Co-authorship (and Potty owns up to a mistake in years gone by)

Feb 11 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

A comment from a previous post:

For those who did stock up data as a postdoc, any advice on navigating authorship issues with previous advisor? Let's assume the data was collected in the postdoc lab. The newbie PI designed and led the work but the former advisor provided key resources.

Note: At my institution, papers co-authored with a former advisor are not counted in tenure considerations, even if the asst prof is the senior/corresponding author.

(also see reply from B. Kiddo, teh bride, who says good things)

Navigating authorship is tough. In general, those kind of hard conversations, where the power is unequal, need to happen with all the usual tough stuff: tact, respect, etc etc. My best advice is to start the conversation with neutral statements of fact like:

I'm getting ready to submit paper XYZ from when I worked with you (in your lab?). Can we discuss authorship?

If it was in their lab, usually they do get co-authorship. And, really, except for emotional things like "I hate that fucker", it costs nothing to add them as co-auth, especially if you get first. And (see below), one needs to get permission/approval from all the authors on the paper.

Most likely the paper means more to you than to them. A good mentor will know that, and a bad mentor can be led to do the right thing. Keep your cool (ha! am I telling this to someone else? me? of the nanosecond fuse?). A philosophy that has served me well, all these long years, is that adding co-authors seldom creates problems. Of course, there is the caveat about "appropriate", and then the determination of appropriate.

When I first got to previous MRU, the Chair from Hell had a policy. For me in particular. He was to be a co-author on all my papers, and I was to include him at 10-20% effort on all my grants. Because after all, we work on the same things, and (yes, this is a quote): " I (that's him) hired you (that's me) to collaborate with me (that's him)". Shortly after, through no effort of mine, MRU re-iterated their authorship policy which included an explicit prohibition about chairs including their names on faculty papers. The grant funding issue did not go away so easily, so I did instead. But I digress...

Here is the mistake from years gone by. I once upon a time had a grad student. Let's call her Amanda. She was older than the other students, but bright well beyond average. She was great at planning, and supervising (she had a horde on undergrads to help with extensive, but relatively simple data collection). What she sucked at was follow-through, follow-up and finishing stuff. My mistake? I did not realize this, and did not lay down rules to deal with the situation. I figured things would go ok, things were going ok, until they didn't. She collected masses and masses of raw data. Enough for several data rich papers. Enough to establish herself as independent of me. But she never got around to the extraction of quantitative data from the masses of raw data.

What destroyed her in the end, was not the lack of output, but that she bent the truth. She claimed a master's degree (which gave her status in the PhD program) but she had never defended, and it was never awarded. One of her committee members found out, and came to me. He wanted to toss her out of the program then and there. I went to her and said "what the fuck, you need to fix this". She got angry and defensive and blamed her old advisor. I said that was irrelevant and it needed to be fixed. She seemed to think I had a magic wand and could make the problem go away. I was willing, and persuaded he committee, to give her space to either go back and defend or to own up to it. No penalty, except that she'd have to lose the extra status and take another course. She said screw this and after 4 years, candidacy, and enough data to sink a ship, she walked away from the program to raise cats (or something like that). She had to take one class, and analyze data and write the thesis. The latter was not going to be hard, as she had a detailed 40-page outline of three papers that could be the thesis. She was capable of writing, well and easily. She just couldn't do it. I counted this as a failure on my part, particularly to the animals whose data did not get published (at the time).

Fast forward a couple of years. I get an ambitious new postdoc in my lab (from another field). Marge is intrigued by Amanda's data. Marge has an idea about the data- taking the raw from one part (not the main part) and looking at in the context of some of the other data collected. Something I hadn't seen. I don't think Amanda saw it (it  wasn't in the outline). Marge goes to it, enters reams of hand collected/written data, analyzes it, and comes up with really interesting results. Writes a great paper. A really, really good paper.

I track down Amanda who has moved to Mississippi or Texas or somewhere far away with her cats and garden. I email her, and attach Marge's manuscript. Marge is first author. I'm last. Amanda is in the middle. I attach authorship regs from where I am that essentially say: everyone who should be an author needs to be an author, and no one who shouldn't be an author should be. I say that as she supervised this data collection (true), but did not collect it (also true), and that the data, although not the hypothesis and question, had originally been conceived to be part of her thesis (which we co-designed), that it was appropriate she be an author.

