To Publish Alone


This case raises issues of standards in authorship, acknowledgment of contributions of students, unpublished and published data and mentor-student relationships.


Dr. Richard Gump, an associate professor in the State University biology department, has been invited to present the findings of the research conducted in his laboratory at the Annual Meeting of Biological Scientists. Gump submits an abstract summarizing what he will present in his talk, which is subsequently published in the meeting's book of abstracts. Since Gump is the presenter, he is the only author listed on the abstract. His presentation includes an acknowledgments slide and mentions the contributions of the graduate and undergraduate students and post-doctoral fellows involved in the project. This approach is considered standard procedure for summary presentations at this meeting, and perhaps even generous in the mention of an undergraduate.

After the Annual Meeting of Biological Scientists, Gump is invited to submit his findings to a journal published by the society. He writes a manuscript that is essentially a review of the seminar he gave at the meeting. This review provides a broad overview of what had been accomplished in the field previously and where his laboratory's work fits into and extends the body of knowledge. The review does not provide any specific data, and all figures are in the form of summary cartoons. He assumes that it will be published in a journal dedicated to the proceedings from the annual meeting and therefore decides not to alter the authorship from that of the abstract.

A few weeks later, the manuscript is returned to Gump. He is informed that a primary research article containing original data is required, which will be peer-reviewed and published in a regular issue of the journal. Gump casually mentions to his students that his manuscript must now be a research article and laments having to be "creative" in his writing. He explains that he is trying to make it seem like a real research paper without presenting anything new. The students tell Gump that they are uncomfortable having their important findings initially published in such an obscure journal and wonder aloud how it will affect future publication possibilities. Gump assures them that there is no reason for concern -- nobody in their field or potential reviewers for future publications would read this journal anyway.

Gump then rewrites the paper, including a section on methodology and actual results of experiments run by his students. He references published articles and abstracts from other meetings (on which he was not first author), where most of the data he has used have been disclosed by his graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Also included are some unpublished graphs and figures developed by the students, and these are not referenced. Of the work included in the manuscript, Gump has performed less than 5 percent of the research. The references in the manuscript state, "This technique was conducted as described in [insert appropriate abstract reference here]." This type of referencing is often used in the biological sciences to mean that the author of the paper has performed the experiment using the techniques described in the manuscript/abstract cited. In this case, Gump is using the same phrasing "creatively" to mean that the entire experiment was done by the authors of the citation (e.g., his graduate students and post-docs).

The names of those scientists who performed the experiments were not mentioned anywhere else, either as authors or in the acknowledgments section. Gump did not ask permission from any other person involved in the research to publish the data. The issue of authorship, therefore, never arose. The students discovered the true nature of the paper only after they received a post-publication reprint.

Discussion Questions

  1. What should/could the students do?
  2. Is Gump extending basic courtesy to the researchers in his lab? Does an issue of impropriety or scientific misconduct arise in this case? If so, what?
  3. As director of the laboratory, should Gump be required to ask permission in order to publish data generated in "his" laboratory?
  4. Was Gump's inclusion of published abstracts in his reference section adequate recognition of the real researchers' contributions?
  5. Should Gump's students now be allowed to publish their data in a different manuscript (with different authorship)? Does the assumption that nobody involved in Gump's area of research will be likely to see this publication excuse publishing the same data twice?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 1, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 1997.

. . To Publish Alone. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

This case highlights the behavior of a leader (PI) of a laboratory research group in a sequence of events involving presentation and publication of his research group's work. The central concern is whether the PI adequately acknowledged the contributions of his trainees in the published version of his presentation, whether he treated them appropriately in failing to get consent to or inform them of his including their results in the published paper, and whether he competed with them unfairly in getting research from the lab published. Further issues are his misrepresentation of originality and authorship in the published paper, a question of whether he is encouraging students to violate the norm against publishing the same work in two different journals, and, more generally, of his setting an example of lack of scrupulousness.

In the absence of background information about this PI and his laboratory group, his behavior is a bit puzzling. His status as associate professor and his concern with his own publication interests suggest that his own career is of utmost concern to him. But then it is a puzzle why he would want to publish original research in a journal that his trainees regard as too obscure for them. Did he make himself sole author and omit acknowledgments to allow the students to publish under their own names elsewhere?

It is unfortunate that the PI seems not to have joined with his trainees in taking a problem-solving approach to the task of turning the original review paper into a primary research article containing original data. He needed their cooperation to produce a suitably revised article. A discussion in advance might have taken up such questions as: Why publish original work in this journal? Would a subsequent publication with trainees acknowledged or listed as authors include enough additional results to justify publication in a second journal? How will credit and authorship be handled for each publication? Such a discussion might have ensured that trainees would be spared the distress of learning only when they saw the reprint that they did not share authorship or receive acknowledgment.

