Friday, October 08, 2010

Ethics in publishing: the recurring case of the dishonest collaborator

So this is one of those quandaries, it came up twice this week and I thought I would just ask the blogosphere because I'm not sure how best to advise.

I have more than one friend in the same situation: powerful collaborator has repeatedly finagled scoopings by other collaborators.

So here's the scenario:

Junior prof or postdoc working with Big Famous D00d on somewhat controversial project.

Big Famous D00d is also working with other people on competing projects (other side of the controversy, or tangential with some overlap).

Junior person has to get approval from D00d to send the manuscript out, or at least let him know that it's being submitted.

D00d pulls some kind of shenanigans, either suggesting back-to-back publications, or otherwise delaying, or pulling strings behind the scenes (like notifying the other team). Regardless of the method, in the end he is going out of his way to make sure the other team's paper gets submitted ASAP.

What do you do, as the junior person in this scenario?

Do you:

a) Suck it up and get scooped one last time, then cut off the collaboration (inevitably wrecking all chances of getting any funding ever again, inevitably leading to the end of your career)?

b) Suck it up and pretend like you don't care, inevitably leading to a serious drinking problem?

c) Pick a fight with Dood, with a lawyer, and quit science because you'll be spending the rest of your life in court?

d) Quit science and then publish whatever you have left on your own in Questionable Journal(s), sit quietly and wait to see what happens?

e) Any other possible scenarios you can think of?

Keep in mind, most people I know of who have been in similar situations went with (a) or (b). While (a) might seem noble, it sounds a bit like shooting yourself in the foot, to me. This is how we lose a lot of great people.

The only other way to go, I'm thinking, is to try to persuade Big D00d to put you on top, and let the other guy get scooped instead. This may require enormous amounts of money spent on alcohol, sexual favors, etc. and my friends are not the kind of people who want to do that. They're just frustrated and appalled, even though we all know this goes on regularly in business and science.

Maybe the business types can advise? I feel like this is the kind of situation a Michael J. Fox or Will Smith or Melanie Griffith might be able to charm their way out of.

I'm more of a Meg Ryan myself, as regular blog readers already know. Except that the D00d in science is never the one who writes great emails and brings you flowers when you're sick.

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At 11:39 AM, Anonymous Postdoc but about to leave said...

I think this is where it is imperative to write the emails a bit different.... as in "If I haven't heard from you by Wednesday I'll send it in" and then lay down the law. I mean, the option is that big d00d will sa y "no I don't want that" but then it's to say somthing about "well, I guess we'll remove your data set or something".

Best is probably to try and swing into d00d's lab and make him get attacked by his post docs also on the paper? and then move from there.

I would probably not collaborate too much with them after the first screw up - or withhold some information... but that is just me.

...I guess you can tell that I'm a drunk too ;)

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Kea said...

What you do is this: write your own papers and submit them without telling the D00Ds at all. It may get you kicked out, but that would have happened anyway.

Flowers when you're sick? Ah, yes, I have a vague memory of that custom! I was given flowers once in the last 10 years ... by the police department, after a major mountain incident. Have been in hospital quite a few times, but there were no flowers then. Guess people think I don't like flowers.

At 12:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been through this once. I ended up confronting the senior person in a calm way. It helped though that I had my results out earlier, and the other group was actually using some of my code. Anyways the senior person said that he hadn't realized that I felt so badly about the situation. I don't know how he couldn't have, but anyway. He promised to cite my unpublished manuscript in the other manuscript (both were submitted simultaneously).

At the end I got lucky too. My manuscript was accepted first and the other one was held back by the reviewers for longer. I shudder to think about what would have happened if the reverse had happened.

At 1:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am the anon who posted about having been in a similar situation (it worked out by my manuscript getting accepted before the other group's).

One thing I forgot to add in my last comment. A thing I found helpful while talking to the senior person was to tell him something concrete he could do about the situation (other than, of course, something drastic like canning their paper, which he would never agree to do). I told him that I would like the other group to cite my manuscript, and say something to the effect that it came first. In retrospect I realized that it was a good thing to say. If I had just told him that I was unhappy, the discussion would have gone downhill fast; because I had something concrete in mind, he said "fair enough" and things worked out from there.

