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Case Study: "My Lab Boss Puts His Name on My Papers and Proposals"

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Dr. James DuBois, St. Louis University, was awarded a contract from the ORI RCR Resource Development Program to create an RCR casebook with case studies and role playing activities. ORI will be releasing the finished casebook shortly via the ORI website.

Below is case study from the Authorship and Publications chapter of the book.

My Lab Boss Puts His Name on My Papers and Proposals

Ana holds a PhD from a prestigious American state university and specializes in the study of pain, its pathways and pain reduction interventions. Though trained in Taiwan, Ana thinks in English, which is her third language after the Khalkha dialect of Mongyol kele and Mandarin. However, she has some difficulty writing scientific papers in appropriate and nuanced English; hence, she typically asks colleagues to review and help edit her writing.

Ana has taken a postdoctoral fellowship at a famous institution with a strong publish or perish culture. Researchers flaunt their publication record and look down on anyone who does not have as many published papers as they do. Ana enjoys giving people ideas and supporting them. In return, she sometimes asks for help with her writing and is happy to acknowledge their assistance in her papers. But when colleagues return her manuscripts with their names included in the list of authors, Ana is stunned. It seems they feel entitled to do this.

Although she feels that others are taking advantage of her, Ana refuses to change. She gains satisfaction by thinking that she is helping to improve science. She says her goal is to be a good scientist, not to fight over who gets to be an author of her work. She feels blessed with an opportunity to work on some of the most intellectually exciting projects and places in the world. She would never do anything to jeopardize this opportunity.

Yet Ana is upset when her lab boss not only puts his name on her work, but also takes a proposal she has prepared for funding by NIH and sends it off under his name–without even discussing that with her. She mentions it to him, and he just looks at her as though she were crazy. However, some administrators within the research institution who have seen the way people take her intellectual property are sufficiently disgusted and urge Ana to think about ways to stop people from stealing her work. Unfortunately, they have no power to intervene directly.

Ana is unsure what recourse she has. She values the opportunity to share ideas with others and get their responses, and is unwilling to do anything that will cut off that rich intellectual interaction. The theft of her ideas seems a minor price to pay for her scholarly environment.

What should Ana do?

Discussion Questions for Facilitators

  • What are the standards that apply in this situation?
  • What are effective ways in which you could ensure that intellectual property rights are respected?
  • What factors may motivate peers and superiors to exploit someone in this way? What kinds of power differentials are operating here?
  • What factors are likely to result in persons “stealing” authorship that does not legitimately accrue to them?
  • Do authorship practices vary depending on the national culture of the researchers involved? *
  • What would be a responsible role for a mentor in guiding this post doc? How might she find supportive mentors?
  • How could this post doc arrange her writing and her collaboration with others to better control what happens to the designation of authorship of her papers?
  • What risks do exploiters take when they claim authorship that they do not deserve?
  • Have you ever had something similar happen to you? How did you deal with it, and what lessons did you learn?
Your rating: None Average: 4 (11 votes)


Submitted by Guest (not verified) on

I've racked up a bit more publishing experience than many of my peers who are going through similar situations but fear reprisal from the "powers that be". So, I'm going to stick my neck out and comment on this on behalf of my generation.

1) I feel that many established PIs fear their "children" will hare off with an idea or paper without taking into consideration the efforts of others in an attempt to be a "famous scientist". Much of this is cultural: my generation of scientists has been put under enormous pressure all of our lives to "succeed" and "be the winner"- not just from our families, but from ourselves. This has given rise to the many cheating scandals that have broken out in USA higher education.

Much of the culture in many highly ranked universities has become toxic- especially in the biomed departments, where huge sums of grant money are at stake. This can be seen in the recent NSF study of which colleges' graduates go on to complete PhDs in science and engineering. My alma mater, Reed College, came in 4th in the nation- despite its adamant stance of never giving information to the US New & World Report for its "college ranking", as this is "counter-productive to the mission of higher education". (See: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf13323/#tab4 for the table.)

Education should be a basic human right, not a popularity contest. And Federal money should be reasonably evenly distributed to all the States and universities, not pooled up in a few. 

