisor, graduate student and her colleague.

    Your correspondent’s analysis seems like the most appropriate way to go, concerning the indicated organizational structure of the academic institution.

    Reference

    Macrina, F.L. (2000). Scientific integrity: An introductory text with cases (2nd ed). American Society for Microbiology Press.

  8. #8 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 14, 2009

    I don’t see how the advisor has any claim to authorship in this case, assuming that the facts as you present them are exhaustive. And the possible justification of the student’s stipend being paid by the advisor is a red herring. This is a totally different situation from a trainee coming up with her own experimental ideas within the broad overall scope of the research program of a PI’s laboratory and receiving intellectual and infrastructural support from the PI and her laboratory, in which case the PI is absolutely a legitimate senior author, regardless of whether she directly participated in carrying out experiments or writing the paper.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    February 14, 2009

    CPP: I don’t dispute that you are correct in this lab-ratty world you’all are talking about, but in my field, if a person does not put words to the page they are not an author of the paper. If a person writes a paper and fails to acknowledge important contributions (which in some fields may yield authorship) than that is also considered inappropriate. That does not stop people from inappropriately taking authorship, but it is considered wrong.

  10. #10 HI
    February 15, 2009

    CPP, if that’s your opinion, I must have misread your position. Maybe I’m too cynical. I feel PIs are often too happy to get credits for whatever indirect contributions.

    To be a little more serious, I guess my position on authorship (in general, not this particular case) is somewhere between CPP and Greg Laden. Even if a paper is within the overall scope of the lab, the extent of intellectual and infrastructural support a trainee receives from a PI can vary from a project to project. Therefore, I don’t think that the PI automatically has a claim to an authorship. On the other hand, publishing a paper involves more than physically performing the experiments and typing the manuscript. Designing an experiment can be more important than who ends up actually carrying out the experiment. Such contributions merit credits. (Although I prefer all authors to be involved in actual writing and editing of a manuscript and also the trainees should not be regarded only as hands to carry out the experiments.)

  11. #11 sfguy
    February 15, 2009

    Given the scenario as presented here, I agree that the advisor has no basis for a claim of authorship and am rather appalled that the advisor would assert one.

    However, the student is currently in a lose-lose situation as appealing to the head of the academic unit is a losing strategy. Advisors have so much control over their students’ progress and initial career prospects that the risk of alienation seems too great for that strategy.

    The life lesson learned here is that the student should save his or her good ideas until after graduation.

  12. #12 hypatia cade
    February 15, 2009

    One thing I learned (both as a grad student and as a new faculty member) is that when you as a student are learning many things are difficult. Working for a long time on something difficulty (i.e. data coding, doing a lit review, etc) can make your contribution seem greater to you than the contribution of someone else more experienced who perhaps did more to move the paper along. As someone new these things can be hard to see and relative contributions to the intellectual development of the paper, as opposed to relative contributions in terms of time or sweat & tears, can be hard to evaluate. I’d be curious to hear how the PI (or even the colleague) in this scenario describe what happened.

    That said I’ve been burned more than once by pointing out that providing funding and lab space alone does not merit authorship….

  13. #13 notedscholar
    February 15, 2009

    The advisor is justified on broadly Hobbesian grounds. Says Hobbes in Leviathan,

    [I]f there had been any man of power irresistible, there had been no reason why he should not by that power have ruled, and defended both himself and them, according to his own discretion. To those, therefore, whose power is irresistible, the dominion of all men adhereth naturally by their excellence of power.

    This applies perfectly to the advisor in your correspondent’s situation. As for your second question, I can’t see any viable option. The student would have to find something that the advisor cares about more than authorship of the paper, and provide it. But it’s unlikely that the student has these resources. Unless, of course, the advisor wants something the student can inherently provide, i.e. physical labor or other services (as Chris Hitchens would say, better imagined than said aloud).

    NS
    http://sciencedefeated.wordpress.com/

  14. #14 Tony Jeremiah
    February 15, 2009

    That said I’ve been burned more than once by pointing out that providing funding and lab space alone does not merit authorship….

    This is probably indicative of a cultural difference. In psychology, funding sources (and all of the other things Macrina suggests do not warrant authorship), are often given recognition in an ‘Acknowledgement’ section at the end of a paper by the (actual) authors of the paper.

    I’m not familiar with the cultural ethos of professional recognition in the natural sciences. From what I’m reading here, it seems as though journal articles in the natural sciences do not have an Acknowledgement section. This would seem to be a straighforward way of addressing an issue Janet points out (i.e., 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.).

    Wanting recognition for contributing to a paper is understandable. Wanting recognition (i.e., authorship) that implies that one directly contributed to ideas within a paper without actually having done so, is just misleading, pathetic, and more political than scientific.

