RCR Scenarios • 15March2010
Scenario #1 -- Case Andy is a graduate student that has recently received his Ph.D. and left the lab of his tenured advisor, Dr. Hall. Though he has started a demanding new job, Andy has taken some data with him and promised to interpret it so that the results may be added to a manuscript that is in preparation. While in the lab, Andy worked very closely with an undergraduate, Peter, who has been writing up the manuscript with Dr. Hall. Andy and Peter have been very productive, and Andy already has three first author papers. Peter is a senior who has been working in the lab for three years and is now applying to an M.D./Ph.D. program. The data Andy has to interpret was originally supposed to be collected by Peter, but Andy agreed to take over, since the technique is tricky and the outcome uncertain. Since Andy’s new job is keeping him very busy, he has not responded to Dr. Hall’s requests for the missing results. When a version of the manuscript is sent to Andy, he notices he has been listed as the second author while Peter is first author. Andy becomes angry that this work has been “taken from him” and relinquishes his second author rights. Andy insists that it is impossible to differentiate between where his work stopped and Peter’s began (and vice versa), and that if he had known he would be second author on this paper, he would not have agreed to collect the data assigned to Peter.
Scenario #1 -- Preferred Resolution I think that Andy should have accepted his second author position. While he had contributed about half of the data for the manuscript, he already had three first author papers and a new job, and he wasn’t getting this final bit of data back to Dr. Hall in a timely manner. Though Dr. Hall is tenured, the lab still needs to be productive, and promises by Andy of “I’ll get to it soon” are tiresome and waste time that could be spent writing grants or performing experiments.
Dr. Hall sent a calm, reasoned response back to Andy, dissecting his original email and pointing out the inconsistencies in Andy’s logic, e.g., how can Andy claim the project is “his” while simultaneously claiming it is impossible to separate his work from the work Peter did? Dr. Hall also requested the data be returned to the lab, and asked Andy to consider sharing first authorship with Peter. Though the data never appeared in the published version of the manuscript, this is eventually what happened; however, while the shared contribution is noted via superscripts, Peter is listed first. I feel that Dr. Hall handled this well, though there should have been more communication beforehand to insure that responsibilities were made clear from the beginning. Knowing all the parties involved, I think this was a calculated move on Dr. Hall’s part to get a response from Andy, as he was known for dragging his feet and making promises on which he couldn’t always deliver. Dr. Hall knew that putting Andy as second author would sting his pride and get him to work on the manuscript. Scenario #1 -- Actual Resolution
Scenario #2 -- Case Graduate student Jane Doe has worked for Professor John Smith for several years. Her work has resulted in several publications that have been positively received by certain labs but called into question by others. Jane has been told by her dissertation committee to prepare for her future after graduation. Jane has interviewed for postdoctoral positions with various labs but has received a very chilly reception, much to her surprise. Eventually it is communicated to Jane by a professor that she interviews with that the lack of interest in her may be due to the poor recommendation letter provided by Professor Smith. These letters are contradictory to the other letters she has provided but as they come directly from her dissertation advisor they carry more weight. Jane confronts Professor Smith about the recommendation letter and asks why he is not saying more positive things about her. Professor Smith agrees to change certain points in the letter but, on the whole, leaves numerous negative comments in. Jane is now uncertain of what to do as she feels she needs her advisor’s recommendation letter to get a postdoctoral position but feels that having her talk negatively about her in these letters may hurt her career in the long term. She considers bringing the matter to the Departmental Chair or her dissertation committee as a whole but is worried about the potential for this to do more harm then good.
Scenario #2 -- Preferred Resolution The preferred approach here should be to approach a independent third party to try and negotiate a compromise. Dr. Smith should have given better warning to Jane that he was sending out such a negative recommendation letter to save himself and Jane from damage to their respective reputations.
