Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Keep your head down? What would you do?

As Bill pointed out, Janet Stemwedel from Adventure in Ethics and Science recently posted a story about "standing against bad behavior and standing with the members of the community who are harmed by it".

Stemwedel ask some good questions: "Today's junior scientists are tomorrow's senior scientists, after all. If they're supposed to butt out of things until they are actually senior scientists, how will they get any practice at dealing with disputes within their tribe? And how will the community they have joined reflect their values as well as the values of the greybeards?...

As well, if an advisor is trying to protect a trainee from harm in these discussions within the tribe, I think the advisor may have a responsibility to get involved in those discussions. Especially around cases like Aetogate, where the central charge was that plagiarism and claim-jumping was being committed against junior people in the field by senior people in the field, senior people who do not speak up to protect the interests of junior people cannot expect that junior people in the field will not raise their voices to protect their own interests. The silence of senior people in such cases also speaks to junior people: it says"We don't care." Sympathizing in the privacy of a research group does very little to address conduct that causes harm to members of the scientific community.

If the grown-ups in a scientific community don't take it upon themselves to police the bad actors and to develop standards that help the whole community work together to build a reliable body of knowledge and a group of responsible practitioners, who on earth will?"

For example, what would you do in this situation: You are studentA, working on your thesis project. You find out towards the completion of your project that studentB from another school was allowed by your advisor to look at your specimen and do their own work on it (for inclusion in a larger project). StudentB is aware that you are working on this specimen for your thesis research. You find out after graduation that studentB has published a paper on your specimen before you can (as a stand-alone specific piece on the specimen and NOT as part of a lager body of work just mentioning it), preempting and not acknowledging your prior work. 

What do you do? Is this another case of scooping (this time student scooping student)? Would the right thing have been for studentB to contact studentA and let them know they are working on it also and ask when/if studentA is going to publish on their thesis research? Should studentA just get over it and keep thier head down? What is the right or ethical things to do here? How is this similar or diffrent from the Aetogate controversy? How long do you, as a scientist, wait for a specimen to be published on beforeyou publish something on it yourself (assuming they have done work on the specimen prior to you)?

© ReBecca K. Hunt-Foster


Andy said...

As described, this is a definite case of "scooping." If B knew that A was working on the specimen as a primary focus of a thesis project, B should never have submitted a paper with A's thesis specimen as a central focus of the manuscript. This is wrong because the paper scoops student A, and B knew that it did. The right thing for B to do would have been to contact A. . .one workable option would be for B and A to co-author something together (particularly if B had some new insights into the specimen, or something else major to add).

As for how long I wait to publish on a specimen that someone else is working on. . .in most cases, until it's published! That is, unless I discuss it with the relevant investigator first, and get the ok. In cases of including a specimen as one data point within a larger dataset, it's usually no problem.

Of course, there are also the annoying cases of people sitting on specimens for decades (and refusing access), or graduate students disappearing before publishing, or any number of other situations. In this case, I would consider it best to make all reasonable efforts to contact the relevant people before doing anything.

Jim L. said...

My personal concern would be over the lack of acknowledgement by StudentB when he published his paper. It seems like it would not have been a big deal to just site the thesis. I mean the thesis was completed prior to StudentB's published work and StudentA had been working on the specimen exclusivley. So what would have been the big deal to mention the work done before?

Mike Taylor said...


Is this hypothetical, or has it happened to you? If the latter, and if you have documentation, you should lay it out for the world to see. No-one should be allowed to get away with this kind of thing, whether it's an established professional with a giant publications list or a student.

Silver Fox said...

Why did the advisor allow it without at least contacting, informing, and consulting with studentA? That's where the story goes wrong in the first place, I think!

ReBecca Hunt-Foster said...

Good question SF! I have no idea.