APS News

Ask the Ethicist

Editor's Note: Please send ethical questions for Jordan Moiers or comments to: ethics@aps.org, or by mail to Jordan Moiers, c/o APS News, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740. Contributors should identify themselves, but their names and addresses will be held strictly confidential unless they request otherwise. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of either the APS or APS News.


At my previous postdoc position I worked on a research project inspired by a discussion with a senior collaborator, and then was carried out exclusively by myself. I presented the work at a conference, with myself, the senior collaborator, and another collaborator as authors. After the conference I wrote a proceeding paper, which my collaborators reviewed. We also published an article in a journal.

Months later, while by browsing the Internet, I discovered that my senior collaborator was giving a talk at another conference about the research we had done. When I asked if he would submit a paper on the work he presented to a journal, the answer was "yes." I asked to review the manuscript before it was sent out, but I did not receive a copy until after it was submitted. The first surprise was that the author list had changed. Instead of being listed first on the paper with my collaborators' names following, I was listed second and my senior collaborator was first. In addition, two more coauthors were included. The new coauthors knew nothing about the project and had not been informed that they were listed on the manuscript.

To make matters worse, the new manuscript was nearly identical to the one published earlier, only five sentences were different out of seven pages. I contacted my collaborator and asked him to either withdraw the paper or remove my name. The paper has not been withdrawn. I am not sure if my name has been removed.

Should the publication of the manuscript be stopped completely? After all it is a copy of a different paper. Should I contact the editors of the journal? Clearly my senior collaborator did not like me pointing out the unethical behavior, which may have repercussions along my career. How should I handle this situation? If I contact the journal, I might have more problems with my collaborator.

(Name and address withheld)

Jordan Moiers replies:
Yes, you should contact the journal. Scholarly journals are venues for new and original research. According to APS Editor-in-Chief Martin Blume, submitted papers that are duplicates of published work are rejected out of hand. A published journal paper that is found to be a duplication is retracted.

It's understandable that you are concerned about the impact on your career that might result from offending your senior coauthor by raising the issue with the journal, but if there is existing evidence of double publication, in the form of a previously published work, no one needs know that you blew the whistle on your colleagues. In fact, all you have to do is contact the journal editors, perhaps via an anonymous phone call, and point out the smoking gun of the existing paper in the literature. If you feel the need to identify yourself, there is no reason that the editors would have to alert your coauthors to the source of their information. At least as far as the Physical Review is concerned, Blume informs us that the editors would be happy to maintain your anonymity.

With regard to author priority and coauthor qualifications—in this case, those are higher order issues compared to double publication. Only the initial paper has any legitimacy at all, if the subsequent ones are merely duplicates of the first. As my Grandma used to say, "There's no point in worrying about the state of the drapes, if the roof is caving in."


Help on Ethics Needed

The recent APS Task Force on Professional Ethics recommended that APS work with physics departments to improve education on ethical issues that affect the physics community. If you have experience or interest in developing materials to help students understand and confront such issues and would be willing to help with this task, please contact Ken Cole, Special Assistant to the Executive Officer, at cole@aps.org.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette