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 naïve 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.
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.