Adjudicating “misbehavior”: how can scientists respond when they don’t get fair credit?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I recently gave a talk at UC – Berkeley’s Science Leadership and Management (SLAM) seminar series. After the talk (titled “The grad student, the science fair, the reporter, and the lionfish: a case study of competition, credit, and communication of science to the public”), there was a discussion that I hope was at least as much fun for the audience as it was for me.

One of the questions that came up had to do with what recourse members of the scientific community have when other scientists are engaged in behavior that is problematic but that falls short of scientific misconduct.

If a scientist engages in fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism — and if you can prove that they have done so — you can at least plausibly get help from your institution, or the funder, or the federal government, in putting a stop to the bad behavior, repairing some of the damage, and making sure the wrongdoer is punished. But misconduct is a huge line to cross, so harmful to the collective project of scientific knowledge-building that, scientists hope, most scientists would never engage in it, no matter how dire the circumstances.

Other behavior that is ethically problematic in the conduct of science, however, is a lot more common. Disputes over appropriate credit for scientific contributions (which is something that came up in my talk) are sufficiently common that most people who have been in science for a while have first-hand stories they can tell you.

Denying someone of fair credit for the contribution they made to a piece of research is not a good thing. But who can you turn to if someone does it to you? Can the Office of Research Integrity go after the coauthor who didn’t fully acknowledge your contribution to your joint paper (and in the process knocked you from second author to third), or will you have to suck it up?

At the heart of the question is the problem of working out what mechanisms are currently available to address this kind of problem.

Is it possible to stretch the official government definition of plagiarism“the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit” — to cover the situation where you’re being given credit but not enough?

When scientists work out who did enough to be an author on a scientific paper reporting a research finding — and how the magnitude of the various contributions should be reflected in the ordering of names in the author line — is there a clear, objective, correct answer? Are there widely accepted standards that scientists are using to assign appropriate credit? Or, do the standards vary locally, situationally? Is the lack of a clear set of shared standards the kind of thing that creates ambiguities that scientists are prepared to use to their own advantage when they can?

We’ve discussed before the absence of a single standard for authorship embraced uniformly by the Tribe of Science as a whole. Maybe making the case for such a shared standard would help scientists protect themselves from having their contributions minimized — and also help them not unintentionally minimize the contributions of others.

While we’re waiting for a shared standard to gain acceptance, however, there are a number of scientific journals that clearly spell out their own standards for who counts as an author and what kinds of contributions to research and the writing of the paper do or do not rise to the level of receiving authorship credit. If you have submitted your work to a journal with a clear policy of this sort, and if your coauthors have subverted the policy to misrepresent your contribution, you can bring the problem to the journal editors. Indeed, Retraction Watch is brimming with examples of papers that have been retracted on account of problems with who is, or is not, credited with the work that had been published.

While getting redress form a journal editor may be better than nothing, a retraction is the kind of thing that leaves a mark on a scientific reputation — and on the relationships scientists need to be able to coordinate their efforts in the project of scientific knowledge-building. I would argue, however, that not giving the other scientists you work with fair credit for their contributions is also harmful to those relationships, and to the reputations of the scientists who routinely minimize the contributions of others while inflating their own contributions.

So maybe one of the most important things scientists can do right now, given the rules and the enforcement mechanisms that currently exist, the variance in standards and the ambiguities which they create, is to be clear in communicating about contributions and credit from the very beginning of every collaboration. As people are making contributions to the knowledge being built, explicitly identifying those contributions strikes me as a good practice that can help keep other people’s contributions from escaping our notice. Talking about how the different pieces lead to better understanding of what’s going on may also help the collaborators figure out how to make more progress on their research questions by bringing additional contributions to bear.

Of course, it may be easier to spell out what particular contributions each person in the collaboration made than to rank them in terms of which contribution was the biggest or the most important. But maybe this is a good argument for an explicit authorship standard in which authors specify the details of what they contributed and sidestep the harder question of whether experimental design was more or less important that the analysis of the data in this particular collaboration.

There’s a funny kind of irony in feeling like you have better tools to combat bad behavior that happens less frequently than you do to combat bad behavior that happens all the time. Disputes about credit may feel minor enough to be tolerable most of the time, differences of opinion that can expose power gradients in scientific communities that like to think of themselves as egalitarian. But especially for the folks on the wrong end of the power gradients, the erosion of recognition for their hard work can hurt. It may even lessen their willingness to collaborate with other scientists, impoverishing the opportunities for cooperation that help the knowledge get built efficiently. Scientists are entitled to expect better of each other. When they do — and when they give voice to those expectations (and to their disappointment when their scientific peers don’t live up to them) — maybe disputes over fair credit will become rare enough that someday most people who have been in science for a while won’t have first-hand stories they can tell you about them.