2) There needs to be an office or independent scientist on the thesis committees of all federally funded PhD students. (Yeah, I know, this will cost money. We need to raise taxes & make the budgets transparent to produce higher quality science.) Stony Brook University is fairly insistent upon this. Professors from outside the department have to monitor the progress of the the student as an independent check of the adviser's ability to mentor talented young scientists. I think it might help if there was an official, federal office at which the students can lodge complaints of intellectual property theft.

This is a pervasive problem. I frequently told my grad school buddies and the trick to a happy PhD was to "pick a good PI". A PI who gives you credit when credit is due, and tells you when you are being wrong about something. (One of the most chilling- and yet thrilling- moments during my PhD in photophysics with Prof. Tonge was when he told me during lab meeting, "Well I don't know, Allison; you're the Expert.")

I do tumor diagnostics now. I have seen some stuff in biomedical peer review that I do not like. The problem is systemic, and not isolated to a few "bad apples".

Our nation's PhD students are chosen for the graduate school based on their talent and strong potential. They may be inexperienced, but presumably they are not stupid. The Federal government should at least here the "children" out, and make independent judgements without conflicts of interest. And, it should be given the power to stop this theft when it is proven to exist. -Dr. Allison L. Stelling, https://twitter.com/DrStelling

Submitted by Guest (not verified) on

I think there are two issues relevant here -- her "collaboration-strategy" with her colleagues and the behavior of her supervisor, and both are influenced by the overall communication culture in the department.

Regarding the collaboration, if she gets valuable feedback that improve her papers significantly, this is one way to work together. However, it at least partly violates the Vancouver protocol and it seems to be unequal. I would ask whether she can contribute to her colleagues papers in the same way (and get authorship credit). After all, fair is fair, and based on her history she is highly qualified. If this is not the case I would strongly recommend to search for colleagues where the collaboration works both ways (and clarify it upfront). In any case she should focus on learning from the feedback so that she does not need the colleagues feedback in the future.

Regarding the superviser, if she has really written the proposal all by herself and it was her idea/research, then this seems to me a clear cut case of academic fraud. The superviser plagiarized the work of her postdoc, who effectively acted as a ghostwriter. However, it was a scientific product she has created and there are rules for authorship. Perhaps a case could be made for the superviser to be on the submission (if he gave feedback), but in any case, her name should be on it -- and come first. Given that she is in a less powerful position and dependent on the superviser, an ombudsman is probably needed to clarify the issue. The lack of communication is especially troubling.

In any case it seems that rules of authorship are not discussed openly in the department. Neither the collaborators nor the supervisor openly discussed authorship prior to setting their names on Ana's works or replacing her name outright. Perhaps these unspoken rules are known by all in the department and she just did not know them, but an open discussion would probably be needed. Unfortunately, an open discussion is also (nearly) impossible here, as the people higher up in the hierarchy profit by the current (lack of) clear rules. Here I would question whether she needs to better guard her ideas/works and whether the department is really as good as she thinks it is. Giving ideas and advancing science are noble aspirations, but the person who gave the ideas should also get the credit and profit from it. It's a position to qualify yourself and this does not work if others improve their position with your work or outright steal it.
And part of being a scientist, at least in that department, is fighting for your authorship credit and defending your publications against them being stolen by others.

The short-term change could be an upfront discussion about what happens with the manuscript and conditions for authorship *prior* to showing the manuscript to anyone (including her superviser; eMail communication might be helpful here to have a written record).
The long-term question would be: Looking critically with a five to ten year time horizon -- do the current norms/behavior in the department allow her to reach her goals?

Submitted by Guest (not verified) on

I am the PI of a large productive high profile lab, and give my scientists a lot of leeway in developing their projects, choosing their collaborators, and I insist that they work together.   This works well for most people- I spend time with those who need the most input, and treat the independent ones more like colleagues.  I am proud of the postdocs who leave my lab ready for independence.

About a year and a half ago, my most senior, and most trusted scientist began what one of my more generous colleagues called "premature flight".  I had selected her as my protegee, gave her senior authorship on some of our high impact papers, and sent her to meetings to speak in my place.  I treated her as a peer and wrote the most glowing letter of recommendation I have ever written when she started applying for academic faculty jobs.

Then I started learning about the manuscripts she was submitting in secret.  My lab has a lot of large collaborations, and she was often tasked with overseeing the receipt of heir samples and oversight of their analysis.

