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To Be or Not to Be Included



Authoring Institution Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE)
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Contributor(s) Brian Schrag
Year 2001
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Rights The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) grants permission to use these case and commentary material with the citation indicated above.
Notes Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 5, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2001
Language English
Publisher Association for Practical and Professional Ethics
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  • Brian  Schrag

    Posted 14 years and 5 months ago

    Deborah G. Johnson 

    Georgia Institute of Technology

    Assignment of authorship for published research is an extremely intricate matter, as this case illustrates, and it is also a highly contentious matter. No doubt this contentiousness is correlated with the high stakes associated with authorship since published research plays such a pivotal role in the careers of scientists.

    The commentary suggests, however, that authorship of published research is not all that is at issue in this case. The case points to broader issues in graduate education.

    An outside observer viewing the case first from Alyssa's perspective and then from Swift's perspective might be most surprised by the differences in the expectations of each. They each have different expectations regarding authorship and credit, what is supposed to happen in the lab, the role of a professor in the training of students, and so on. The fact that the two have such different expectations illustrates a highly problematic condition of graduate education. The norms for professors and graduate students are poorly articulated, rarely explicitly promulgated, and therefore, poorly understood. The situation is ripe for misunderstanding. In the absence of clear norms, intentionally transmitted to students and modeled in practice, students and faculty develop a variety of diverse, ad hoc, variable expectations.

    It is easy here to suppose that the student, Alyssa, was some sort of dunce and simply had not picked up on the prevailing norm for authorship ` that lab work alone does not justify authorship, that one must make an intellectual contribution. Or perhaps she was just unable to contribute to the project intellectually. Such a response is much too easy. For one thing, there are hints that Swift uses the norm inconsistently. Why has he included other students from the lab? Did these students contribute intellectually, or did they earn authorship simply by being members of the lab? Further, the investigative committee concludes that the decision is at Swift's discretion: He could include Alyssa as co-author if he chose. The norm is not definitive; sometimes lab work is sufficient to justify authorship, and sometimes not.

    While we can understand that attributions of authorship are complex and intricate such that they must, to some extent, be left to the discretion of the faculty member, that does not mean that faculty can assign authorship arbitrarily or at whim. The discretion allowed faculty members correlates with obligations, and faculty members are accountable for how they use this discretion. They are obligated to tell students what to expect and to make decisions as fairly and consistently as possible.

    Since attribution of authorship is an intricate matter and often a matter of faculty discretion, the potential for mistreatment of students and abuse of power is great. That makes it extremely important for faculty members to provide students with guidelines.

    Norms with regard to attribution of authorship are illustrative of a broader problem in graduate education. In general, norms are not well articulated or explicitly communicated. This problem leads to a wide variety of expectations among faculty and graduate students, so much so that it is not uncommon for graduate students to experience shock and disappointment in the first years of their graduate training.

    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 5, 2001 

    edited by Brian Schrag

  • Brian  Schrag

    Posted 14 years and 5 months ago

    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 5, 2001 

    edited by Brian Schrag

    At first glance, this case appears to be about authorship. But it is really about the responsibilities of graduate students, graduate advisers and graduate institutions. We do not know Alyssa's scientific background and experience, why she decided to work in Swift's laboratory and what, if anything, she was told about the lab and what was expected of her. We do not know about Swift's relationship with the other six graduate students, his background or why he agreed to have Alyssa work in his lab. We are aware that Alyssa and Swift do not agree on what is expected of each of them in relation to the other.

    Graduate students entering into a new program may not be aware of what it "means" to be graduate students. They may have no idea what is expected of them. In some cases students may not even have laboratory experience. If we assume that that was the case with Alyssa, who was responsible for making sure Alyssa knows what is required of her as a graduate student in Swift's laboratory?

    In the graduate school setting, it is too often assumed that a Ph.D. confers the ability to teach and train students. Although some institutions do train their faculty to be effective instructors, some do not; contrary to popular belief, there is no universal "scientific method" that all research groups follow. Research groups vary greatly due to discipline, institution, department and especially the personality of the research group director.1 Let's assume that Swift was never trained to teach. Therefore, it is possible that Alyssa was aware of her responsibilities but was not being trained effectively to accomplish the goals set out for her.

    Several institutions have developed their own graduate student bill of rights and responsibilities, and some have included the faculty's responsibilities to the students. Many of these are accessible via the Internet. 2,3 Although these guidelines cannot change an individual's work ethic or ability to learn or train, they do define roles and the responsibilities that come with them, thereby eliminating an element of confusion from an inherently stressful environment.

    Due to the decentralized nature of research, it is essential that graduate institutions have rules and regulation that clearly define the roles and responsibilities of graduate students and advisers. Without these guidelines, it is not safe to assume that all students in an institution are being trained effectively or comparably. They should also outline the responsibilities each has to each other, the laboratory, the institution and the scientific community. The institution should also make available the resources needed to accomplish these goals. Once a student enters a laboratory, the institution does not relinquish its responsibility for that student's education to the principal investigator; rather, the responsibility is now shared.



Cite this page: "To Be or Not to Be Included" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 4/18/2006 OEC Accessed: Saturday, October 10, 2020 <>