Ethics Questions, dealing with senior researchers

Feb 21 2008 Published by under Meta

Over at Adventures in Ethics and Science, Janet
Stemwedel, our resident ethicist, has been writing about academic
dishonesty and how professional researchers should respond to it.

I've been on the receiving end of dishonesty on three occasions -
ranging from a trivial case (arguably not dishonest at all) to the profound.
I'll describe my three experiences, along with how I did respond to them, and how I could have responded to them. Unfortunately, my experience isn't very
encouraging, and most of my advice comes down to: always, always keep a paper trail: it can't hurt, but don't count on it being useful.

I don't want to be too discouraging here. I don't think that there
are many dishonest researchers out there. The overwhelming majority of professional
researchers are scrupulously honest people who give credit where it's due, and who would never do anything to
take credit for anyone else's work, who would never steal an idea, and who would
never do anything even remotely questionable when it comes to
intellectual honesty. The problem is, it doesn't take much to poison
the well - one person out of a hundred is easily enough to create a
huge problem. And the nature of power and politics in research makes it
possible for that dishonest one to get themselves into a position where
people are scared to come forward about it.

My first and least serious experience involved a conference
paper. In computer science, most peer reviewed publications are
actually in conferences, not in journals. Work is published first in
conferences, and conference papers are actually more prestigious than
journal papers. (Acceptance rates for journal papers are quite high,
well above 50%. Acceptance rates for good conferences are typically
between 15 and 20 percent.) In general, you don't write a journal
paper until you have multiple conference papers that you can cite in
it. The conferences are really where it's at.

So I submitted a paper to a top conference - acceptance rates in
the 15% range. The reviews were the best I've ever gotten. The reviews
summarized their opinions for different categories using a 1 to 10
scale. My paper averaged between 8 and 9. Two of the three reviewers
recommended it for the "best paper in conference" award. But it got
rejected. The program chair was offended at the way that I described
the program chairs system in my related work. (I wasn't critical of it; he
just thought that I didn't discuss it in enough depth.) So he spiked it.

In my opinion, there's something wrong with the PC overriding the
opinions of the reviewers in that way, because of what he percieved as
a personal slight. But technically, he was within his rights to do it
- it was allowed by the reviewing rules of the conference. So I was
upset, but I moved on. There really wasn't anything I could do about
it. Looking back at it now, I still don't see anything that I could
have done. It was a case where all that I could do was accept it, and
submit the paper elsewhere. I ended up publishing it in a much less prestigious conference. But that's the way the cookie crumbles.

My second experience was much more serious, and much more
upsetting. I was at one of the major programming language conferences,
presenting a poster. One of my friends introduced me to a student from
UIUC, who was doing work that was related to mine. We spent a couple
of hours at the conference banquet talking about our work. About 9
months later, he published a paper proposing a change to his system
that was clearly based on some of the ideas I discussed with him. I
wrote him a polite note saying, roughly, "I'm not sure if you
remember, but back at XXX conference, we talked about our work, and I
told you that I was trying YYY idea. In your new paper, you use YYY,
but you didn't cite me. If it's not too much trouble, I'd really
appreciate it if you could add a citation to any other papers where
you discuss that."

His response was shocking. He basically said "You didn't publish it, so
you've got no proof that I got the idea from you, and who's going to believe a student from a dinky little school like UD over a student a UIUC?"

Looking back, what could I have done differently? Nothing
good. What I learned from that, and subsequent experiences is
don't talk about unpublished work in progress to people you don't
know
. I hate the idea of telling people to do that. But I've seen
far too many examples of things like that happening - people hearing
about unpublished work-in-progress, and scooping it. I do still talk
to people about my work, but I keep it very vague, and don't talk
about new ideas unless I know and trust the person that I'm talking
to. Nothing get discussed until it's published in some form, so that
I have evidence that I did it first.

The third experience was the most serious by far, the most upsetting,
and the most intractable. After getting out of school and getting a job, I was discussing work with a coworker. The coworker took the ideas, and published them
under his own name.

In this case, I had the paper trail. I had the documents that had
been presented to the management at my lab more than a year before the
scum had heard about them. I took advantage of what was known as the
"open door" policy - we were allowed to go to any manager or executive
when something like that happened to raise a complaint. I went to one
of the upper-level managers who I had presented the work to, and
described what had happened, along with dates of meetings where I had
presented to him, to other people, and when I had described the work
to the scum. I expected some kind of serious action to be taken - here
was proof, hard evidence of outright intellectual theft. What
happened? Nothing. The scum was apparently well-known for
doing that (but no one had told me), and because he had excellent
political connections, no one dared to do anything to reprimand him. So the
whole matter was dropped.

