This case raises two primary issues: data sharing and recognition of the contributions of others, along with issues of collaboration, intellectual contribution and authorship.
From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 1, 1997
edited by Brian Schrag
Dr. Smith, a post-doc, temporarily joined a research group while seeking employment. The group's mentor, Dr. Johnson, assigned him to investigate a very difficult organic chemical reaction. After two months, Smith claimed to have solved the problem by employing a certain reagent that he had independently discovered. Unfortunately, Smith did not have enough evidence to back up his claim. By that point, Smith had found employment and left the group. Jill Green, an experienced graduate student, continued the investigation of the reaction. Green had access to Smith's notebook and data. She found that Smith's experimental procedures were poorly written, and it was not possible to duplicate his work. Furthermore, his data were inconsistent and no valid conclusions could be drawn from the work. Unfortunately, Smith's procedures were never evaluated since he had been with the group such a short time. Green experimented with the reagent used by Smith and found that the reaction did indeed work, but under different conditions than described by his results. Six months after this discovery, Johnson and Green submitted their results to a journal for publication without consulting Smith.
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A fourth party familiar with Smith's original work and the work submitted by the group happened to see him and described how the group had solved the problem. Upon learning that he was not acknowledged for his contribution, Smith became angry and returned to confront Johnson and Green. They pointed out to Smith that their procedure differed from that of his original work and that his work contained no data that could confirm a successful result. Smith could not deny their claim, but he argued that his idea led to a solution and that he should be acknowledged. Johnson and Green later privately discussed the best way to handle the situation. Green felt that acknowledging Smith's contribution in the publication would resolve the conflict and require only a minor adjustment. However, Johnson was concerned that listing Smith as a co-author was not justified based on his work. Johnson stated, "Even if Smith made some contribution, he deceived us into thinking that he was doing careful work, then took our salary, and we could not even use his results." In addition, Johnson thought an acknowledgment would complicate matters if a patent were to be filed on the experimental procedure.
Posted 11 years and 9 months ago
From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 1, 1997 edited by Brian Schrag
Karen Muskavitch Indiana University
An initial reading of this case might lead one see it as "simply" a case dealing with the issue of authorship. However, further reflection reveals that it hinges on the larger issue of the system of responsibility and reward in the laboratory, and how this system is communicated to and understood by all the laboratory members, including the PI. At an even more basic level, the essence of the problem here is a lack of communication.
In discussing the case, it would be very instructive to spend some time exploring the relevant obligations of all the major characters, and if, and how, the fulfillment of these obligations should be linked to rewards such as authorship. For instance, Smith had an obligation to carry out and document careful research that others could build on, and Johnson had a responsibility to supervise Smith's work and to review his results. Both failed in their responsibilities. Now we are asked to determine what happens to the reward, authorship. In Part 2, Johnson asserts that by failing to fulfill his obligation to the lab, Smith has given up his right to a co-authorship.
The responsibility-reward system will vary from lab to lab, yet is central to the scientific enterprise. In the discussion of this case, it will be thought-provoking to have participants share the systems in their labs, if they even know them, and then discuss what the linkage should be.
Another interesting aspect of this case is that a graduate student, Jill Green, has been put in the middle of a dispute over appropriate attribution for another's work. My experience indicates that this occurrence is not infrequent, but it is one that we do not usually discuss. A brain-storming session on what Jill might do, followed by an evaluation of the probable consequences of each suggestion, would be very valuable to graduate students who may find themselves in such a situation in the future. Green has an obligation to communicate honestly with all involved, but she must be savvy enough to do so without harming herself.
The case presents some ambiguous aspects that are interesting to play with. I list a few below.
How novel was the reagent the Smith said he used? What was the probability that any similarly trained chemist would have tried the same reagent? Was it likely that Green would have come up with the idea on her own, and Smith's only contribution was to save her time?
What type of information should Smith have had to "back up his claim?" How much is enough? What are the criteria? Who makes the determination? Where is Smith now employed? Did he get the job based on a recommendation from Johnson? Is Smith doing research similar to that done in Johnson's lab? Is he in an academic position, possibly training graduate students?
Green noted that "Smith's experimental procedures were poorly written" and that "it was not possible to duplicate his work." Was this problem just sloppiness, or was it sloppiness that crossed the line into negligence by a man who claimed to be a professional scientist? Was there any indication of fraud? How would and should the determination of sloppiness vs. negligence vs. fraud affect the evaluation of other aspects of this case?
In this research group, would a temporary post-doc have been considered an employee or a colleague? It could have been a research group associated with a chemical company at which Green was doing her research and at which Smith was employed. If it was an academic research group, did Smith sign a release form concerning patents?