Long Distance Collaboration Discussion

Answers to discussion questions from Long Distance Collaboration.


QUESTION 1:  What difficulties can arise with this arrangement?

All members of a collaboration put their reputations on the line with a publication. While APS guidelines do not require each co-author of a paper to be versed in all details of the research, they do require a willingness of each co-author to stand behind the paper as a whole.

Thus it is fair to ask whether A and Z know enough about each other and each other’s work in order to enter into this collaboration. Additionally, Dr. Z appears to be collaborating with another colleague, about whom A knows even less.

A second issue is the level of involvement in the collaboration. A has already indicated reluctance in getting too involved in new calculations. Will his contribution be sufficient to warrant listing as a co-author?


QUESTION 2:  What factors should Professor A take into consideration when responding to Dr. Z’s invitation?

In addition to the considerations outlined in the previous discussion Professor A should consider whether there is enough significant information to warrant publication.

While arguably journal referees make this judgment too, there is little point in wasting their time with an insignificant submission. In particular, since the theoretical model is A’s area of expertise, he should consider whether the model really does help in the interpretation of the experimental results. He needs to continue to consider whether he has confidence in the experimental work of Dr. Z and his colleague and whether his own contribution to the project warrants co-authorship.


QUESTION 3:   What problems have arisen due to the way in which Professor A and Dr. Z have entered into the collaboration?

 The criteria for co-authorship on papers in this project were not clearly established. The mysterious disappearance of Dr. Z’s colleague from the author list illustrates this point.

The relatively small amount of Professor A’s contribution to the paper as well as his expressed reluctance to devote significant time to the project seem to give him less leverage in the content of the paper. As a result, he seems to have difficulty in creating options other than accepting the paper as Z envisions it or removing his name as a co-author.


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?

When choosing a referee, a journal editor will look for someone with expertise in the appropriate subfield of physics. Particularly in smaller subfields, this means that the referee may well know the author.  While referees are encouraged to identify and disclose potential conflicts of interest, it may be difficult to find a qualified referee who is not currently nor ever has been a collaborator of or competitor of one or more of the author’s of the submission.

Arguably, the best the referee can do is to disclose the conflict to the editor and make a good faith effort to write an objective report. This of course has the effect of dumping the difficult ethical question into the lap of the editor. As for the differing views of the refereeing process, it is clear that Professor A views the process as an iterative one designed to improve the quality of the work while Dr. Z views it as a gate keeping procedure.

These differing perspectives would not necessarily lead to an unresolvable conflict if both parties in the collaboration were committed to producing a high quality paper. In that case, both would presumably accept advice from any source if that would improve the paper. However, Dr. Z is clearly interested in publishing as quickly as possible, and even Professor A indicated some reluctance in properly supporting the experimental side of the paper with detailed calculations.


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?

Professor A was clearly not satisfied with the quality of the paper and with Z’s minimal efforts to respond to what A viewed as valid criticism. Under those circumstances, arguably he is ethically obligated to request his name be removed from the paper. Authorship implies a willingness to stand behind the paper, and Professor A felt he could not do so. It is interesting to note that something about the interaction caused Professor A to distrust Z to the extent that he was not convinced Z would actually remove his name from the paper. Professor A certainly has a right to take reasonable actions to protect his reputation. Contacting the journal editor is one such act. One might also argue, however, that his contacting the journal editor effectively brings his distrust of Z out into the open, and if his lack of trust was baseless, he may be unfairly tarnishing Z’s image. This is less of a problem if the editor treats the communication confidentially. Whether or not Professor A should give permission to use his theoretical work without attribution is an interesting question. On the one hand, Professor A does not want his name associated with an application of the theory that he believes is not appropriate. On the other hand, arguably Dr. Z misrepresents his own contribution by not acknowledging that the theoretical work did not originate with him. Perhaps Dr. Z could acknowledge the contribution as a footnoted “private communication”, but even that would require the permission of Professor A.


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?

While it is not the responsibility of an editor to mediate a dispute such as this, she does have a responsibility to maintain the integrity of her journal to the best of her abilities. This would include making sure that papers are published only with the consent of all authors listed.

The editor’s request that Professor A suggest the name of an appropriate referee is not too out of the ordinary. When an editor sends a paper out for review, the recipient is often asked to either referee it of suggest someone else who would be more appropriate for the task. Furthermore, many journals encourage the authors themselves to suggest the names of appropriate referees. These suggestions are nothing more than that: the editor makes the final decision.

What makes this case a bit different, though, is that the editor has reason to at least suspect that there may be ill will between A and Z. At the very least, the possibility of bad feelings between the two should be taken into consideration in deciding whether or not to take A’s advice. As for A, if he is truly concerned about maintaining the integrity of the publication record, then it is in his interest to identify a highly qualified referee and one who he believes can be objective.


QUESTION 7:  What were A’s possible considerations in writing his letter?

Professor A might have been concerned that Dr. Z would be inclined to do something like this again. Professor A would not have wanted that to happen.

The people who best knew Z and who had the best chance of influencing Z were at Z’s home institution, where unethical actions might do the most damage. If Z is normally a responsible person, further problems would be unlikely.

If the local people were already concerned about Z, they could reply to A’s letter and obtain information they could use to try to redirect Dr. Z. If the local people were not concerned, a stronger complaint might not do much good and could do some damage. Perhaps A decided to give both Z and his local colleagues some credit for acting sensibly.


QUESTION 8:  In reviewing the full case, how might Dr. Z have viewed things?

Since the story is told from A’s perspective, we do not know for sure how Z felt about the situation. It is nevertheless worthwhile to consider some possibilities in order to better understand how a situation like this can arise.

The idea, most of the actual research, and the data are Dr. Z’s. The work was done at Dr. Z’s institution. Professor A contributed less. Professor A did not do a full-blown computer calculation. Professor A did not write any of the drafts of the manuscript. Sometimes his comments were unclear. Professor A, as he admitted, did not understand the data, or even how it was obtained. Dr. Z went out of his way to accommodate Professor A. All of Professor A’s suggestions that made sense to Dr. Z were incorporated into the paper where possible. When Dr. Z respectfully suggested that Professor A completely rewrite the paper himself, Professor A refused, arguing the only way he could do that would result in a paper that sounded too much like a theory paper and thus be inappropriate.

What more could Dr. Z do? Frustratingly, Professor A, whose first language is English, refused to correct even minor mistakes in English after the first few drafts of the paper. Professor A sometimes seemed more interested in window dressing, such as motivation, introduction and conclusion than in the substance of the paper, namely the novel and striking data. The process took too long. The referee complained about the theory. No referee ever said the data was uninteresting.

Professor A was heavy handed at times. While Dr. Z admitted his mistake to Professor A, it could be unnecessary, unwise and dangerous to admit in writing to ethical misconduct. And if Professor A were to broadcast his biased account of this ill fated experience, Professor A would put Dr. Z in an awkward position: if Dr. Z did not respond, Dr. Z would not be not fairly represented, but if he did reply to this public charge of “ethical misconduct”, his identity would be revealed and his young career damaged. Would Professor A be the unethical one in this case?