At 2:39 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 12:33 and 1:29, I forgot to mention that in at least two of the cases, the D00d is a complete psycho control freak Emperor type who resents any suggestions or requests, no matter how reasonable. One does not question the Emperor's judgment!

One of them refused suggestions for back-to-back submissions (I mean, why? Why not do it? Isn't it a win-win-win?).

The other loves to suggest back-to-back submissions even when his end isn't remotely ready, and then screams at his postdocs to play catch-up running a race of his own creation. You know the kind I mean.

Kea, part of the game here is that having the D00ds name(s) on your paper gets it into High Impact Journal. That's why there's always the option to publish it somewhere obscure and hope that nobody notices, but you can be sure a lot of people won't believe your work is good because it lacks the name of Certain Journals. That's a "careful what you wish for" scenario.

My feeling is that "nobody notices" is both safe and bad, when it comes to science. Or blogging. ;-)

At 5:55 PM, Blogger GMP said...

Regarding the title of the post --
I think the biggest problem is that the D00d is really not a collaborator. He has some power over the junior person's career. As long as that's the case, the junior person is generally screwed.

I generally try to be pragmatic. Try reasoning with the D00d, as someone said above -- offer concrete measures to alleviate scooping, but if it's not taking then give up and suck it up and get out of there ASAP. I don't think anyone should completely sacrifice their career for the ethical ideal that so many others are crapping over.

At 8:33 PM, Blogger Psycgirl said...

God, if someone posts the perfect answer to this situation please notify me because it will help curb my already questionable drinking habits.

At 10:00 PM, Anonymous Thinkerbell said...

First, a situation like this sucks.
Second, as intimidating as they (the Big D00ds that is) may appear to be, I no longer believe that they are the only ones in the entire field that hold all the power. Really? There must be other D00ds out there to collaborate with in the future.
Third: Muster up all your courage, practice in front of the mirror if you have to, but let the Big D00d know that you won't take this. Treat them as an equal (i.e. you both have a PhD and are adult scientists) - at least fake that during the interaction. Be strong, outspoken, and clear. More often than not they are not even used to someone contradicting them. One thing they definitely can't take is someone who shivers in their presence. So stay strong, get it out, and repeat it a couple of times to get it into their brain: This is important to me and here is a possible solution (I know you said they don't like to take advise, but you just have to go in to the interaction with something to offer). They probably haven't been treated like an equal for a long time...

At 8:07 AM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

Yet another reminder of why I should be grateful to be in my D00d-less situation.

...and I take it you are not referring to the Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally? ;) Although I suppose the diner scene might come in handy when dealing with D00ds... throw 'em off their game.

At 7:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, in your field it's considered more career-enhancing to pimp some big DOOd onto your paper and surf his name into a high profile journal, than to actually accomplish something slightly lesser on your own merits?

That's extremely sick, if you think about it for two seconds.

At 10:08 AM, Blogger a physicist said...

Yeah, these sorts of situations are awful. Given that the d00d is a complete psycho control freak, I think option (b) is the only choice, just go along and take whatever minor advantages there are for going along. And when possible in the future try to slide away... take your research in some other direction, or make it look like you're doing so. But that might take a long time depending on the circumstances and how much control the d00d has.

I sort of was in that situation once (when I was a young assistant prof) and fortunately was able to slide away before I was depending too much on the senior person. I got a lot of advice from random people telling me how the senior person was evil and so I was lucky to extract myself before the collaboration got too far.

At 12:05 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

If these were situations where data sets could be removed, we wouldn't be having this conversation.


Do you think they'd be bothered to try to sue you? I'm wondering if this is even technically illegal, or if it's just a social contract.


If standing up to them worked, we wouldn't be having this conversation. It's been tried.


Her name was hot-linked to another movie, but I'd have to doublecheck if that bit of cleverness worked.

Anon 7:03 wrote:

So, in your field it's considered more career-enhancing to pimp some big DOOd onto your paper and surf his name into a high profile journal, than to actually accomplish something slightly lesser on your own merits?

That's extremely sick, if you think about it for two seconds.


And yet, high profile journal papers are used as a stand-in for deciding who gets a job and a grant.

Sigh. Yes. Extremely, extremely sick.

And yet, you know what disgusts me even more? That at least two people said you should just go along with it, "be pragmatic".

That's the status of where we are.

At 1:43 PM, Blogger Kea said...

YFS, people with no money don't get sued. That's the deep beauty of True Power - those with worldly power can never have it.