Communicating with the public, being out as a scientist.

In the previous post, I noted that scientists are not always directly engaged in the project of communicating about their scientific findings (or about the methods they used to produce those findings) to the public.

Part of this is a matter of incentives: most scientists don’t have communicating with the public as an explicit part of their job description, and they are usually better rewarded for paying attention to things that are explicit parts of their job descriptions. Part of it is training: scientists are generally taught a whole lot more about how to conduct research in their field than they are taught about effective strategies for communicating with non-scientists. Part of it is the presence of other professions (like journalists and teachers and museum curators) that are, more or less, playing the communicating-with-the-public-about-science zone. Still another part of it may be temperament: some people say that they went into science because they wanted to do research, not to deal with people. Of course, since doing research requires dealing with other people sooner or later, I’m guessing these folks are terribly bitter that scientific research did not support their preferred lifestyle of total isolation from human contact — or, that they really meant that they didn’t want to deal with people who are non-scientists.

I’d like to suggest, however, that there are very good reasons for scientists to be communicating about science with non-scientists — even if it’s not a job requirement, and there are other people playing that zone, and it doesn’t feel like it comes naturally.

The public has an interest in understanding more than it does about what science knows and how science comes to know it, about which claims are backed by evidence and which others are backed by wishful thinking or outright deception. But it’s hard to engage an adult as you would a student; members of the public are frequently just not up for didactic engagement. Dropping a lecture of what you perceive as their ignorance (or their “knowledge deficit,” as the people who study scientific communication and public understanding of science would call it) probably won’t be a welcome form of engagement.

In general, non-scientists neither need nor want to be able to evaluate scientific claims and evidence with the technical rigor that scientists evaluate them. What they need more is a read on whether the scientists whose job it is to make and evaluate these claims are the kind of people they can trust.

This seems to me like a good reason for scientists to come out as scientists to their communities, their families, their friends.

Whenever there are surveys of how many Americans can name a living scientist, a significant proportion of the people surveyed just can’t name any. But I suspect a bunch of these people know actual, living scientists who walk in their midst — they just don’t know that these folks they know as people are also scientists.

If everyone who is a scientist were to bring that identity to their other human interactions, to let it be a part of what the neighbors, or the kids whose youth soccer team they coach, or the people at the school board meeting, or the people at the gym know about them, what do you think that might do to the public’s picture of who scientists are and what scientists are like? What could letting your scientific identity ride along with the rest of you do to help your non-scientist fellow travelers get an idea of what scientists do, or of what inspires them to do science? Could being open about your ties to science help people who already have independent reasons to trust you find reasons to be less reflexively distrustful of science and scientists?

These seem to me like empirical questions. Let’s give it a try and see what we find out.

Are scientists who don’t engage with the public obliged to engage with the press?

In posts of yore, we’ve had occasion to discuss the duties scientists may have to the non-scientists with whom they share a world. One of these is the duty to share the knowledge they’ve built with the public — especially if that knowledge is essential to the public’s ability to navigate pressing problems, or if the public has put up the funds for the research in which that knowledge was built.

Even if you’re inclined to think that what we have here is something that falls short of an obligation, there are surely cases where it would have good effects — not just for the public, but also for scientists — if the public were informed of important scientific findings. After all, if not knowing a key piece of knowledge, or not understanding its implications or how certain or uncertain it is, leads the public to make worse decisions (whether at the ballot box or in their everyday lives), the impacts of those worse decisions could also harm the scientists with whom they are sharing a world.

But here’s the thing: Scientists are generally trained to communicate their knowledge through journal articles and conference presentations, seminars and grant proposals, patent applications and technical documents. Moreover, these tend to be the kind of activities in scientific careers that are rewarded by the folks making the evaluations, distributing grant money, and cutting the paychecks. Very few scientists get explicit training in how to communicate about their scientific findings, or about the processes by which the knowledge is built, with the public. Some scientists manage to be able to do a good job of this despite a lack of training, others less so. And many scientists will note that there are hardly enough hours in the day to tackle all the tasks that are recognized and rewarded in their official scientific job descriptions without adding “communicating science to the public” to the stack.

As a result, much of the job of communicating to the public about scientific research and new scientific findings falls to the press.

This raises another question for scientists: If scientists have a duty (or at least a strong interest) in making sure the knowledge they build is shared with the public, and if scientists themselves are not taking on the communicative task of sharing it (whether because they don’t have the time or they don’t have the skills to do it effectively), do scientists have an obligation to engage with the press to whom that communicative task has fallen?

