Tuesday, July 22, 2008

More postdoc fellowship corruption stories.

Yes, this weekend I heard two more examples (from different labs), with a twist.

In the past, I've mentioned the postdocs who get fellowships because their advisors write the whole thing for them. And the postdocs who get fellowships just because of their advisor's NAME. I'm pretty sure some of my funding was awarded to me as much because of my advisor's name as anything else. But at least I wrote it myself.

This time, I heard about one postdoc whose advisor told him he has to write a fellowship that will be submitted in another postdoc's name. He basically told him he has no choice about this, and made a not-so-veiled threat alluding to recommendation letters and the like.

The other postdoc found out her data is being submitted as supporting material for another postdoc's fellowship application. Although her work is being reviewed for publication, it is not yet published. I guess they figure (probably rightly so) that chances are slim anyone will realize whose data it is. Nobody checks. And there's nothing she can do about it.

This stuff just makes me furious. The system is SO FUCKED UP, and nobody notices.

And then these people, who are apparently incapable of

a) doing their own experiments
b) writing their own proposals

get prestigious fellowships.

Why does that matter, you might ask? It's just a fellowship, right? Only a few years of funding?

The thing is, that one fellowship can make ALL the difference in who gets what job later on. The right fellowship can lead to all kinds of opportunities. It opens doors.

Because they have this nice line on their CV, everyone just assumes they're smarter and more capable than the rest.

What a bunch of bullshit.

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At 4:52 PM, Blogger sara said...

Do you think it would be feasible for some organization to take on the role of governing body, to which these ethics violations could be reported?

At 4:54 PM, Blogger Professor in Training said...

Once again, I think you and I are working in the same lab!

I have written a ton of fellowships and small grants during my postdoc and while none of them have been funded, at least I wrote them MYSELF ... this also means that the good reviews that I get are also my own doing.

Just recently, two postdocs in the lab were told that they both needed to submit fellowships and our Clueless Mentor made them propose the same experiments ... just on different animal models ... very creative. To make matters worse, the mentor wrote one of the proposals and the other postdoc then cut and paste about 90% of that proposal for her own.

Thankfully, neither of them got funded but one of them won a couple of awards last year for abstracts/posters that Clueless Mentor wrote.

No wonder I find it difficult to congratulate these dumbfucks on their "achievements". I take some solace in the fact that most search commmittees for tenure track gigs should pick up on their dumbfuckedness ... the constant "deer in headlights" look is a dead giveaway.

Grrrrr. Pass the sharp knife ...

At 5:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh yes, you're a real Einstein, you. I'm sure your mind is teeming with brilliant scientific ideas that academia won't pay attention to because...well, because of sexism. Sexism, right?

At 8:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Woah Nelly there for a second - The other postdoc found out her data is being submitted as supporting material for another postdoc's fellowship application.

There's nothing wrong with this as long as - and this is a key caveat, of course - credit is given. Several fellowships I've applied for have had data contributed by fellow postdocs, and I credited their contributions, figure by figure. I assume that, in due course, some of my own data may make it into someone else's fellowship, again with credit. It's no different than citing published works as foundational material that suggest your own experiments will work.

At 9:34 PM, Blogger Dr. J said...

Yep, it is a bunch of bullshit.

What people do not seem to realise is that the realisation that academia is not a meritocracy is one of the most despiriting realisations one has in the course of things. Academia is broken, the whole system is corrupted and is in dire need of change. Change that ACTUALLY values the people who drive it is desparately needed.

As for anonymous...there are data and publications showing the still grotesque gap between men and women in academia. It should embarass anyone associated with academia, it is truely shaming. Besides there was nothing in this post about gender either, so sounds like the issue is yours.

At 5:02 AM, Blogger Mr. Procastination said...