The first time, I discovered what she had done on the day that the paper was published- in one of the highest impact journals.  She had included herself and one of my graduate students as authors, but did not include me, and did not acknowledge my grants that supported the work.  I was stunned.  

I contacted the senior author, who said that he was told that she'd done the work outside my lab, the journal, and the granting agency.  After a tense few days, the journal published an erratum, which credited me and my grants for support of the work...I did not push for authorship - I still wanted to believe my protogee, who said that she was misled by the senior author. 

She's out of my lab now, having, on the strength of her large number of first author papers from my lab, some senior authorships, and my strong support of her application, landed an assistant professorship at an excellent university.

But it hasn't stopped.  She has continued to submit papers on data obtained in my lab...5 that I know of.  Each time, I have managed to intercede in some way, and warned her to stop doing this. 

But just last week, I was told by a friend that he had sent some samples for his very high impact paper to my lab for analysis a couple of months ago, and had not received the results.  He had sent them to her, because she was handling this collaboration for my lab.  She kept the samples herself and did not tell me they had arrived.  She intends to analyze them elsewhere and claim sole credit for the work.

It's difficult to switch from being a supportive mentor to having the expectation of being stabbed in the back at any moment.  It's really torn my life apart.

Any comments or advice?  I feel like I'm somehow complicit by having given her the skills to steal my work.


Submitted by Guest (not verified) on

I think you have given your protegee more than enough chances.

The samples are not hers; the work she performed in your lab was through your resources.

It is hard to turn from being supportive to being antagonistic. Ultimately the choice is yours (and I would not judge you), but if it were me I would not stand for this.

It seems that by making her your protegee, you have in essence made her your child. And sometimes parents look the other way. If you can accept the damage she has done to YOU, then it's your call.

However, if it affects other people (e.g. your friend with the samples), then I feel you are obligated to take strong action.

Just my two cents.

My background: Assistant Professor in a mid-tier University (Research medical institution) in the US.   


Submitted by Guest (not verified) on

My points of view regarding this case study

Trainees perform experiments under the direction and with resources obtained by the effort of his/her mentor. A good mentor gives the opportunity to his/her personnel to grow higher and higher. However, Lab and project funds have to be adquired, so the PI has the right to use all data available to support grant applications, when them were obtained in his/her lab. Grant applications and collaborative efforts started by full-time trainees has to be communicated in all instances to the PI and recorded in the lab record notebook (this is material owned by the PI's Lab). PIs, in special in academic setting are usually overwhelmed by administrative duties, therefore record books should be an essential way mentor communicates and fellow mentees' training. Copy of record notebooks should be available to copy by trainees once they are ready to leave the laboratory, but nothing of the data obtained in the former PI's lab should be published or used as preliminary data in proposals without the PI's concent. Concretely, I think preliminary data obtained in the PI's lab belong to the PI, not to the trainee. Trainees should not be able to send a grant application without preliminary data. Usually postdoc possition are full times, hardly they should be able to obtain data from other laboratory without his/her mentor knowledge.  Data obtained ina the PI's lab should be used to foster fuerther application for funding. In particular cases the mentor can serve as a mentor in the trainee's application, this should be the middle point and should be a way trainees should use to approach and grow under the PI direction and support.

Training: Postdoc at NIEHS, K99/R00 PI' training at the NIH, PI at OMRF.

Actual position: PI/Academic in Argentina.

Submitted by Guest (not verified) on

I totally disagree with your point. If the PI does not do any significant work on the manuscript that I got my own research grant, I don't add the PI 's name as a co-authour but I do include the PI name in the acknowledgement for giving some facilityies to complete the work.

In my case, I am hiring by the research institue. My salary was directlty from the research institute that each lab will have a certain amount to hire  people (not from the PI "s research project grant). I have the right for writing grant applications on my own without including PI's name. When I applied for the grant, the PI always came to talk to me and mentioned that

"You don't need to pay much attention on your application, you will not get it"

I have worked with many people in the past but none of my boss said such a kind of discouragement like this PI. However, I ignored and went ahead on  my application. At the end, I was asked to submit my application by the PI. The PI did some English corrections  and told me to add some names as a supporter (not a collaborator). The PI  did not propose any idea on my grant application at all. Finally, my project was selected to get the grant from the government.  Since then my PI has started telling about the research story of my funded project in various presentations. The PI did not give a credit that the project was from my idea but the PI  mentioned that I am the person who is working on the project. Again, I tried to ignore that kind of behaviors. My own goal is to produce something from the research budget that I got  from the government.