I don't know what I could have done differently. I think I did the
right thing. It would have been wrong to refuse to discuss work in
progress with a coworker. I had a strong paper trail showing what I
had done when - I couldn't have kept more or better evidence that it was
my work. I raised the issue in the right way, with the right person. I
was calm, professional, and thorough. But I ultimately relied on the idea
that honesty could trump politics. That wasn't true. No amount of evidence
could have made a difference. The thief got away with it - as he had done on
numerous occasions in the past, and as I assume he continues to do today.

To provide one (sort of) encouraging case: I know people who used to work at another, now defunct, research lab. One of their lab directors had, for years, been
using the labs "publication permission" system to deny permission to publish to
his underlings, taking their papers, putting his name on them, and submitting them. He even won a fellowship an a major professional organization on the basis of his stolen work. He was, eventually, caught with the help of a corporate ombudsman, fired, and stripped of his fellowship. Alas, he'd done this for close to 20 years, and the lab only survived for about six months after he was fired.

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  • samk says:

    For some reason I am still surprised every time I hear about misbehavior of this sort within the ranks of researchers. When I hear the words 'scientist' or 'science' the last thing I would associate with them is dishonesty. I watch Nova and the Discovery Channel. All of those scientists seem downright lovable!
    I guess scientists are cut from the same cloth as the rest of us, though. Some folks will say, or do, anything to get ahead. Whatever that means to them. I've seen some of the bloggers here at scienceblogs engage in outright lying so I guess I shouldn't be all that surprised.

  • sparky says:

    Sounds like you were a victim, in all 3 cases, of what are technically known as "workplace assholes". Depending on your institutions size and the relative ranking of the "asshole" it can, as you point out, take very few of these folks to totally poison the working environment. An excellent introduction the larger problem is: Robert I. Sutton's "The No Asshole Rule: building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn't" 1997 Warner Business Books ISBN 978-0-446-52656-2. Sutton, a Stanford management professor is leading the charge to weed these folks out of institutions, be they business or academic. People who steal ideas and use local policies to institutionalize said theft are "assholes". And you can almost be sure that their negative impact in the workplace is not limited to theft of intellectual property.

  • gg says:

    samk wrote: "For some reason I am still surprised every time I hear about misbehavior of this sort within the ranks of researchers. "
    There's a natural tendency to assume that researchers are somehow above 'petty feuds' and 'material gain', and it is always a shock to see it firsthand.
    As a graduate student, I found myself twice racing against the (same) coworker to get my results published before his similar work came out. In each case, I had been working on the project with my advisor for months when suddenly the coworker appeared with similar (though not identical) results that he had worked out alone, all set for publication. The work was distinct enough that I wouldn't call it plagarism, but it was similar enough that I had to race to publish so that I had 'first' credit for the study. My advisor, fortunately, always made sure that it happened that way.
    I'm still not sure if my coworker was genuinely clueless or somewhat deceptive; I suspect it's a little of both.

  • Rob Blake says:

    As a UIUC CS student, I'd love to know which group you corresponded with. Everyone I know here is great and is extremely respectful towards other people's research. I'm surprised to hear about bad apples on my lawn.

  • bsci says:

    I've had a very experience to our #2. As a grad student, I presented a poster at a conference. Someone else had poster on a very similar area, but the presented data showed that the person really didn't know how to proceed. The person asked me many questions about how I designed my analysis and I was glad to answer. I attended another conference 6 months later to see my method replicated by this person with no attribution. When questioned, the person acted as if there was no memory of us talking about this topic before.
    I brought this up with my advisor he just suggested I try to publish first. I didn't, but, fortunately, someone how needs to steal others' ideas couldn't figure out how to make them into a coherent paper. I've also mentioned this story to others and everyone seems to have a similar negative opinion about this person so I hope the behavior eventually catches up.

  • Susan B. says:

    This is one of the things I'm worried about as I enter grad school--I am way too trusting of people. I have this idealized view that everyone will be interested in discussing the problems, giving credit where it's due, and working toward a better understanding of math. I have to keep reminding myself to be careful, because it's not always going to be that way.

