Scholarly Integrity – Post Docs & Pudding Cups

This case study is from the ORI RCR Resource Development Casebook from the Authorship and Publication chapter.
Summary of case study: A young post doc has taken a position at a famous institution with a strong publish or perish culture. She has some difficulty writing writing scientific papers in appropriate and nuanced English; so she typically asks colleagues to review and help edit her writing.
Ana (post doc) enjoys giving people ideas and supporting them. In return, she sometimes asks for help with her writing and is happy to acknowledge their assistance in her papers. But when colleagues return her manuscripts with their names included in the list of authors, Ana is stunned. It seems they feel entitled to do this. Though she feels others are taking advantage of her, she refuses to change. She gains satisfaction by thinking that she is helping to improve science. She says her goal is to be a good scientist, not to fight over who gets to be an author of her work.
Yet Ana is upset when her lab boss not only puts his name on her work, but also takes a proposal she has prepared for funding by NIH and sends it off under his name–without even discussing that with her. She mentions it to him, and he just looks at her as though she were crazy.
Ana is unsure what recourse she has. She values the opportunity to share ideas with others and get their responses, and is unwilling to do anything that will cut off that rich intellectual interaction. The theft of her ideas seems a minor price to pay for her scholarly environment.
What should Ana do?
Colleagues claiming undeserved authorship: I think that it is great that Ana is so altruistic and wants to contribute to the scientific community. However, if her colleagues did not contribute to the major components of the study development, data analysis, or anything of the sort, than they certainly do not deserve authorship. Authorship should be based on substantial intellectual contribution! Reading a manuscript and providing feedback does not make you a co-author. It makes you a decent co-worker who might be able to ask for the same sometime in the future at best. The APA provides guidelines on authorship if anyone is struggling or is interested, they can be found here.
Supervisors stealing grant proposals: That’s a big no-no. It doesn’t matter how big or small the grant is – that’s fraud, baby. That guy should be canned. Never allowed to supervise anyone ever again, be stripped of all his awards, and probably publicly shamed. I can think of nothing worse than taking a bright young researcher and disheartening them to further your own agenda. That is a selfish and horrid thing to do and that type of person should not be allowed to interact with people, let alone perform research on them.
Look – I can see why Ana wouldn’t want to speak up. It’s intimidating. There’s a major imbalance of power there, and the potential for negative recourse on her end is high being the new kid on the block, but that the no reason to stay silent. You are not an idea factory for the powers that be. You cannot allow yourself to be beaten down by those “above” you, because they’re not really above you, not ethically or morally – perhaps in rank. It can get better for you if you continue to seek opportunities and don’t confirm to the wacky power structure that they’re trying to impose on you.  It is important to stand up for yourself and your work, otherwise  people are going to walk all over you and steal your work for the rest of your life.  Or worse – people will steal your pudding cup from your lunch.
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  1. In reading this, I’m thinking that there are always many sides to a story. For Ana’s lab boss putting his name on her work, I would assume that in most situations this is completely justified. While journals differ slightly in their requirements for authorship contribution, many PIs readily meet the criteria because they have likely been the ones that: obtained funding for the project (even if it was a grant specifically given to a PhD student, or post doc, the mentors assisted with this, and the mentorship they provide is part of the scoring criteria for most jr investigator grants); provided expert insight on study design; analysis and interpretation of the data; and drafting/critical revision of the manuscript. Just another view on the situation!

    • Hey Tanya, thanks for reading. In the case of Ana’s boss it was a NIH grant proposal (if memory serves correctly) and he removed her name and put his own in its place. Coauthorship is a grey area sometimes, but I believe that one is flat out plagiarism. What are your thoughts on that?

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