A Single Author Paper


This case discusses the conflict between friendship and personal relationship on the one hand and professional responsibility on the other and how that conflict can lead to an uncomfortable situation or even result in unfairness.


Mike is a bright, young post-doc working in a big research group in the physics department at Bambuka University. His life-long career goal is to conduct research in a leading research university as a professor. During one of his job interviews, he had a discussion about a particular problem in his field of expertise with the interviewer. In the course of the interview, he was not able to satisfactorily prove his point, because his theoretical arguments did not convince the interviewer. Upon returning to his lab, Mike decides to pursue the matter further and conduct an experiment to verify his argument. Mike's experimental background is not sufficient to obtain the desired results.

Lisa, Mike's friend, is a fourth-year graduate student working on her PhD in the same lab. She volunteers to help Mike with the experiment. Lisa is a talented experimentalist, and she successfully completes the experiment. Mike sends the results to the interviewer, thereby proving his point.

While working on this small experiment, Mike gets an idea for an interesting study, which, if done correctly, could yield a good publication in an important journal. But Mike is discouraged, because he knows he cannot handle the complicated experiment alone. Lisa encourages him to proceed with the idea and promises to design and complete the experimental aspect of the project. Mike agrees and while he is working on the theory, Lisa designs and builds the experiment.

Mike is very excited about his theoretical results and shares them with his adviser. The professor likes Mike's ideas and tells him that it is time for Mike to get his name noticed in the scientific community. He encourages Mike to publish the results in a famous journal. The adviser also suggests that it would be better for Mike's career if he publishes the work in a single author paper. He says, "You worked on it exclusively, and it would be a wonderful opportunity to write a paper by yourself. It will be a stronger paper if you could validate your theory with experimental data."

Mike likes the suggestion. He doesn't mention that Lisa has already done a significant amount of work on the project. He tells Lisa that his adviser recommended his publishing results in a single author paper, and says, "I really think that this would help my career, plus that's what our adviser wants. How cheated will you feel if I publish this paper alone using all the data that your experiment provides?"

Lisa and Mike are good friends, and she feels obligated to help him. Even though Lisa is disappointed, she tells Mike to do whatever he feels is right. Mike decides to submit the paper as the sole author.

After this conversation, Lisa stops working on the experiment and Mike takes over. He did not design the experiment; therefore he cannot manage to get it to work and does not make any progress. Lisa does not offer any more help, and Mike doesn't ask her for any. Finally, Mike decides to submit the paper without the experimental part. It will be an interesting theoretical investigation, but it will not have the scientific impact that it could have had with the experimental validation.

Discussion Questions

  1. Would Mike's adviser's advice be appropriate, if he knew about Lisa's contribution to Mike's project?
  2. Was Mike responsible for informing his adviser about Lisa's contribution?
  3. Should Mike have followed his adviser's recommendation concerning authorship?
  4. Did Mike ask a reasonable favor from Lisa?
  5. What were Lisa's options when Mike first approached her with his experimental problem? during the experimental process? when Mike stated his wishes to publish as a single author?
  6. Should Lisa have continued to help Mike with the experiment after their conversation?
  7. Why do you think that authorship credit can be such a divisive issue among researchers?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 4, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2000.

. . A Single Author Paper. Online Ethics Center. DOI:. https://onlineethics.org/cases/graduate-research-ethics-cases-and-commentaries-volume-4-2000/single-author-paper.

The account in this case is the more telling for revealing the adviser's remoteness without making a point of it. Mike, a post-doc, and Lisa, an advanced graduate student, share the spotlight, but their adviser, an important figure in the situation, remains unnamed and in the background. Whether wittingly or not, the adviser contributes to unfairly denying the graduate student credit for her work or an acknowledgment of her contribution. And he falls short in his training of both the post-doc and the graduate student by intervening clumsily in a potentially fruitful collaboration.

Set in a large lab, the situation in this case is remarkably isolated. There are no glimpses of the surroundings or hints of policies, procedures, or structures in the lab that might have prevented this problematic situation. Left to themselves, the two friends, a post-doc who is theoretically oriented and a graduate student who is a talented experimentalist, cooperate to complete the solution to the post-doc's problem. As an outcome of this success, they undertake a more extensive collaboration, in which the graduate student designs and builds the experiment to support the post-doc's new theoretical idea.

It is striking that no discussion between the friends about allocation of credit is recorded. Apparently they proceed with Lisa silently trusting Mike, believing that she will get due credit, and Mike focusing on successfully confirming his ideas. If the adviser is genuinely ignorant of Lisa's role as the experimentalist, he is negligent. Advisers should be in close touch with the work in their labs and the activities of their advisees. They should not be clueless in such a situation, and they should know the capacities, strengths, and weaknesses of their advisees.

However, the advisees are not blameless. It is natural for post-docs and graduate students to be inclined to report when they are excited about findings. They must learn the importance of keeping advisers abreast of their research activities, including collaborations. Lisa apparently does not even inform her adviser of her experimental success in completing the earlier problem, let alone her work on the new problem. The adviser seems to be unaware of her contribution when he suggests a single author paper. However, he should know that Mike lacks experimental adeptness. When advising Mike about publication, he has an opportunity to inquire about efforts to obtain experimental support. The advisees' reticence does not excuse the adviser's ignorance.

