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This case study involves a long distance, international collaboration between a theorist and an experimentalist. The case study is divided into several incidents. While each section builds from the previous section, the questions raised at the end of each section can be meaningfully addressed without reading the case all the way to the end.
Professor A received an email from an unknown Dr. Z, who inquired about two sets of theoretical papers Professor A had written about a surface process.
These two sets of papers were written twenty years apart and used somewhat different theoretical techniques to deal with different experiments. Dr. Z had recently done an experiment related to A’s earlier work and thought some apparent exponential decay in his data might be related to A’s later work.
Following an exchange of email, Z showed his data to A and soon Dr. Z proposed they collaborate on a paper, which Z had begun to write with a colleague at his home laboratory in another country. Professor A was not interested in creating new computer code, but was willing to do some back of the envelope estimates and scaling of older calculations to help interpret Z’s new data. Professor A agreed to look further into the problem and suggested they wait a bit to decide if a joint paper was warranted.
QUESTION 1: What difficulties can arise with this arrangement?
Although he was able to provide general theoretical support, Professor A found it difficult to understand the exponential decay in Dr. Z’s data.
Professor A explained why his theory that can produce exponential decay was questionable in Z’s case. Professor A was able to confirm from his earlier work without exponential decay that the surface process in question was likely to be strong, as Z had claimed. Dr. Z sent Professor A a draft of a manuscript by Dr. Z and his colleague from Z’s home institution, inviting Professor A to be a coauthor.
QUESTION 2: What difficulties can arise with this arrangement?
Professor A reluctantly agreed to be a co-author, stipulating that this was to be primarily an experimental paper focusing on Dr. Z’s data. Professor A thought he could help with some rather limited theoretical support and felt he could help place the data in context, especially with crafting the introduction and conclusion. As A was primarily busy with some non-research activities, he was pleased to be involved with some research.
Soon A and Z were working on the paper. Z’s coauthor was dropped from the paper. In A’s view the paper was not well written: the motivation was unclear, the main ideas were not clearly stated, A could not understand how the data was taken and analyzed, and there were mistakes in English. Professor A rewrote parts of the paper. Dr. Z also wanted to include his data that showed exponential decay and include A’s theory, which by now A had concluded did not apply. In subsequent drafts A stopped correcting new mistakes in English.
Dr. Z insisted that the paper be submitted to Journal D as a letter because the surface process was so difficult to observe, and his data was new. Professor A asked that credit be more clearly directed to a group who had tried to observe this process twenty years earlier. Against A’s advice, the paper was submitted as a letter, with the comparison to A’s theory and without the reference to the earlier experimental work.
QUESTION 3: What problems have arisen due to the way in which Professor A and Dr. Z have entered into the collaboration?
The paper was rejected by Journal D with a polite referee’s report. Professor A speculated privately that the referee was the first author of the only experimental paper published (some twenty years earlier) on this surface process. Consequently, Professor A believed that he had been on the referee’s dissertation committee. Dr. Z wanted to resubmit the paper immediately and unrevised to a new journal, again as a letter.
Z indicated he had plans to involve A in upcoming projects in his home research laboratory. Professor A insisted they consider the referee’s comments on the rejected manuscript and address them where sensible. Around this time Professor A had begun to use the word “unacceptable” regarding elements of the manuscript when he corresponded with Dr. Z. However, it also occurred to Professor A that the paper could make an important contribution for two reasons. First, the surface process was unexpectedly strong and this was not generally recognized (especially relevant to the field of this new journal). Second, the general area of Z’s work had fallen out of favor in the United States, and as a consequence this field of study did not receive the support that A believed it deserved. The paper could help attract support.
So A actually favored submitting the paper as a letter in the subfield covered by Journal E, which Z had chosen, but only after the earlier referee’s comments had been addressed.
QUESTION 4: Is there a conflict of interest in refereeing a paper written by an individual who served on your dissertation committee? What potential problems arise when two members of a collaboration have very different views of the refereeing process?
Dr. Z wanted to retain data exhibiting the controversial exponential decay when they submitted a letter to the new journal. The resulting manuscript was no clearer to A than the previous versions. Professor A said so to Dr. Z, and he wondered if he would be able to help his younger colleague to do what he (A) regarded as better science and also to write a good paper. Their correspondence became more strained.
After some changes, the paper was jointly submitted to Journal E as a letter. The paper was again rejected. This time there was a detailed referee’s report containing many comments that A generally found useful and constructive. A number of these comments were on points that A and Z had disagreed about, but had not resolved prior to submission. Dr. Z believed the referee’s report was a bad report, and he wanted to ask immediately for a new referee without making any changes in the manuscript. Z felt that a new referee would see the value of this paper (as Professor A apparently had).