  15. #15 el jefe MS
    February 15, 2009

    I think there are some details missing in the story, but with the information given, I agree with your take on the situation. That said, I think the advisor is decidedly old-school. In my experience at the institution where I am a graduate student, most professors are quite willing to let the student take first authorship. The university doesn’t much care what order the authorship is on the paper for tenure consideration as long as the PI is bringing in grants and getting their name on enough publications. While, this is most certainly variable between fields and institutions, at least for the people I’ve been around in the ecology/biology fields, most PI’s understand that having their students publish, reflects well on them. I think this is a gradual change that has been happening over the past decade or so. Multi-author papers are standard now (I’ve seen papers with 20 authors in the medical fields), and it’s really just ego that makes a professor, especially a tenured one, insist that they are the first name and not in the et al. when a paper is referenced. I’ve even heard of some journals that want the PI as the last author, as the position for the caretaker of the data. The two claims which I think are legitimate (and sometimes in conflict) for first author ship are: 1. Having the original idea. 2. Being the driving force for getting the paper published. Beyond that it’s all grey area. I’m in favor of journals making each author spell out their contribution. At least it makes the authors think about what they did.

  16. #16 DrugMonkey
    February 15, 2009

    HI, I think we simply do not have enough information regarding exactly how things went down when the PI extended the short window to see how things went. We do not know where the research was conducted, what resources were used and how closely the topic related to the ongoing major thrusts of the laboratory.

    My position, and that I glean from PP’s, is considerably less extreme than you seem to think. It is more about pointing out that trainees who whine about the bigPI getting on papers are inclined to over look and minimize real contributions. Real contributions which include physical and intellectual resources that were necessary for success.

    I doubt you’ve ever heard us support authorship when the PI had zero connection to the work.

  17. #17 Alex
    February 15, 2009

    I’m not really shocked to hear of an advisor being a jerk. I am shocked, however, to hear of an advisor wanting first author credit. What matters for advisors in most fields is last author and/or corresponding author, i.e. some evidence of being the leader on the work. Now, leadership credit almost certainly isn’t deserved here (middle authorship may or may not be deserved) but I would expect a sleazy PI to fight for leadership credit, because leadership credit will be more valuable for him.

    If this sleazy advisor were at least a rational sleazy advisor, he’d be arguing for last author instead of middle author.

  18. #18 E
    February 16, 2009

    We don’t know enough. For example, in the initial discussion where the adviser agreed to let the student work on it, did the adviser’s skepticism or questions point out weakness of the original plan that the student then improved upon? If so, then they’d have a reasonable expectation of being N-th author. Editing for grammar gets an acknowledgment at most. But if someone provides feedback on the manuscript such as connecting to previous research, implications for future directions, etc., then that would merit N-th authorship.

    As a grad student, I wrote solo author papers, appreciated my adviser’s advice, and I was a bit bothered that my adviser didn’t want to be last author. On the other hand, I’ve let postdocs spend some time on a project of their own, and then I end up having to put a ton of time into the project, so that it makes a strong paper. Now, I can understand that he probably just didn’t want his name on the paper the way it was and didn’t have the time to help me turn it into a really strong paper.

  19. #19 CC
    February 19, 2009

    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.

    1) I’d be surprised to see a department head take sides on an authorship squabble, let alone write letters to embarrass one of his faculty.

    2) A letter from your department head stating that you’ve been involved in a authorship squabble is a very poor substitute for having your PI actively helping you get a postdoc.

    3) Whistleblower laws don’t provide you with some magical immunity from consequences, even if they were deemed applicable in a pure authorship dispute with no money or fraud. The student would be “protected” how? Basically, escalating to that level of dispute constitutes a career change from researcher to professional whistleblower.

  20. #20 Lab Lemming
    February 21, 2009

    No, and no.

    The student’s best bet is to write the handling editor explaining the situation, and asking for the specific guidelines for that particular journal. I know of instances where authorship order has been changed as part of the review process.

    Before doing that, the student would be wise to google both the handling editor and his advisor, in case they shared an office or did postdocs together.

    Confronting an advisor is a high risk strategy. Advisors who are in the habit of strong-arming their students can be extremely vindictive when their authority is challenged.

    Appealing to departmental figures is a high risk strategy. Some departments award first authorship to supervising professors as departmental policy. In other cases, the department head may be jut as likely to ask the professor to keep his students in-line and on a shorter leash, instead of causing trouble.

    Dr. F-R’s correspondent seems to have a love&roses view of justice in the academic world. He or she would be wise to look into the Aetogate scandal to see how things actually work.

    http://www.miketaylor.org.uk/dino/nm/

  21. #21 C.B. Willis
    February 16, 2010

    While the grad student is still a grad student, research he
    does in the field could be considered to be “under the
    auspices of” the advisor, and by extension the department
    and faculty. But the other side of that is for the advisor
    to be gracious and to *place himself* in the last author
    position.

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