Amanda was furious, although I am not clear why.  She copied her anger to the Dean, to the lawyers, to everyone. And concluded her email with "I see you tracked me down. I'm living in a beautiful place. If we were still friends, I'd invite you down, but we're not".  I wasted time talking to all the appropriate players (lawyers, deans, ombuds) and the paper came out, in good IF journal (Marge is now jr faculty and doing well). I never heard from Amanda again.

My mistake was not about authorship - I was honorable, and have no regrets. I've published other of Amanda's data, and she is a co-auth on everything. I send her emails asking for input and approval, and hear nothing back. That is a bit problematic, since the corresponding author is supposed to get approval from every co-auth, these days. But choosing between the sin of a co-author who doesn't agree, and the sin of leaving Amanda off, I take the first.

My mistake was in not supervising Amanda better. I did not recognize her issue and step in soon enough. I tend to run my lab a bit looser than many, mostly because I don't want to waste time and energy being a hard ass. When I'd meet with Amanda, she showed all the signs of progressing. But those signs were not enough. Or misleading. I needed to drill down deeper into her work, and I didn't. Picking the right level of interaction with trainees is hard. Making the environment where they can thrive is hard. Figuring out authorship is not so hard. Enni, I hope this is something you can laugh about in ten years.

5 responses so far

  • gerty-z says:

    I sort of disagree with putting Amanda on a paper that she doesn't agree to be an author on. If it were me, I would include her in the acknowledgements, but if she doesn't want to be an author then that is her call.

    That said, I totally sympathize with your last paragraph. I struggle a lot with figuring out the right level of interaction with students and trainees. Especially post-docs. I think that I sometimes err on the "too hands-off side". But I just can't be a micromanager.

    • potnia theron says:

      she did want to be an author... she just thought she should have been first.

      • Morgan Price says:

        I'm with gerty-z: if she doesn't want take a look at the manuscript and comment on it then she can't be an author. Even aside from the author order issue (which brings into question whether she approves), what if there's something else in there that she strongly disagrees with?

  • fjordmaster says:

    From your description, I don't think I would classify the Amanda situation as necessarily a mistake on your part. Some situations are not salvageable. I'm sure there are details you left out of the post and things you could have done differently over the course of your relationship, but it sounds like you were dealing with a mentally unstable person. She lied about having a masters and then refused to take responsibility when she was caught. She responded irrationally to your inquiry about the publication. These anecdotes lead me to believe that any attempt you would have made to intervene concerning her inability to complete projects would have produced a similar outcome.

  • Crystaldoc says:

    In my experience, former students/postdocs that walk away from data without producing a manuscript invariably grossly underestimate the work still remaining to be done. I tell my trainees that at the moment they think they have "everything they need" for a paper, they are likely to be about halfway done with the actual work of generating a publication, and without the publication, the science doesn't really exist. I have made a point of discussing with every person leaving my lab and leaving data behind, without at least producing a manuscript suitable for first submission to a journal, that they are walking away from any claim on first authorship. (They might still end up first, depending on many variables, but I refuse to promise this.) In my view it is not fair to the person taking over the supposedly mostly finished project, to conscript them into the major effort of writing and shepherding the manuscript through rounds of review, and always seems to involve repeating experiments found to be lacking in the course of putting the manuscript together, and often new experiments are required too. For the new student on the project, if the paper would never get made without them, then to me they have as great a claim on it as the person who walked away. My greater obligations are to get the data out, show productivity on the grant, and help the current student still working in my lab to generate first author productivity. I have had a few heated discussions with prematurely departing trainees, but I have stuck to my guns on this.

    I too have had difficulty figuring out how much guidance/intervention some trainees need, or figuring out how to motivate and help those that are slow to get any writing done. For some it has been helpful to set up a schedule of deadlines for giving me outlines and sections, but there was one trainee in particular that didn't take my deadlines seriously until I formally documented shortcomings on an annual review. That seemed to give a necessary wake up call, but our relationship was, unsurprisingly, a little shaky after that.

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