To Anonymous 5:08

It looks like you are really not aware of all the games that are being played in academia. Times have changed a lot since Einstein. I am not a women yet many times I feel discriminated against people (many times women actually) that are not brighter, not more creative and not more motivated. Why would this happen? I am sure I have a lesson to learn here. I could blame sexism also because my PI loves to hire females in his lab and seems to get along with them much more easily than with men. But I'm sure I'm making many mistakes. I am communicating in wrong way. In the beginning, I had the believe that academia would be objective because Science should be objective. Big Fault!!
Now it feels like I have created an idea about myself in other people's head and it transformed into a belief. As you know you cannot do a lot when people believe in something. Result: no matter what I do, no matter how creative my thoughts, no matter what my results are, I won't get credited. Instead the PIs give results to other people, let them go to seminars, encourage them to get fellowships based on my results, ideas, even on my text. I should have done someting wrong in the head of those people. I would say bad communication has done it, because they cannot blame me much. I work hard, did my best, got my own funding, have a nice publication (in the highest impact journal so far for our lab) and another better article to come. Yet, I never get credited and some other people do in my name.
So please, don't act like academia is objective. Some people are really great scientists, but maybe bad communicators (or some other thing) and some are really moderate scientists but they can make themselves shine. Most of the time the latter will end higher up the ladder.
I wouldn't know if it is sexism all the time when someone perceives it like that, but I m sure it is big big subjectivity, nearly always. And surely not based on your creative ideas. I guess there is nothing as easy to steal a creative idea. Just don't react to it when the person tells you, certainly don't give credit, but remember it later on and make it your own idea. In my experience, this happens all the time. And I make the same mistake over and over; just because I cannot keep my mouth shut.

At 6:54 AM, Anonymous bsci said...

The case where an advisor wrote an application is unethical (illegal?), but clearly neither of the two parties seemed to mind.

The case where another postdoc wrote the application is flagrantly unethical and probably illegal. If this becomes public, the writer's career can get as damaged as the other two people. In my opinion, the writer needs to go to the campus ethics office and report the advisor. The person has problems with any decision, but reporting and dealing with having to find a new advisor is probably better than getting caught in such an unethical activity at such an early career stage.

As for the other examples, the system clearly states that your advisor's name helps you get funding. Half the application is usually about the resources you have available and some of those resources are who your advisor is and the physical resources he has. This does cause some problems, but the fact is big name people have more resources and have a track record of producing good research. I'm not sure any system would be able to avoid this.

I do not see anything wrong with putting someone else's data in as supporting material for a grant application. The data needs to be properly sourced and conference abstracts should be cited when possible, but what's the problem here? If you just show up in a lab and you're building on other's work, it's obvious someone else might have collected the data that is proof of concept for your proposal.

At 7:12 AM, Blogger BP said...

When I was on the job market several years ago, I was asked multiple times if I had written my fellowship proposal. At twice, at two different institutions, there was visible shock when I said, yes. I actually asked once why he had asked, and he said that his advisor had written his and that he assumed no-one actually wrote their proposal.

At 12:28 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I don't know. Maybe should blog about it sometime.


glad to hear neither got funded.

Anon 8:40,

I wouldn't be writing about it if they had CREDITED her. My point is that they're passing it off as their own, and it was the PI's idea.


In both cases, the blackmailed/abused postdoc whose work/writing is being used is a senior postdoc.

They're not going to go looking for a new advisor at this point.

And I know these people, there is no way they're going to commit career suicide by trying to report it to the ethics office, even if there were such a thing, which I'm pretty sure there is not.


That's awesome, I love it. That would be a great survey to do. How many current faculty never wrote their own proposals until they were hired as faculty?

Maybe this is why everyone is so incredulous when I say I know of far too many postdocs who are writing R01s for their advisors.

Really amazing that the system is so broken that both kinds of abuse are so common.

At 1:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's NO WAY IN HELL I would allow someone else to use my unpublished data for a proposal unless my name was on the Co-PI list. I (a woman) used to "play nice" and give people what they wanted and nicely asked me for. Well, I got burned by my advisor, ONCE. He asked me for my data, I gave it to him thinking he wanted to inspect it - no problem, here you go type thing, la tee dah. I thought he might even use it to get extra money for the project. Boy was I wrong. HE GAVE IT TO ANOTHER GRAD STUDENT TO WRITE UP!!! BEHIND MY BACK. Well, the grad student needed some additional information about some of MY stuff, and whacko advisor emailed me a list of questions. I swear that email practically reached out and bit me... I completely saw what was happening, but I didn't realize a paper was literally being written right under my nose. It turned out that the advisor hated and wanted the other grad student gone and one more dissertation chapter would seal the deal. After all that nonsense (research triangle from hell), I was put as co-author on a paper that would have been the 1st chapter of MY dissertation. I left the advisor in the dust - I started my PhD over elsewhere. Thank god.

