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

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RCR Casebook: Authorship and Publication

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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?