APS News

Ask the Ethicist

A graduate student (whom I have decided to call Plato) faced with an ethical dilemma recently contacted the APS editorial offices. Here is a portion of the correspondence that resulted between the student and an APS editor (whom I will call Anaxagoras), in lieu of my usual ethics column. I'll get back to work next month.
— Jordan Moiers

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Dear Anaxagoras,

I'm a grad student in physics. I recently stopped working for an advisor who always talks about publishing to motivate his students, but rarely publishes any of the work they do. Whenever a student completes some set of measurements and analysis that the professor had previously agreed should constitute a paper, that student is told that he cannot publish. The reasons given are as diverse as they are mysterious: "Oh. That wasn't the goal of the project anymore. Didn't I tell you?", "The results are good, but since I want to sell these widgets, I don't want to give away the secrets of their fabrication.", and "Hey let's hold off on writing for a while so we can get started on this other project!" The reason given is rarely scientific.

I spent about a year on one particular project. When I finished and wanted to publish I was given the usual runaround. When I pressed the issue, my samples were mysteriously destroyed and I was given a choice between leaving and changing to a different project. I feel that the work is worthy of publishing and I'd hate to simply forget about it.

Would it be legal and ethical for me to publish a paper on the work on my own? Does my former advisor have any legal authority to block it, or control its content? (He obtained the funding, and is responsible for the lab where the experiment took place.) Should I include his name on the paper? Would it be legal and ethical for me to include or exclude his name against his will? His participation in the project was minimal.
Regards,
Plato

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Dear Plato,

Your professor (surely you don't mean Socrates) has been behaving in a way that is undoubtedly contrary to the guidelines of your institution, and you have every right to complain to a Department chair or to a Dean. I realize that this is easier said than done, since it will open you to possible retaliation by the professor, but you should go to the higher authority with a simple statement of the situation and ask for advice. You can express your concern that you will put yourself in a difficult position with the professor and ask that your complaint be kept confidential until you decide otherwise.

It is legal and ethical for you to publish the work on your own, provided that the Professor has not made "a significant contribution to the concept, design, execution or interpretation of the research study" (This is quoted from the APS Guidelines for Professional Conduct: http://www.aps.org/policy/statements/02_2.cfm).

Obtaining the funding and having responsibility for the Laboratory is by itself not a significant contribution. However, if the funding was obtained because he described the concept of the experiment, he might have a legitimate case for authorship. Finally it is unethical and unacceptable for you to put his name on or exclude him without cause from authorship without his agreement. Your best recourse is to discuss this with a trusted higher authority at your institution.
Sincerely, Anaxagoras

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Dear Anaxagoras, I appreciate the response. It is extremely helpful. However, the difficulties of reporting my professor's behavior (who may or may not be Socrates, I'd rather not say) to a dean or chair may be greater than you suggest. My professor brings in a fair amount of grant money, which is in the interest of the department, the school, and the university. Although I don't understand his sketchy behavior, I think it's about increasing and maintaining grant money. It may not be in the interest of higher authorities to fix the situation. What other recourse do I have?
Plato

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Dear Plato,

I do not underestimate the difficulty of getting a hearing because of the great influence, financial or otherwise, of your professor (even if he is not the renowned, and somewhat self-absorbed, Socrates) at your institution... I do have the belief that there must be at the higher levels of authority an ethical sense that transcends financial considerations. If you have acted on that belief and it is incorrect there is always the possibility of going to the funding agency. All of my advice is based, of course, on the assumption that the situation is precisely as presented by you. You will have to understand, though, that professors are entitled to a hearing at which they may defend themselves, perhaps disputing your view. As I stated in my first responses, none of this is likely to be easy. I think the story of your experience would be very helpful to others in similar situations. May we submit this email exchange to the APS News "Ask the Ethicist" column?
Anaxagoras 

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Anaxagoras:

Thank you for all the advice. This discussion has shown me a way to proceed with publishing my work, without violating any ethical guidelines. That's exactly what I was looking for. I suppose that people in positions of higher authority do have a greater stake in enforcing ethical behavior, if only because they work under greater scrutiny and risk their own job by tolerating abuse. I get the sense that a lot of graduate students are in similarly difficult situations and get burned because they're not aware of their rights and responsibilities, and those of their advisor. People need to be educated about these things. Maybe that's a task for grad student labor unions... Feel free to publish my questions and your responses in the "Ask the Ethicist" column in APS News. I doubt Socrates (alright I confess, you guessed right the first time) reads it, and I hope someone else can benefit from my experience.
Regards,
Plato


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