Professor A disagreed, strongly and in detail. Professor A insisted changes to the manuscript be made, and suggested Z write a rebuttal to the referee for A to approve before the paper was resubmitted. Professor A threatened to withdraw as a coauthor of the paper. Z’s subsequent changes were, in A’s view, minimal. Furthermore, A viewed Z’s rebuttal to the referee as superficial, in some cases suggesting the referee simply did not understand points that were, in A’s opinion, obviously a problem in the manuscript. These were points A had not been able to understand himself, and had said so repeatedly.
Professor A wrote to Dr. Z, asking that his name be withdrawn from the paper. He invited Z to use his theoretical contributions under Z’s name alone. Professor A asked, however, that all his involvement in Z’s future plans be abandoned. He wished Z good luck in his endeavors. Professor A also sent an email to the editor of Journal E, indicating that he had withdrawn as an author and also asking that the editor inform him if the paper reappeared with his name on it.
QUESTION 5: Was A’s withdrawal from the collaboration and his contacting the journal editor appropriate under the circumstances? Was it appropriate for A to allow Z to use the theoretical work under his (Z’s) own name?
The next day A received an email from the editor informing him that the paper had been resubmitted overnight and that A’s name was still included as a coauthor. Professor A called the editor. He had expected the editor to be eager to join an effort to stop what he viewed as a clear case of ethical misconduct. After a brief discussion, they agreed to wait to act for a couple of days until they had thought it over. The editor wanted to talk it over with her boss.
Professor A worked on a plan of action. He realized that his primary interest was to redirect Dr. Z away from plans and actions that he believed might be harmful to Z and to science. Professor A wanted to confront Dr. Z with what he had done and ask him to explain himself and eventually to admit that what he had done could be construed as ethical misconduct. Professor A discussed his plan of action with the editor. The editor saw no reason for her to be involved. She was sensibly concerned about the integrity of the refereeing process. She wanted to be careful in her decisions on which papers to accept and which to reject.
Professor A willingly removed the editor’s direct involvement. The editor then asked A if he could suggest a suitable referee. Professor A thought a moment and suggested an acquaintance, who was the thesis advisor of the person A had earlier guessed was the first referee for Journal D. The person A recommended was someone A knew well, one of several highly qualified people at his former place of employment. Professor A regarded the person as fair. The editor thanked A and indicated she might or might not ask this person to referee the single author paper.
QUESTION 6: Was the editor’s request not to be involved in the authorship dispute a reasonable one? Was it appropriate for the editor to ask A for a referee recommendation, and was it appropriate for A to supply a name?
Professor A began to implement his plan. He wrote to Dr. Z, including a copy of Professor A’s email to the editor, i.e. the email requesting that A be informed if the paper were resubmitted with his name as an unwilling coauthor. Professor A asked Dr. Z why he had submitted the paper with A’s name on it after A had withdrawn as a coauthor. Z replied, as A had expected, that Z thought A would be pleased when the paper was accepted, as he believed it would be. Z was looking forward to a renewed, reinvigorated collaboration with A. Professor A felt he had been successful in getting Z to communicate. He then asked Z if Z could understand that this could be regarded as ethical misconduct. As expected, A did not get a clear answer from Z on this; the reply was more confused than committed.
Then A indicated that he would wait for Z to answer three questions before he “took further action”. Professor A’s questions were: “What should you do?” “What should I do?” “Can you understand why this might be seen as ethical misconduct?” Dr. Z answered that he wasn’t sure what he should do, but that he would not do something like this again (an answer acceptable to A). Z wrote that it was not up to him to decide what A should do, but that he understood why A seemed to be upset (unexpected, but acceptable to A). Finally Z indicated that he did not understand the issue about a possible case of ethical misconduct (unacceptable to A).
Professor A then proceeded to send a letter to Dr. Z’s supervisor indicating that he had withdrawn his name as coauthor of a paper with Dr. Z and that he would not be participating in further work with Dr. Z at that institution. Professor A did not include the phrase “ethical misconduct” in his somewhat formal letter.
QUESTION 7: What were A’s possible considerations in writing his letter?
Several weeks after his final email exchange, A ran into his friend at a conference and quietly asked if the friend had refereed a paper by Dr. Z for Journal E. Surprised by the question, the friend asked how A knew. Professor A replied that he himself had suggested his friend’s name. A’s friend briefly commented that he had refereed the paper, hadn’t thought much of the paper, and recommended against publication. A and his friend then had a pleasant dinner together. Professor A has not heard from Dr. Z again. Nor has he had a reply from Dr. Z’s supervisor. Both of these non-events A takes as a good sign. However, A does wonder if he had all contingencies sensibly covered.
A professional code of ethics generally lies between accepted professional practices and the law. Here the term “ethical misconduct” is used to describe an activity that is professionally unacceptable, but not illegal. Dickens wrote, “The law is a ass”. So far no such famous negative characterization of science exists. Not yet. Let us hope that we are protected by our professional ethics.
QUESTION 8: In reviewing the full case, how might Dr. Z have viewed things?