Sunday, October 02, 2005

Authorship antics

I think I've mentioned this in an earlier blog, so maybe some of you will remember hearing a little bit about this before.

Sometime last year I picked up several collaborations. One worked out in a timely manner. One didn't work out at all. Another was somewhere in between, and this is where the story gets interesting.

They originally wanted me to do one experiment, and fast. I wanted more papers so I could apply for jobs, so I was more than eager to get something easy to contribute and let someone else do the hard part. They were going to submit the paper shortly thereafter.

But didn't. And didn't. And months went by. I talked to them once or twice and they said they had gotten some really exciting new results and wanted to follow up on those and make the paper higher-impact, etc.

Ok, fine, I've got time, I thought, job applications aren't until the fall, and higher-impact is always a good thing.

More months went by. I never did get a draft of the paper from them, and I was thinking about it this week because I was looking at my CV and how annoying that was.

So I contacted them and they said, oh yeah, we're going to send it next week.

I said, you know, technically I'm supposed to get a chance to read it before that happens.

The response: we'll send you a copy the day before it goes out.

Now, I don't know about you guys, but I was required to take ethics classes. And I know this is not the way it's supposed to work. I certainly don't treat my co-authors this way when I do collaborations. So I'm seriously wondering if I'm going to have to take my name off this thing. At this point it's not going to help me anyway, since I've already sent most of my applications, with this paper listed as 'in preparation' (= totally worthless).

But hey, at least they let me put it on my CV. One of my other collaborators is too terrified of getting scooped to even let me do that-!

My gut instinct is that if it's really bad, I wouldn't even want my data in there, but I'm not even sure I can ask them to take my data out of it, or if I should just ask for an acknowledgment, or what. I'm only going to have one day- maybe less- to decide. And I don't imagine they would put in any edits I might want to suggest, since they're not going to have time.

I want to be especially careful because someone we know (distantly) is having a really hard time getting her grants, after having to retract some collaborative papers she published with a coauthor who later got caught for fabricating results. To me, that's really a nightmare scenario, especially in this day and age where you can't possibly know for sure, since you're almost always collaborating across (sometimes way across) disciplines.

At some point you really have to wonder if it's fair to hold the whole list of authors responsible for the sins of one greedy person, whom you're depending on to be the resident expert in their field.

And when the review process fails to detect it, you really have to wonder if the other authors should be expected to know. Since everything thinks peer review is so great and all that.

Anyway I let them know that this is not cool and in the future they should be more careful, but I already had the impression that my voice, especially since it's of a female pitch, will get filtered out.

Maybe I'm wrong and the paper really is amazing and really carefully controlled and I should just be glad to have my name on it. But I have a really bad feeling that these people tend to err on whichever side comes down in their favor.



At 2:20 PM, Blogger John said...

In my experience, there are few cases of scientific fraud. If you're not their advisor, and not first author, I wouldn't worry about the contents of the paper actually hurting you if these people are reputable.

Why don't they just send you the second-to-last draft now?

I wouldn't be surprised if the paper really goes in a week or two later than they are now predicting, but in any case, revisions can be made, for every paper I've ever been involved with, when the reviews come back as well as before submission.

So I'd recommend just reading it quickly when it arrives, and pass back easy-to-make changes, and note possible major issues if they are present, but don't sweat it too much.

Your co-authorship is usually taken to mean you're contributed, not that you agree with every detail. And many more people are impressed by having one more paper than demand every paper be impressive. At least until one becomes senior faculty, when superfluous papers count for very little but still are not a detriment.

(By the way, just tell me if my commentary is irritating, I don't want to be abrasive.)

At 2:37 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Actually I agree with all your comments except maybe the first one. I think it really depends on your field whether you'll be held accountable for co-authors or not.

And you were right, one of the more senior co-authors says he won't be able to get back to them with comments until next week, so now I have a week to look at the almost-final draft.

Actually after a few email exchanges, it was quite clear that the PI was very apologetic, he said he had just forgotten and blamed it on senility (isn't that cute). Initially, the first author was furious when I called them out. Then after some more clarification on my part, I extracted an apology from them. They claimed that usually co-authors don't care much so they didn't want to bother me, and it's not that they didn't think I could contribute anything. Anyway I think the fences are mended now but I just think they were being really short-sighted and probably haven't bothered to get very many people to look at this paper. I haven't read it yet but I'm curious now to see if it has a snowball's chance in hell of getting into the journal they want to send it to.

At 8:55 PM, Blogger Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D. said...

If your name is on the paper as an author, you are taking responsibility for what's in the paper. In a lot of fields, the assumption is that you're taking responsibility for the part you did, but recently (especially in the biomedical sciences), the authorship standards have gotten a lot more stringent. (There are, of course, some fairly high-profile sloppy/fraudulent collaborative papers, with co-authors hiding behind their plausible deniability, that have prompted the new standards. You have to love the scandal-driven nature of the professional norms in science sometimes …)

Anyway, there is no reason in hell a collaborator should *not* want you to have a close look at a manuscript prior to submission (unless you have a track-record of taking forever to read it and get back with the comments -- I assume this isn't the case!). An extra set of eyes is always good, not only to make sure the whole manuscript is clear, but also to make sure the details of your part are correct and complete. Your good scientific name is pretty much all you've got at the beginning of your career, and collaborators worth having should assume that you'll be protecting it. Indeed, the fact that you want to keep your good name is a plus -- it means you'll be ensuring (as best you can) that any paper with your name on it is beyond reproach.

Any potential collaborator who just wants you to hand over the data and butt out is just not someone you ought to collaborate with.

It sounds like the "senile" co-author is a good egg, but the first author might need a kick in the head (perhaps administered by someone to "senile" to be blamed for it).


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