Adventures in Ethics and Science

Ethical use of student labor.

MommyProf wonders whether some of the goings on in her department are ethical. She presents two cases. I’m going to look at them in reverse order.

Case 2: Faculty member is tenure-track and he and I have collaborated on a paper. He was supposed to work on the literature, and sends me a literature review. It reads a little strangely to me, and I check the properties and find that it was actually written by an undergraduate in one of his classes. I write back to him and ask if that undergrad should be an author on the paper, since it would be a fairly major contribution, and he says yes, he forgot. This faculty member is assigned a graduate student each semester. This semester, the faculty member’s graduate student comes to me and said his work has included collecting and analyzing all the data and writing substantial portions of the lit review, but the student is not being credited on the final paper.

This case embodies a number of problems of which we have spoken before, at length.

Indeed, it bears some striking similarities to a case we considered a couple years ago. (In that case, an undergraduate research intern was helping an advanced graduate student in the research group to round up the relevant literature background for their research project … and the undergraduates summary of that relevant literature crept, word for word, into the graduate student’s dissertation.) Here’s what I wrote about that case:

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!)

*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.

That pretty much captures the dimensions of the wrongness here. Representing oneself as responsible for the writing (and reading, and analysis) that one has subcontracted to someone else is lying. It’s lying about who deserves credit for the intellectual labor, and it’s lying about one’s ability to deal effectively with the follow-up questions about the work that are supposed to be a normal part of the discourse between scientists.

And, it comes pretty close to treating students as mere means to one’s own ends rather than taking their ends into account.

This last element appears in MommyProf’s other case:

Case 1: Faculty member was hired ABD, with understanding that he would move to tenure track after first year, once he defends his dissertation. This is his third year, no dissertation, and he’s in trouble. Faculty member comes to me in the fall and wants me to assign students in the graduate basket methodology class to collect data for him. I say no. The students need to work on things that will benefit the students. This spring, he asks me to assign graduate assistants to him that the department pays to work on his dissertation data collection. I tell him no. The university gives us money to pay graduate student to develop those students and to meet needs at this university, not the one where he is doing his doctorate. He contacts all the graduate students and asks them to volunteer to collect his data for him. One agrees. He goes to another faculty member behind my back and asks that faculty member to lend a university-paid graduate student to collect his data.

My first reaction is to wonder how exactly this faculty member managed to get hired.

Part of this may be that there’s a little bit of ambiguity about the “D” in ABD. Sometimes ABD means “all but degree” (i.e., the ABD has completed all the research and writing, and all that remains is the defense and whatever revisions are requested my the committee in the aftermath of that defense). In this case, though, it sounds like ABD means “all but dissertation” — which might just mean that all the course requirements have been completed and the qualifying or cumulative exams have been passed. This sense of ABD (not the one I usually have in mind when I hear the term) leaves open the possibility that the dissertation isn’t written (even in draft form) and a great deal of research remains to be done.

Going on the market when the dissertation isn’t drafted and the research is nowhere near completed strikes me as a monumentally bad idea. The reason is pretty simple: if you’re hired, your employer will almost certainly have work for you to do — and doing this work will cut into the time you have available to finish your graduate research and get it written up. If there’s not a realistic hope of wrapping up the research and writing in the time interval between getting hired and commencing your formal duties at the new job, you’d better have a time-machine that’s still on warrantee. Especially because you might have some other things to do in that time interval, like prepping new classes, or packing up and moving.

The flip side of this applies to the hiring institution. It strikes me as a monumentally bad idea to hire someone who is nowhere near done while demanding that this new hire finish all that research and writing and teach courses, set up a lab, secure research funding for new projects, and maybe even serve on a committee or two, in the first year of employment. Indeed, this is more ridiculous than the most ridiculous requirements for tenure I’ve heard over the years. There literally are not enough hours in the day. I would suspect the faculty who claimed this as a reasonably-doable requirement of either planning to cut loose the ABD after a year of teaching, or of being so na├»ve as to be dangerous senior colleagues to have.

Here, though, MommyProf’s ABD colleague was retained, not cut loose. And, it seems as though the department is making some effort to help the ABD colleague finish up that old research and get the stinking Ph.D.

However, that effort isn’t coming in the form of protected time for ABD colleague to finish up (e.g., a one semester or one year buy-out from teaching duties and committee service and advising duties). Rather, it looks almost as if a graduate student is being assigned to do the research and data collect that ABD colleague should have done himself (you know, as part of his graduate research culminating in a dissertation). MommyProf rightly notes that this kind of thing is concerning if it doesn’t benefit the student in question somehow. Is this data collection duty the kind of thing that would advance the knowledge of the student assigned to it, or support the student’s own research activities? Will it delay the student’s progress on his or her own research project? Will he or she get any credit (e.g., in the form of an acknowledgment in ABD colleague’s dissertation, once it is written) for this labor?