At 2:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that it's brains, integrity, and passion that are the ingredients for success in academia. Academia is kinda like government in that appearances matter more than substance. After all, with excessive specialization who can really evaluate the worth of anything. Without this objective feedback, it degenerates into poor metrics such as the amount of papers published, awards, name brand degrees, famous associates, etc. e.g. more is better and impact factors. In addition, since refs are often clueless, what matters is not the content (which just happened to be poorly written, because writing two papers is better than concentrating the same effort on one) but how "exciting" it is and who is on the author list.

Of course this can be turned around and cast in the good light of incremental research and blabla .. it just matters where one sets one's expectations. If they are set at intellectual integrity and the sense of doing something scientifically important (rather than scientifically popular) it's just one disappointment after another.

Basically the entire system works this way. It depresses me that I did not understand this until after grad school.

At 7:55 AM, Anonymous Raysa ValĂ©ria said...

It's something that hurts my scientific fellings. But I have to face with it all the time in my grad course.I'm glad that you wrote about it... nobody wants or are afraid!

At 9:10 AM, Blogger Research Engineer said...

My experience of academia has not been quite so harsh, but I am not surprised. Here's my rather personal take on it:

Two-faced-ness, saying one thing and doing another were common and accepted. Arm-twisting was common. You're expected to accept this and bear it with a smile. If you protest, then you're naive and don't know how the game works. It's easy to arm-twist someone when you have control over their career through letters of recommendation -- that's all that counts. In my graduate school and department in particular, recruiting Masters students with fellowships and teaching assistantships and later arm-twisting them to continue on as cheap labor towards a Ph.D. was common. A similar trend continued at the end of my Ph.D. -- professors would not or did not look upon favorably on an industrial career. One of the places that I interviewed at told me that my advisor was not enthusiatic about recommending me, where as my co-advisor was extremely enthusiastic. Perhaps this was because my advisor had recommended me to the prestigious department and prestigious group where he got his Ph.D. from for a post-doc. And my department was an engineering department, not a pure science department.

The moment I found this out, I didn't take the post-doc and instead took a job which is related to but not exactly a continuation of my Ph.D. This was a job where my co-advisor had recommended me.

This led to an incredible amount of coldness from my supervisor at my defense and I had a fight with him right after my defense, when he refused to sign the signature sheets of my dissertation and kept asking for minor changes. Perhaps my fault for blowing up as well. Sometimes I think that I should have told him: "Take the sheets, sign them and shove them up your ass. A Ph.D. coerced out of my by denying letters of recommendation during my M.S. doesn't mean any thing do me. This is just a degree coerced out of me by an academic pimp in a academic brothel." But then, sometimes I think of my co-advisor, an eminently fair person, who treatment not just me but three of his students extremely generously. That makes me happy and soothes the nerves.

Taking the post-doc just for the sake of a brand name, with no-intention of pursuing a research career seemed to be worthless. It had too much of a "I scratch your back and you scratch mine" feel to it. After taking the job, a post-doc from the lab where I was going to post-doc interviewed at my department. This only confirmed my feelings that I would be a pawn in a game to further the relationship between my advisor and would be post-doc.

Now I am in industry and happy with it overall. Yes, sometimes, I see people in academia publishing and I get a bit depressed: I don't even have time to read papers in detail, let alone formulate and write papers myself. In a sense, industry is a lot more honest about politics, the desire to make money, the insider relationships. It doesn't seem to have the two-facedness of academia.

Just my digressive, my two cents worth!

At 4:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am 46 years old. Recognition in science is a plague. I am a successful scientist, but I agree that the system is highly corrupted. The question is not whether we should act but how we should act. That brings to a standpoint


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