Debbie Knight

The dark(er) side of research

In research issue(s) on June 20, 2011 at 3:31 pm

The world of scientific research can be highly competitive at times. And this can lead to some questionable behavior from scientists – the darker side of research.

The labs in which I have worked have experienced some of these questionable behaviors firsthand.

1)  The stealth bomber. In the ideal world scientists should be able to talk openly to other researchers about their research, holding nothing back. This process can lead to even better science complete with better ideas and experimental design. However, it comes with a risk. If you share too much, a competitor with questionable scruples may just steal your ideas and publish the results before you even get a chance to get your results and publish them.

This happened to one of our graduate students a few years ago. She was at a scientific meeting and discussed her research with another trainee. The trainee took those ideas and ran with them, completing the experiments and publishing the results a few months before our graduate student could submit her own paper. So, our lab got “scooped” and because our research would now only confirm the other lab’s research rather than being the first to describe the phenomenon, it made it more difficult to publish our lab’s findings.

This was a huge lesson. And our lab was careful what information we divulged – often waiting to present research until the paper had been written and submitted.

2)   The fake-out.  This situation just happened this week. We have a collaborator (or so we thought) who decided she couldn’t wait any longer to publish the research we worked on together. As a clinician, she’s not always in agreement with basic scientists that if we wait to get the results from laboratory experiments, the story would be better, stronger. As a clinician, she publishes predominately case studies – studies that are about a clinical experience with one or two patients. She’s used to quick turn-around. But experimental studies usually take a while to complete.

Anyway, she decided to write and send the manuscript to a journal without consulting us. We had no idea that she was essentially “scooping” the impact the combined clinical and basic science studies would have had. If she had consulted us, she would have known that we were putting in a patent application for a diagnostic test – and it may just be that her published paper, which is considered to be in the public domain, will nullify the patent application.

So here we had a research “collaboration” that didn’t turn out to be so collaborative after all. The take-home lesson? Should we no longer collaborate with any researcher from this point forward?  I don’t think that’s the answer. Although I do think we will need to be more careful who we collaborate with in the future. Clearly, it won’t be this clinician.

3)  The tanker. My boss has experienced this in a study section – a study section is a group of scientists who look over the grant proposals that have been submitted to a funding agency like The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and decide which proposals should be funded and which should not.

In one study section, my boss witnessed a scientist tank his competitor’s grant proposal. And that proposal was not funded as a result of it. This scientist should have removed himself from the evaluation process to make it fair, but he did not choose to do this.

The lesson? Be aware there are flaws in the grant awarding system and your grant might not be evaluated fairly.

4)  The alpha dog. When researchers have successful collaborated with other scientists and it comes time to publish the results, sometimes whose name will be included as authors and in what order those names will appear comes into question.

I worked for one researcher who severely limited the number of authors a paper. Some of those who did the research were merely mentioned in the acknowledgments.

I’ve also worked with researchers who have argued over who should have the “first author” slot – this is the first name in the list of authors and is usually the person who actually wrote the manuscript in addition to performing many of the experiments. Sometimes there are two researchers who should be considered “first authors” which was more of a problem a few years ago – now there are frequently shared first authorships where a notation indicates that both first authors contributed equally to the research. Then there can be a fight for the last slot – this is the “senior author” slot reserved for the principle investigator (the boss of the lab). If there are two major investigators, there could be a conflict. Then there’s deciding the order of the remaining coauthors. This can be tricky. The way the labs I’ve worked in have done this is to list them according to their research effort.

It seems an easy process, but I’ve had my share of bumps and bruises on the authorship line. It’s almost a contact sport sometimes!

These are but a few examples. I’ve heard many other stories of questionable behavior, but I wanted to tell you about ones I can confirm, ones from my own research experience.

Rarely do you see the darker side of research. Most days, researchers freely share their experience with one another, freely share reagents, and are all-around good people.

  1. Another great post. Unfortunately, in any industry (and in life), there will always be liars, cheaters, and thieves. Although this is rare, I still feel there is a lack of collaboration, or a means to collaborate more often. I’m waiting for the Facebook branch of science where researchers can communicate openly and daily about their findings with each other. I dream of a day when research advances quicker than it does.

    The whole authorship (alpha dog) issue boggles my mind. If someone performed an experiment resulting in data used in a paper, put that person’s name on the paper. If that means 20 authors, what’s the big deal? When I was a sales rep, I came across plenty of lab managers/technicians whose PI’s didn’t put their name on papers. Spread the love!

    And the best part of your post, “researchers…are all-around good people.”

  2. […] in June, I wrote about the darker side of research and how a supposed collaborator decided to go solo and write a manuscript on the very research we […]

  3. […] This particular collaborator is now a former collaborator because of other unethical behavior (see post). I guess the incident describe above should have sent up a red flag, but it didn’t. Live and […]

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