Scenario #2 -- Actual Resolution Professor Smith refused to change the letter and did little to help Jane find a new postdoctoral position. Jane Doe eventually found a new job at a less desired position with the help of friends who vouched for her to the new professor. Following being offered the position, Jane defended her dissertation and began the postdoc. Professor Smith and Jane Doe are no longer on speaking terms. Jane’s situation was watched closely by numerous people in Professor Smith’s department and Professor Smith presently has had difficulty in hiring new research staff. The actual resolution of the situation seems to be the worst possible outcome as neither party is particularly happy regarding the outcome and both have now suffered serious career setbacks as a result.
Scenario #3 -- Case You are a third year graduate student and you have finished your first full project and have completely your first draft of a manuscript to be published. Your PI informs you that instead of you publishing said complete data, it would better serve a close collaborator as “preliminary findings” in an RO1 to be submitted.
Scenario #3 -- Preferred Resolution Primary approach would be to directly address your concerns with your PI and if he/she does not pay attention to your concern, proceed to the chair of the department. I would at least try to address my concern with my PI first and see if this situation could be handled in-house before I caused a larger problem, however, if my PI did not agree with me and insisted on his/her action, then I would be forced to ask the chair of the department what to do.
Scenario #3 -- Actual Resolution This is an actual situation and what ended up happening was that instead of that data leading to an RO1 grant, the collaborator had one of his students do one more project and put together a manuscript in which the original graduate student was second author on. The graduate student did approach the chair of the department and dean of the program and that PI is no longer allowed to take any more medical scholars graduate students. I do not feel this was a fair resolution in the least bit, and the graduate student was treated extremely unfairly. I suppose the good thing that came of that is that PI can no longer accept MD/PhD students.
Scenario #4 -- Case An advisor hears a student discuss an idea that is peripherally related to the student’s thesis, during a couple of regular student-mentor meetings. After a year the student finds out that another postdoc in the group has used that idea for a grant application that got funded. The student suspects that the advisor has passed along that idea and encouraged the postdoc to develop it without informing her.
Scenario #4 -- Preferred Resolution A person’s contributions should be properly acknowledged. All group members should be treated with scientific respect. This approach helps to prevent hidden misgivings and to foster cooperation in group.
Scenario #4 -- Actual Resolution It was never resolved whether it was an independent development of the idea, or unconscious act by the advisor. The grad student lost a degree of respect for the advisor and postdoc.
Scenario #5 -- Case After starting a post-doc, I still have a manuscript that I am finishing with my graduate advisor. This also includes a few relatively quick experiments. The time I spend working on the manuscript is time taken away from my current work. I am being paid by post-doc advisor, but spending considerable time working on a project that benefits my graduate advisor and myself. An additional publication, however, will help my application for fellowships which will benefit my post-doc advisor (and of course myself). A further issue is that my graduate advisor forgets that I have other work going on and believes that I am on call to work this manuscript whenever he has time.
Scenario #5 -- Preferred Resolution I do think this is a common scenario where someone begins in a new lab but is still finishes things in their former lab. Therefore, it all “comes out in the wash”. I do however prioritize experiments first and with my extra time I work on the manuscript. The problem is that splitting one’s focus sometimes just prolongs both projects.
Scenario #5 -- Actual Resolution None yet – it is an ongoing issue.
Scenario #6 -- Case Irreproducible (but previously published by your lab) results.Twice in the past after joining labs while in the process of attaching myself to a project I have found that after reviewing the work published by the lab and others that some critical aspect of the work has been abandoned by the lab I have joined b/c the results have not been reproducible. Usually this is attributed to something like “changed” cell lines, antibodies no longer available, or lack of the special skills of the previous lab worker.
Scenario #6 -- Preferred Resolution Discussing the issue with current lab workers is a good way to have detailed conversations about the science of the lab and their scientific philosophies. Often areas of potential work that are tangential to the work in dispute can be identified and successful projects formulated with the help/support/interest of your new colleagues. Being aware of the issues related to previously published work is essential historical information for your work to advance, and not necessarily something that your PI will be fully informed on; additionally, s/he may have reasons to minimize/avoid such topics.
Scenario #6 -- Actual Resolution I’ve tackled new projects and steered clear of the controversy. I’m not sure that ferreting out the “truth” is possible in these cases, and I’m not sure it’s my responsibility to do so when I learn of such irreproducible data.