It appears that students had a reasonable expectation that the PI would not use their research without acknowledgment or consent, for his own purposes, unless he had explicitly claimed exclusive ownership of all their data in advance. The PI appears to present a cynical attitude toward publishing. "Put a new spin on the article, and you have a creative paper." "If you think the audiences are sufficiently different, you can publish the same results in two different journals." "Leave it unclear who performed the experiment so that you can deny having excluded your trainees." These are not responses that could be made universal laws.

The PI took advantage of his position of power in unilaterally deciding without informing the trainees that he alone would get the advantage of publication of a paper that included work they had done. He offers an ethically flawed model of a scientist in his casual attitude toward "creativity" and the prohibition against publishing the same work in more than one journal. Whatever the significance of the trainees' experiments and findings, he leaves them feeling justifiably cheated of recognition and credit.

However, the trainees may have missed an opportunity to bring more into the open when they complained about having their findings published in an obscure journal. That was not the only ground for discomfort over how the PI was handling publication of the article. They should have been concerned about publishing the same material in two journals. With a post-doc among them, they should have been aware of the norm against doing that. They should also have been concerned about the PI's readiness to put a "creative edge" on a review piece and to that extent to misrepresent. It would be a delicate matter to raise this last issue with the PI, but the trainees should find a senior person with whom to discuss it.

Without knowing much about the personalities and relationships in the lab, it is difficult to say what the trainees should do beyond trying to take care about their own publication interests, being on guard against similar behavior by the PI in the future, or perhaps looking for another lab with a more scrupulous PI.

Author: Vivian Weil, Illinois Institute of Technology.

This case raises many issues. One may start with the accepted practice of listing only senior members of a laboratory as authors of an abstract if they are presenting data generated by members of their laboratories. Although this practice is generally considered appropriate, many scientists do not use this convention, instead listing all contributing researchers as authors.

A second issue concerns mentioning the contributions of undergraduate laboratory assistants. Many principal investigators (PIs, analogous to laboratory directors or senior members of a laboratory -- the persons who secure funding for the research) do not acknowledge the contributions of undergraduates unless they are considered significant. If the contribution consisted mainly of technical assistance, and no development of experiments was involved, the supervisor of that "technician" is the only one mentioned. This convention sets the standard in authorship. Although it may not seem fair or appropriate, and therefore may appear worthy of discussion, this issue is not considered to be the main issue raised by this case.

The second stage of development of the case is the original publication. Review articles often have only a single author, especially if they are written as an overview of recent advances in a particular field. They normally include only published data , but unpublished facts may be included with permission of the experimenter and listed as "personal communication." If the author of the review article is the experimenter who has generated the new data, it will be listed as "unpublished data." The fact that Gump is the only author on the review is accepted in the field, therefore, provided that he has permission to publish any new findings and includes the appropriate references.

Later in the case, however, we learn that permission was not obtained. The question now is, does a PI require permission to publish or discuss the data generated by researchers in his or her laboratory? That is a difficult issue to resolve. Strictly in terms of maintaining good communication in the laboratory and as a matter of etiquette, the answer is probably yes. In this case the students and post-docs conducting the research will probably hesitate before sharing their findings with Gump. In research there is always a chance that someone else will complete the important experiments and publish their data first. This experience is commonly referred to as being "scooped." If it is acceptable for the PI to publish any data generated in his/her laboratory, then the conditions are set for a race between the researchers (students or post-docs) and the PI to publish first. If the students lose this race and are not included in the authorship, have they been "scooped" by the PI? If the student were writing the review for publication, used an appropriate and considerate manner of referencing and obtained permission to include unpublished results from each researcher, should the PI be included as an author? Convention in the biological sciences says that a student does not publish research without including the PI as an author. The theory is that the PI has helped to shape and direct the research and therefore has made a significant contribution even if he/she hasn't performed any experiments.

Another question arises when one considers that Gump is writing a research article without any new data. Although he does include a couple of new figures that haven't been published previously, most of the results presented have been published in abstracts or other publications. It is standard to develop a full-length manuscript out of work that has already been presented at meetings and included in abstracts. If every bit of the research is referenced to an abstract or previous publication, however, is this considered double publishing? What is and is not publishable? How much new information does one need in order to write a manuscript? This standard will vary by discipline, but the question could stimulate discussion.

This section also implies that the students intend to publish their findings under their own names and in a journal more appropriate to their field. Has Gump lessened their chances of publication by publishing his manuscript? Should the obscure status of the journal be an issue?

Gump's obvious insensitivity to his students and post-docs is demonstrated when he ignores his students' concerns about his "creative" manuscript. If he were a responsible mentor, he would be helping to further their budding careers as scientists. By submitting the research paper as he did, he actually undermined their future publications and did not give appropriate credit.

The main issues of this case are:

  1. lack of "good mentoring" by the PI and insensitivity to the needs and concerns of his students
  2. failure to give proper credit to the people making the discoveries, in this case graduate and undergraduate students and post-docs
  3. concerns about authorship
  4. "ownership" or proprietary of use of data or discoveries made in a laboratory.