  • Torbj√∂rn Larsson, OM says:

    Without having any hard numbers, I think it is likely that the ratio of deception to self deception among researchers may have gone up during the centuries, as well as the rate of deception. I also think the reason behind both observations is the same and simple: the numbers of researchers have gone up, while the per capita resources for research have gone down. No longer is the scientist the sole beneficiary of a king or a capitalist.
    For myself I have only been subjected to a little transparent fub once by my then professor about academic traditions regarding publications. It cut a conflict shorter to his favor, but then it also probably favored me among the group as well. Sort of a lose-lose situation on morality. Perhaps the later should be my real complaint, if not concern. :-~

  • gg says:

    Susan B. wrote: "This is one of the things I'm worried about as I enter grad school--I am way too trusting of people. I have this idealized view that everyone will be interested in discussing the problems..."
    Don't get too worried about it! For the most part, researchers are a trustworthy, decent lot - perhaps more than the public at large.
    You really just have to think of your research much like personal information about your life: don't share personal details with someone until you get to know them a bit.
    You can also ask around, if you have concerns about sharing with a particular person. People who steal research results usually get a reputation for it.

  • Steve says:

    "But I ultimately relied on the idea that honesty could trump politics"
    Yes, that's the story of my research career! Honesty is ingrained so deeply in me that even when I know that there are thieves around me I frequently act as if everyone is honourable. Foolish me!
    The least that happened to me was that early on in my career a senior researcher at my research establishment poo-pooed various ideas of mine as being trivially obvious, despite not having mentioned them in his prior published work, only to then start publishing these ideas in his subsequent publications. OK, I used events such as that as a learning experience!
    The worst that happened to me is that published work of mine was picked up by others several years later (they didn't even both to change my rather idiosyncratic notation!), and then (re)published by them in a much more prominent journal, but without citing my earlier work. This has provably happened several times.
    The only defence that I have found is to be paranoid about who I talk to. Unfortunately, this makes me treat my new ideas as "intellectual property" to be jealously guarded until they have my indelible stamp on them to discourage theft by "scum" (you are right, that's what they are!). This is such a great pity because it slows down the dissemination of new ideas.
    On a more positive note, I find that this "competitive" environment has nudged my creative work to greater heights than it would have otherwise reached, as I strive to publish material that diminishes the impact of my earlier (but ripped off) work!

  • efrique says:

    I have encountered problems numerous times in different guises.
    i) As a statistician I am often consulted by people outside my area, and frequently have seen publications result where my constributions - often substantial - are not even acknowledged. In particular academic areas it seems to even be expected. (The lesson: talk about it up front - if there are publications, how is my academic contribution to be recognized?)
    ii) I have had ideas and even chunks of text, both big and small, taken, or had my contributions to them entirely mistrepresented. In one case, a particular person (not in academia) used large chunks of my words from email discussions (answers to his direct questions) almost word-for-word in a published paper (in total adding up to perhaps 300 words) - but my contribution was simply given as "useful discussion" (among a list of other names). I could pursue this guy, I suppose, though I am not sure there'd be much to be gained for me, even if I could do it successfully; I have assumed that part of the problem there is he is simply unaware of how to properly recognize the extent of the contribution. I have seen other people treated even more shabbily by other (academic) researchers in that particular area, and in those other cases I can't really find any excuse for their behaviour.
    In most cases however, particularly in academic circles, I have found people to be quite meticulous about recognizing contributions.
    To be honest, I have far more ideas than I can pursue, so I am pretty free with them, but it's nice when people at least recognize where they came from. If someone doesn't recognize contributions properly, I just stop talking about ideas with them - the ones that have better behaviour get to exploit me more.

  • Anonymous says:

    It is not just researchers who steal ideas and publish.
    "Faceless" entities like large corporations and Open Source projects regularly take published academic work or software and turn it into products with no attribution or citation. This has happened to me several times in my career. Everyone in the inner circles knows where the ideas (and even software) originally came from, but Joe Q. Public has no idea.
    I can be proud of the fact that I/my research group has had such a major impact on the business/technology world and entertainment, but it is shame when one personally does not have the resources (primarily money and time), or your organization does not have the will, to pursue action, and thus nothing can be done about the situation.
    That being said, I always call researchers (senior and junior) and students on issues of academic honesty, as that costs me nothing but some time and stress, and perhaps gives me a bit of a reputation for being a hard-ass.