And incidentally, how will ABD colleague’s thesis committee look upon an acknowledgment that these research activities have been delegated to others? If they would have no problem with it (properly acknowledged), that’s one thing. If they would regard it as a problem as far as ABD’s completion of requirements for the Ph.D., then this way of “helping” ABD colleague seems pretty dangerous.

DrugMonkey turns up in the comments to present a different perspective on this situation:

case 1 is strange to me. Admittedly in my fields it would be unlikely that anyone is hired without postdoctoral experience, never mind ABD! but if the department hired someone ABD, they are in some ways taking on the responsibility of helping that person complete. maybe that means a reduced workload in the first year, I don’t know. But there would seem to be some commitment here. Again, in biomedical sciences, trainees work with the faculty on “their” (the faculty member’s) work, so to speak. Providing departmental resources to support trainees when the new professor has no grant support is totally part of the help provided to get a new faculty member launched. There is no ethical knock on the new faculty member.

I agree with DrugMonkey that either there was some kind of commitment by the hiring department to help ABD colleague or that they had made their peace with the strong possibility of a couple years of extracting labor from him and then cutting him loose. And if ABD colleague’s current research program is a clear extension of the (not yet finished) dissertation project, and the graduate students assigned to help are actually joining ABD colleague’s research group, that makes it less obvious that the students are being used as mere means. (This assumes, though, that ABD colleague will be taking their interests seriously, giving them proper acknowledgment, working to mentor them, etc. — more time-consuming than treating them as lab-slaves, to be sure!)

Was ABD colleague promised more help in getting finished than was actually delivered by the hiring department?

Was the hiring department led to believe, before they proffered their offer of employment, that ABD colleague was much closer to being finished than he actually was?

I wonder if the situation here is the result of one side or the other (or maybe both) promising more than they could deliver. And I hope that in cleaning up the resulting mess, there’s more transparency from ABD colleague and the department about what the students are being asked to do, what they will get for their efforts, and what they are owed by department, advisor, and other faculty as part of their training.

Comments

  1. #1 phisrow
    February 20, 2010

    In the first case given, is there any reason at all why the Professor’s behavior should not be treated as repeated plagiarism, with all the usual consequences(ie. dropping the hammer with extreme prejudice)?

    The fact that he is also treating his students as a means merely rather than an end doesn’t help; but I’d be far more worried about the plagiarism angle.

    If some lazy undergrad “forgot” to credit a classmate for a substantial chunk of an assignment, it would go badly for him. If it was later revealed that this wasn’t his only “oversight” it would go yet worse for him. Someone who has made it to a faculty position should arguably be treated as even more fully adult and responsible for their actions. Unless we aren’t hearing about something very extenuating, I’d be inclined to nail him to the wall(and, even then, how competent can somebody who can’t manage to keep track of a few simple attributions be? Unless his beloved granny is dying of sorrow cancer at the time, he is either malicious or incompetent).

  2. #2 Jim Thomerson
    February 20, 2010

    I recall a situation, some 40 years ago, where a professor was hired who only had a MS. He was told that he had to attain a PhD or equivalent within a specified period of time. He attained the highest level of certification from his professional organization, but was let go anyway. I think it was much more common to hire ABD’s in those days than it is now. These days, most position descriptions say postdoc experience will be preferred.

    When I was a grad student, a professor hired one of the grad students to draw a graph for publication. The student’s contribution was not acknowledged in the publication. We discussed this at some length and came to the conclusion that the student should have been acknowledged, even though paid. If not, the reader would assume the professor had drawn the graph, which was not the case. My rule has been to acknowledge as widely as called for. An acknowledgment costs nothing, but a missed acknowledgment can cost you in the future.

  3. #3 Kim
    February 20, 2010

    It’s not uncommon for undergrad-only institutions to hire people ABD. (And it’s very common for undergrad institutions to hire someone ABD as an adjunct or as a sabbatical replacement.) The cases that I know about involve grad students who had run out of support from their PhD institution – they were guaranteed four years of TAing, maybe, and those four years just weren’t enough, and their graduate adviser didn’t have a grant at the right time. (It’s very common for geoscience faculty to have times when they’re between grants – even faculty at the top-rated institutions.) And the undergrad institutions generally don’t give anyone time off from teaching (until the faculty member qualifies for a sabbatical or a pre-tenure leave). So this story is probably worth repeating to unfunded nearly-done grad students – it is really, really hard to write a dissertation while teaching a full load of 2 to 4 classes per semester. (It’s hard to get new research started, too, but at least someone with a PhD has the experience of writing up a piece of work and dealing with criticism of it.)

