The author unaware.

May 15 2006 Published by under Tribe of Science

When non-scientists think about the big ethical issues in the practice of science (beyond questions of how much freedom scientists should have with the tax-payers' money, and whether scientists ought to be "playing God"), they usually think about the three mortal sins of fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism.
Thought the big three happen, for most scientists they don't really present ethical questions. Scientists know they are wrong. If you ask scientists about the ethical issues that need the most clarification, one that usually comes up is authorship. In working on scientific research with other scientists, most scientists have had occasion to wonder who really is supposed to be an author of a particular manuscript.
A personal anecdote of mine about authorship (from the vault) below the fold.


Googling my name one night (shut up! you do it too!), I was shocked to discover that I have one more scientific publication than I thought I did. As second author, even! But this shock should be understandable given that I never saw the manuscript, not even in early drafts. Nor, for that matter, was I ever informed that it was published.
And yet, there's my name on it. If any problems with the content of the article came to light, I'd be on the hook for them.
What the heck is going on here?
I was, in fact, a student in the lab from which the manuscript was produced. I did, in fact, run a gazillion experiments and collect stacks of data on the experimental systems described in the article. So, my involvement in the research was actual rather than fabricated.
Most of the data was collected during my last summer in this laboratory, which was the summer right before I went off to graduate school. However, it may be worth noting that I worked in the lab as a "student intern" -- I wasn't (to the best of my recollection) funded at all by the PI's research grants, and instead had to scare up student research grants through my college so that I didn't have to sling hash during the hours I wasn't in the lab. This made me a bit of an outsider in the lab group -- I was there primarily to learn a variety of laboratory techniques that broadened my experience, giving me more research options in grad school. I think I left a forwarding address when I left the lab, but it's possible I didn't.
While I was in the lab group, my interactions with the PI were very limited. After my crash course in the experimental techniques I'd be using (from one of the senior lab techs, who was a very good teacher), the PI handed me a project to do, and I passed back the data as I collected it. That was pretty much it. I was never included in any discussion of why we were studying what we were studying, or of what the predicted outcomes might be for the particular experiments I was doing. I was a somewhat glorified piece of laboratory equipment. (Why glorified? I actually had to find some clever ways to deal with non-standard parts of the experiments. And, apparently, my data was very clean.)
In some ways, though it was pretty frustrating to feel like I was only a few steps up from a sonicator, the data may have benefitted from my being out of the conceptual loop. I was just reporting what I saw. I wouldn't have known how to fudge data if you had asked me to, simply because I had no bloody idea what "we" expected to see.
So, yes, I produced a bunch of data from experiments I did with my own two hands. And, some of my brain power was directed at tweaking the experimental design to make it work. And, it would seem, the fact that a discussion of this data resulted in a publication means that the data showed something of value.
But why am I an author (the second author, right after the PI) on this paper? If my contribution to the research was significant enough that I should be listed as an author, shouldn't I also have at least seen a manuscript (if not have participated in drafting it) before I was submitted to the journal? If I was listed as an author as a recognition of my hard work (and something that would potentially help my scientific career -- hey looky, a publication!), why wasn't I, say, told about it by the PI so I could realize the benefits of being published? (This was before Google, so there was no reasonable expectation that I'd quickly come across my achievement in the course of Googling myself.)
By the way, I don't really see how I can add this publication to my CV, given who I am and what I do now.
I take it that there are many more cases of "authorship" of this sort than most people outside the scientific bubble realize. I'm hopeful that there's less of it now than there was back then ... but I'm going to have to start asking around to see.

Comments are off for this post

  • Bill Hooker says:

    Googling my name one night (shut up! you do it too!)
    Not without "safe search" turned on, I don't.

  • Markk says:

    Just to point out though - suppose I was trying to duplicate this experiment and got into trouble with part of the process and had questions. Or suppose I thought this data HAD to be fabricated. Wouldn't I want to talk to you - not the top guy? You were the one who did run the actual tests and got numbers right? Are you saying then that you are NOT responsible for the numbers you gave the team?
    (I am just being a devils advocate here - it is interesting.)

  • Polly Anna says:

    Oh, my! Indeed, this aspect of authorship is still around, but I fear it is much less an issue of breach of ethics to modern authors and researchers than simple resentment over lack of courtesy of communication. In today's world that goes by batting averages (number of pubs, citation stats) rather than RBI's and assists (quality), the addition of another pub to one's CV far offsets any question of ethics, even though it might be on a questionable study.
    Far more serious than your example is the everyday form of plagiarism that fails to give credit where credit is due, the most severe of which is failing to include a contributor as author, but more commonly the failure of author's to cite previous contributions and act as though the discovery was completely new. Note how many times a single gene nowadays is renamed and published as a novel finding without reference to a previous publication that discovered and characterized it at earlier times.
    Not to mention the glamour seekers who cite superficial articles in glamour journals despite the fact they acquired the concepts or practical aspects by personal communication, the internet, or a less glamorous journal.
    An ironic twist of this is a recent study that revealed that similar to false news in the lay press, retracted and even fabricated papers continue to be cited for years particularly if they are in socio-scientific glamour journals as Science, Cell and Nature.
    [Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart--Anne Frank]

  • clarrie says:

    stoopid right-ponder question: what's PI stand for?
    PI= principle investigator. Sorry about the jargon, and do ask again if I fall into it!
    --JDS

  • Blair says:

    Doc,
    Give yourself credit, if I read your article correctly you were:
    1) handed a project, not a recipe but a project
    2) provided an experimental design that required "tweaking"
    3) were required to find some clever ways to deal with non-standard parts of the experiment
    4) You then ran "run a gazillion experiments and collect[ed] stacks of data on the experimental systems"
    5) By your own description your data was "very clean" and
    6) Finally and of tremendous import in this case (clearly you don't see it that way) you were performing the task for no renumeration from the PI.
    By these standards I would fully expect you to be recognized in the article. Sure you didn't analyze the data but you made a substantial input of intellectual and physical capital into the project. Were you paid to do the work I might have a slightly different view but by most standards your donating your services made you a co-investigator and while you may feel that the interpretation makes the data, often the data makes the interpretation. If your data was as clean as described it could be argued that the presence of the high-quality data was what got the answer in the first place. If a patent were derived from the work your input would give you legal claim to be put on the patent as well.
    Don't undersell your input in this prioject and more importantly don't undersell those others who do similar work. I'm pretty sure that if one of my collegues chose to not include as an author someone who clearly contributed that much to the success of the work the result would be a grievance (and probably a successful one at that).