  • I just want to second the importance of being a bit of a hard-ass about academic honesty. I find that teaching ratings at a university are often inversely related to how hard you are about dishonesty.
    My favorite personal story about this is finding a patent for one of my drug design algorithms - where the patent copies verbatim from my paper (and cites it actually) but was still awarded. It rankled me a bit as the pointy haired bosses (c -scott adams) at my institutions had refused to pursue it.
    I've also been on the reverse of this where the copiers accuse you of copying. (never mind publication dates!).

  • Ben B says:

    Now I'm not going to pretend I've never stolen anything. As a teenager the science section at Barnes and Noble was never safe from me (even as a delinquent I was a nerd). But this sort of thing still bothers me, and I wouldn't do it (I don't steal from stores anymore either.) I mean what ever happened to the satisfaction of a job well done? No amount of prestige can compare to the feeling of seeing your brain child grow strong and healthy

  • gg says:

    Thinking about it some more, I now recall another story that was rather amusing, in an appalling way. My former thesis advisor had entire chapters of one of his books copied by another author. That author's publisher wrote to my advisor asking if he would write a positive blurb of the book! Suffice to say, it didn't happen...

  • Robert E. Harris says:

    I was teaching in Chem. Dept. at UC in the summer of 1960. A fellow from one of the engineering departments came over looking for someone to talk with. He found me. We chatted about his problem for a while, and I forgot all about it. Nearly two years later one of my friends in Physics at Missouri told me he had noticed that this fellow had acknowledged my help in a paper he published in J. App. Phys.
    This was a good experience.

  • ScentOfViolets says:

    Understand this: I in no way condone this sort of behaviour. But also, I tend to be sympathetic to a certain type of plagiarist: the people who find out that they can't cut it, or that they no longer can cut it. I've seen these guys who make it into grad school, and they're smart, and they've done well, and worked hard. But . . . something is missing. Ask them to do a difficult homework problem, they're on it. Ask them to come up with something new, and they're left floundering, a severe blow to the ego, I would imagine. I can see a that sort falling into a panic and persuading themselves that - just this once - they'll get a little extra 'help'. The alternative is to admit that they can't cut it and get out of the program, that they just weren't as 'smart' as they thought they were.

  • ScentOfViolets says:

    Understand this: I in no way condone this sort of behaviour. But also, I tend to be sympathetic to a certain type of plagiarist: the people who find out that they can't cut it, or that they no longer can cut it. I've seen these guys who make it into grad school, and they're smart, and they've done well, and worked hard. But . . . something is missing. Ask them to do a difficult homework problem, they're on it. Ask them to come up with something new, and they're left floundering, a severe blow to the ego, I would imagine. I can see a that sort falling into a panic and persuading themselves that - just this once - they'll get a little extra 'help'. The alternative is to admit that they can't cut it and get out of the program, that they just weren't as 'smart' as they thought they were.

  • Willy says:

    I would like also to add a positive experience. I work as a laboratory automation specialist (software design, development, and robotics) for a research facility. Many times I have been pleasantly surprised to find out that I have an attribution on a scientist's paper who I helped out in the lab. I always expect my minor contributions to their work to go unmentioned and unnoticed and am always touched by their intellectual generosity.

  • Joemac says:

    I'll throw in one more good story. I am just a high school math/science teacher, but I have had some sharp students. One approached me with an idea she had noticed recurring in several examples in her text, and asked if what she had noticed was "always so".
    I could not think of a counterexample off the top of my head, so I suggested she look for one. She showed up the next day with a well-written argument that convinced me she had noticed something worth mentioning, so it was dubbed "Studley's Theorem". This is now used universally at my school and simplifies a tough set of problems.
    Studley is now a successful lawyer.

  • socratic_me says:

    I don't suppose you would want to share Studley's Thm for the rest of us secondary math teachers. I promise to attribute it as such whenever I use it with my students.

  • Joemac says:

    Studley's Thm:
    If the sum of the coefficients of a polynomial function have a sum of zero, then 1 is a root of the function.
    I think the textbook authors have forgotten that one. Almost half of the examples they put at the end of the section on finding rational roots are studley. I have to actually do out a bunch to make sure I only include 1 studley on a quiz.
    The kids forget, and when horrible equations come up in Calc, almost all the time they are studley.
    I apologize if this is so trivial that everyone already knows.

  • John Morgan says:

    What happened to the idea of name-and-shame? Using anonymous remailers on the web it should be possible to display at least the names of offending researchers, in locations where their colleagues and associates will see these. No risk to the person posting.