  4. #4 Tex
    February 20, 2010

    With so many people on the market with full-blown, legitimate Ph.D.s, and many of them with several years of relevant experience, any department that hires someone out of the ABD pool gets exactly what they deserve.

    Well, not really. They deserve far worse than this, but apparently that is all karma can seem to muster up for the moment.

  5. #5 Tex
    February 20, 2010

    And another thing – In case 2, the incidents of plaigarism must be brought up at this person’s tenure discussion (if you don’t fire him first before he causes real problems).

    Neither of these cases seem to be that difficult to me. But then again, I have been accused of seeing everything in black and white. This may be true, because these are both very, black.

  6. #6 Vasha
    February 21, 2010

    Forty years ago, my father was hired as an ABD to teach mathematics at an undergraduate-only institution, never finished his dissertation, and got tenure anyway. The circumstances were unusual: he was hired particularly to develop Computer-Aided Instruction at a time when computer skills were not common. Also, he remained an Associate Professor for the rest of his career in spite of applying for promotion to full professor several times — however, as far as I know, the lack of a degree was not one of the reasons given for turning him down.

  7. #7 anon
    February 21, 2010

    What about cases where someone plagiarizes in his grants, like in the lit review sections? I’ve dealt with a guy who clearly had no experience with the technology or the type of project for the grant and didn’t have the best English writing skills, but the background section of the grant didn’t show any of that (and he wrote the whole thing all by his lonesome). It was pretty clear to to me that a lot of it was lifted from the open source project’s website, especially since most of it had almost nothing to do with the actual grant proposal. It didn’t seem to bother the other PhDs on the grant, but it felt a little slippery slope to me – if he’s already pulling that kind of garbage, what’s to stop him from continuing?

  8. #8 antipodean
    February 21, 2010

    anon at 3pm

    Do you really think that all of a grant is sctually written by the investigators listed on that grant?

    Grants are often written by a team of people and the investigators are chosen for strategic reasons.

    Cut and paste off a website is a cheap trick though… and when it’s papers it’s a whole different kettle.

  9. #9 Namnezia
    February 21, 2010

    antipodean says:

    Do you really think that all of a grant is sctually written by the investigators listed on that grant? Grants are often written by a team of people and the investigators are chosen for strategic reasons.

    In my field the investigators of course write the grant, if not us then who? Who is this team of people that then chooses the investigators for strategic reasons? Maybe for a large project grant the lead PI might allocate some of the writing to the other PIs, and different investigators have different degrees of contribution to the grant, but it is always the investigators that write it. Unless there’s something I don’t know about here.

  10. #10 Namnezia
    February 21, 2010

    I have to say that I find both of these cases very strange. First, I see no reason why the undergrad who is essentially writing the introduction and probably part of the discussion of the paper should not be an author. I don’t think an acknowledgement is sufficient in any case and it hurts no one to include everyone who has contributed. WHY ARE PEOPLE SO EXCLUSIVE ABOUT THESE THINGS?! My policy in my lab is to include everyone who either has contributed intellectually to the data collection, analysis and/or the writing. There’s always the “author contribution” section most journals require which then allow you to elaborate on the individual roles everyone played in the study.

    The second case is even stranger. How can you be ABD if you haven even collected the data for your theses!?! In what kind of field can you get hired ABD and then “switched” to tenure track once you defend? Why can’t I be in one of those fields?! This is unheard of in the life sciences.

  11. #11 antipodean
    February 21, 2010

    Namnezia “In my field the investigators of course write the grant, if not us then who?”

    Answer: the postdocs, phd students and other highly skilled research associates write some of it.

  12. #12 anon at 3pm
    February 22, 2010

    In this case, the person in question was a postdoc with no access to students and this was one of his first attempts to get grant funding on his own. It wasn’t some big NIH grant and, quite frankly, there is a world of science-y goodness that exists outside of bio/chem labs and their particular form of grant writing. So he wrote it on his own, gave it to the other PIs to review who then gave it to me and the partner group to review. The background information (and the main goal of the grant) was outside this guy’s field of expertise (that fell into my area and that of the partner group) and he admitted as much to a different group a couple weeks prior. The other PIs also have no idea about this particular type of project and commented more on budgets and grammar. The only other person involved is a staffer who only edits things for spelling, grammar and not actual content. So he wrote it by himself. Why would plagiarism in a grant be acceptable? It’s not published? Because it was a dude with a PhD? Seriously, integrity isn’t situational.

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