The project did not go well then I had to change something to make it worked. I met a professor in a conference and he was happy to give me something to try. Then, I tried it and it worked quite well. Although I cannot accept many ways that I have been  treated from my PI, I still respect in a role of a PI of a lab. I went to talk to the PI and explained that I will  collaborate with that professor on my research project that I got my own research grant. I also told the PI  that my experiement did not work well before talking about collaboration. My PI became crazy after knowing the story. Finally, I decided to not collaborate. Later, I changed the new method for the project that I was funded. I talked about it in a group meeting and then the PI went crazy again that I changed the method. Finally, I and my PI had a private talk together. The PI  was complaining and yelling at me. I totally made myself claim down when the stopped. I told the PI that ...

"This project is my project. The idea of the project is 100% from me. My role is the principle investigator of the project and only my name is on there. Therefore, it is my responsibility to run and produce something on the project.  The 40% of work must be done for this project and I have to use my new technique to complete it"   The PI was quiet....

Since I feel that I really  be nice enough with the way that I have been treated. Finally, I politely mentioned to my PI to separate between " a group project" and "my own project that I got a research grant'

The first year I worked here before I got grant, I  already proposed my research idea to the PI and the work went well. I did everything by myself and finally the PI asked me to add the name of the PI's collaborator on a paper, This person did nothing at all but reading the manuscript because I always send the manuscript to all co-authours before submission. This time, I asked my PI what kind of idea the PI has and wants me to do for a group project. The PI said .......

"It is your job to think about the group research project"

I don't mind if my PI cannot thiknk about the project for the PI's group and I am happy to support for that. Then, I created the second project for the group project and this project also used  my own research grant as well. The idea again was 100% from me and I did everything by meyself. Finally,  I again was asked to add all research members of the group in the manuscript. Again, I never mind and I let it go because my aim is doing research.


Back to the project that I was granted, all chemicals used in the paper are from my grant. Some equipment was paid by my grant.  The workplace already deduced around 30% of my whole grant for an indirect cost. The PI is not interested in my funded project after I changed the new method. Therefore, I decide to not include the PI name in my manuscript. I go for it with my new collaborator. As mentioned above, I added the PI 's name , the lab name, and the research institute name in the acknowledgement for the facility supports.



My mentors told me that above sentense which supports me to publsih ahead without including the PI's name on the project that I got funding.....It seems that there are many PIs of the lab in the market who are really abusive......




Submitted by Guest (not verified) on

I’m surprised (but not that much, really) by some statements I read in the previous posts and comments. It seems that some people have clear and seemingly legitimate ideas about who can be the author(s) of a paper, or who can decide what one can do with the data obtained in a lab. But, in the end, those are often nothing but opinion which, though they may be widely shared in some communities, can be questioned by anybody.

Fortunately, there are rules, or principles, governing these issues.

Consider authorship. One post mentions the Vancouver protocol (also known as Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals), which is supposedly enforced buy 1000+ medical journals. These rules make clear that there should be no authorship based solely upon support (financial or otherwise) for a work, as one post seems to suggest by speaking of `”pushing for authorship”.

Now, as to ownership of data, some things must be clarified. First, there is no copyright on data, because they constitute facts. So they don’t belong a priori to the person which has obtained them, contrary to a text, that belongs form the start to its author (or, in certain cases, to the organization/employer).

However, an organization (for instance, a university) can have a policy regarding the handling of data, describing the rights and responsibilities of all parties (students, postdocs, research assistants, PIs, collaborators) in this regard. Research contracts also generally provide clear rules in the matter. But, absent any such policy (and it’s the case of many universities) the only “rules”, or guidelines that exist are those of honesty, transparency and good faith. For instance, a postdoc or student  could leave with a copy of the data to use them for further analysis, but should certainly inform the PI (and others) of her intent. And any significant support must be acknowledged in the papers (which doesn’t mean authorship). But the PI has no formal right to decide unilaterally what one can do with the data. So before taking any action, a PI should check what the rules are, and act accordingly.