At 6:06 AM, Blogger a physicist said...

Well, I said "go along with it," because as I read the scenario, the alternatives were to leave science altogether. That's not to say this is an acceptable situation or that the system isn't messed up. But just that I read the scenario as no real options to keep a career in science without "going along." The statement One does not question the Emperor's judgment! made me think that there was no way to try to engage this person.

If that was overstated, then yes, I agree quite a lot with the people who had constructive suggestions about how to try to work with the d00d. Those suggestions will work with many d00ds. But some d00ds are unengagable... or at least, that's what I was discussing.

At 11:32 AM, Blogger Matthew said...

One: Screw "high impact" journals. As long as your paper is peer-reviewed, just publish it somewhere. We don't live in a world where people are limited to the journals that everyone has in their institutional library. Post a PDF and people will find it, regardless of which journal it was in.

Two: In many cases, screw collaboration with someone who won't actually contribute. If you don't like the game, don't play. Whether this means standing up for yourself and getting kicked out or having to create your own dataset, there is no need to put up with this crap.

Three: Is there some sort of limit on collaborators in your field? You would think that since you're competing with so many other people for positions, at least some of them a) would like to collaborate and b) aren't asshats.

At 10:52 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Kea, Good point! Very empowering!

a physicist, They are indeed unengagable. But you see what happens if everyone just does it "one more time"?


1. People will find it, but they won't believe it. They trust names more than their own judgment.

2. Very few people are both willing and able to collaborate in my field, for a variety of reasons.

Reagents are highly specialized, expensive, and limited in quantity. Sometimes they can't even be shipped overseas, which either means you have to fly there yourself to do the experiments (and your own reagents might not survive the trip), or find someone in your own country (like literally, the one other person in your country), and hope they're not an asshat.

In my case, for example, I collaborated with the one person in Other Country who did what I needed, and thought he was very nice. Then he got mad when I started to find some inconsistencies with his past work and my current findings. I figured they didn't know any better at the time, no harm no foul, but he got defensive and angry with me for wanting to publish my findings. Also, I think he is under pressure from some of his other collaborators, whose work also depends on assuming his previous stuff was all right, and all of it is a big house of cards from what I can tell.

So even if my collaborator wasn't a major asshat, he was under pressure from major asshats, and I'm a Nobody.

So find somebody else, you say? So simple. The one person in My Country who does this stuff is all of the following a) bad scientist, b) unethical jerk, c) has a longstanding grudge against guy from Other Country d) extends grudge against guy from Other Country to include me, just because I collaborated with him in the past.

This is the identical situation to one of my friends, except in her case the first asshat was in Our Country and the second asshat is in Other Country.

In other words, no, there are not very many people with whom we could collaborate. As a Nobody, we don't have much to offer: the possibility of a low-impact paper? Ooh, wow. How tantalizing!

These are small people living small lives and unable to be objective, forgive mistakes, or even have open discussions about issues of trust or sharing. And what's in it for them? Another low-impact publication? They just say no thank you.

But you know, I'm difficult to work with. I'm demanding. I insist on having the right reagents, doing the right controls, and doing experiments at least three times. I'm crazy like that. Crazy, difficult, demanding.

At 9:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this whole "if you don't have a glamor mag paper you're done and the only way to get it is to have a senior author on it" attitude isn't going to do anyone any good. Maybe there is some truth to this. In fact, sure a Science paper is a good thing, and sure famous names can add clout... But don't fool yourself thinking these facts account for all of research activity. yeah, it's harder if you're young, not famous, foreign, woman, black, disabled, what have you... Its harder but science is not that broken.

Source: Young female minority disabled assistant prof at prestigious public research university with several single author papers, and none in glamour mags.

At 11:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think some D00ds can be won over by shameless flattery if you can not afford boze and prostitutes (or your mother raised you not to bribe people with booze and prostitutes). If the D00d is a classic all-knowing emperor or empress selling your cases as his idea could get you very far. Pick up on any small remark made by the D00d in favor of your case. "I was thinking about your remark ... and did this simple experiment ..." (The experiment need not be that simple, but it is important to get through that the D00ds contribution was the more significant). Or even better "I did the experiment you suggested ...", The D00d might not really have suggested this experiment, but as long as he think, that you think he did, he can step up and take credit.


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