Here, of course, we encounter some longstanding distrust between scientists and journalists. Scientists sometimes worry that the journalists taking on the task of making scientific findings intelligible to the public don’t themselves understand the scientific details (or scientific methodology more generally) much better than the public does. Or, they may worry about helping a science journalist who has already decided on the story they are going to tell and who will gleefully ignore or distort facts in the service of telling that story. Or, they may worry that the discovery-of-the-week model of science that journalists frequently embrace distorts the public’s understanding of the ongoing cooperative process by which a body of scientific knowledge is actually built.

To the extent that scientists believe journalists will manage to get things wrong, they may feel like they do less harm to the public’s understanding of science if they do not engage with journalists at all.

While I think this is an understandable impulse, I don’t think it necessarily minimizes the harm.

Indeed, I think it’s useful for scientists to ask themselves: What happens if I don’t engage and journalists try to tell the story anyway, without input from scientists who know this area of scientific work and why it matters?

Of course, I also think it would benefit scientists, journalists, and the public if scientists got more support here, from training in how to work with journalists, to institutional support in their interactions with journalist, to more general recognition that communicating about science with broader audiences is a good thing for scientists (and scientific institutions) to be doing. But in a world where “public outreach” falls much further down on the scientist’s list of pressing tasks than does bringing in grant money, training new lab staff, and writing up results for submission, science journalists are largely playing the zone where communication of science to the public happens. Scientists who are playing other zones should think about how they can support science journalists in covering their zone effectively.

Doing science is more than building knowledge: on professional development in graduate training.

Earlier this week, I was pleased to be an invited speaker at UC – Berkeley’s Science Leadership and Management (SLAM) seminar series. Here’s the official description of the program:

What is SLAM?

Grad school is a great place to gain scientific expertise – but that’s hardly the only thing you’ll need in your future as a PhD. Are you ready to lead a group? Manage your coworkers? Mentor budding scientists? To address the many interpersonal issues that arise in a scientific workplace, grad students from Chemistry, Physics, and MCB founded SLAM: Science Leadership and Management.

This is a seminar series focused on understanding the many interpersonal interactions critical for success in a scientific lab, as well as some practical aspects of lab management.  The target audience for this course is upper-level science graduate students with broad interests and backgrounds, and the skills discussed will be applicable to a variety of career paths. Postdocs are also welcome to attend.

Let me say for the record that I think programs like this are tremendously important, and far too few universities with Ph.D. programs have anything like them. (Stanford has offered something similar, although more explicitly focused on career trajectories in academia, in its Future Faculty Seminar.)

In their standard configuration, graduate programs can do quite a lot to help you learn how to build new knowledge in your discipline. Mostly, you master this ability by spending years working, under the supervision of your graduate advisor, to build new knowledge in your discipline. The details of this apprenticeship vary widely, owing largely to differences in advisors’ approaches: some are very hands-on mentors, others more hands-off, some inclined towards very specific task-lists for the scientific trainees in their labs, others towards letting trainees figure out their own plans of attack or even their own projects. The promise the Ph.D. training holds out, though, is that at the end of the apprenticeship you will have the skills and capacities to go forth and build more knowledge in your field.

The challenge is that most of this knowledge-building will take place in employment contexts that expect the knowledge-builders will have other relevant skills, as well. These may include mounting collaborations, or training others, or teaching, or writing for an audience of non-experts, not to mention working effectively with others (in the lab, on committees, in other contexts) and making good ethical decisions.

To the extent that graduate training focuses solely on learning how to be a knowledge-builder, it often falls down on the job of providing reasonable professional development. This is true even in the realm of teaching, where graduate students usually gain some experience as teaching assistants but they hardly ever get any training in pedagogy.

The graduate students who organize the SLAM program at Berkeley impress me as a smart, vibrant bunch, and they have a supportive faculty advisor. But it’s striking to me that such efforts at serious professional development for grad students are usually spearheaded by grad students, rather than by the grown-up members of their departments training them to be competent knowledge-builders.

One wonders if this is because it just doesn’t occur to the grown-up members of these disciplines that their trainees that such professional development could be helpful — or because graduate programs don’t feel like they owe their graduate students professional development of this sort.

If the latter, that says something about how graduate programs see their relationship with their students, especially in scientific fields. If all you are transmitting to students is how to build new knowledge, rather than attending to other skills they will need to successfully apply their knowledge-building chops in a career after graduate school, it makes it hard not to suspect that the relationship is really one that’s all about providing relatively cheap knowledge-building labor for grad school faculty.

Apprenticeships need not be that exploitative.

Indeed, if graduate programs want to compete for the best grad-school-bound undergraduates or prospective students who have done something else in the interval since their undergraduate education, making serious professional development could help them distinguish themselves from other programs. The trick here is that trainees would need to recognize, as they’re applying to graduate programs, that professional development is something they deserve. Whoever is mentoring them and providing advice on how to choose a graduate program should at least put the issue of professional development on the radar.

If you are someone who fits that description, I hope I have just put professional development on your radar.