If the adviser has been informed about Lisa's contribution and overlooks it, he is even more at fault. He has a duty as an adviser to keep track of such matters. We can only speculate about whether he has a bias toward theoretical work or male students. But the adviser should be aware of the dangers of such destructive bias. Mike takes advantage of the adviser's failure of attention. He is guilty of deceiving or misleading the adviser in not informing or reminding him of Lisa's involvement in his project. In representing to Lisa that he is inclined to aim for a single author paper because that is what his adviser wants, he is disingenuous. He misleads her to her detriment without uttering an actual falsehood. Admitting by implication that Lisa might have reason to feel cheated if he uses her data without acknowledgment, he tries to get her to agree to go along by putting the burden on her. How cheated will she feel?

Lisa is disappointed and unwilling to go along, and she throws the choice back to Mike and his sense of what is right. Naively and timidly trusting Mike and her adviser, Lisa is at fault for failing to protect her own interests. She should have made it more difficult for their adviser to overlook her contribution. And she should have summoned the courage to point out to Mike that he so much as admitted that by publishing the paper as a single author, he would cheat her. While the standards for authorship in this situation are not clear, some acknowledgment of her work is clearly called for.Eugen Tarnow, "Scientific Authorship: What's in a Name?" Physics Today 44 (1991): 13. In disappointment, and probably anger as well, Lisa withdraws from the collaboration with Mike. He will no longer take advantage of her, but both will be denied the benefits of a continuing collaboration. Lisa's timidity is unfortunate for her career as a scientist. A more responsible adviser would have noticed this weakness in a talented student and tried to encourage more forthrightness. That is a good quality in a person and a necessary quality for a competitive career in science.

This case is useful for bringing out the loss to science and to promising scientists that can result when advisers fail in their obligations to stay in close touch with advisees, to establish an atmosphere of openness in the lab, and to provide a framework of expectations and procedures.Vivian Weil and Robert Arzbaecher, "Ethics and Relationships in Laboratories and Research Communities," Professional Ethics 4 (1996): 3 and 4. When the post-doc takes advantage of the adviser's negligence or bias, and the graduate student proves too timid to defend her interests, a promising collaboration ends, without realizing its potential.

Author: Vivian Weil, Illinois Institute of Technology.

The main issue raised in this case is the conflict between friendship and personal relationship on the one hand and professional responsibility on the other and how that conflict can lead to an uncomfortable situation or even result in unfairness.

Did Mike ask a reasonable favor from Lisa? That question is hard to answer. As we learned from the case, Mike and Lisa are good friends; honestly revealing your thoughts or wishes to a friend should not be a problem in itself. What I find disturbing is Mike's final decision about using Lisa's work without giving her credit. When Lisa tells him to do whatever he thinks is right, I see her as an honest and caring friend, who lets Mike choose, but at the same time suggests that he think about the right decision. Mike is responsible for treating Lisa fairly. I do not approve of Mike's action, because the case does not present any ambiguity about the significance of Lisa's contribution. Moreover, it is clear that Mike knows very well what he is asking for, and he understands that his decision to withhold authorship credit from Lisa is not justified. His decision is based on selfishness, which he hopes will be forgiven by a friend.

Another detail that I find even more disturbing is that Mike tries to deceive Lisa, and somehow make their adviser partly responsible for his decision. His statement that their adviser wants Mike to be the single author on the paper conveys that impression. Even though Mike doesn't lie, he misrepresents the facts. His statement may affect Lisa's relationship with her professor. So, Mike is doubly wrong: First, he makes an unfair decision about Lisa's credit for authorship, and second, he tries to blame this decision on someone else.

It is clear that the professor's advice would not be appropriate if he knew that Mike was not the only one working on the project. However, was he responsible for inquiring about every detail of the work? As a group leader, he should have suspected that Mike was not capable of undertaking the experimental part of the project alone. But it is also understandable that he trusted his post-do, assuming Mike would not try to mislead him.

Thinking about Lisa's options, an obvious question occurred to me: Why doesn't Lisa talk to her adviser? Why doesn't she explain the situation and ask the reason for his advice to Mike? Is there anything wrong with attempting to clarify the situation, given that the professor participated in a decision that concerns her? At first glance, it seems that talking to the professor is a very reasonable way to solve Lisa's problem. However, I think it would not be appropriate for Lisa to have an open conversation with her professor and to express her disappointment after she has given free rein to Mike. If she had an ongoing dispute with Mike about the authorship issue, then arbitration by the professor would be warranted.

The authorship of scientific papers is one of the primary criteria for evaluating scientists' contributions to their fields. This issue is important and sensitive because people's careers and reputations depend on authorship. In an ideal world, contribution to human knowledge should be the only thing that matters, but that is hard to measure; the most objective way to evaluate scientists is reviewing their publications.

In the scientific community it is understood that contributors to a project are given credit by shared authorship; if their help was not a significant part of a project, it is simply acknowledged. However, personal biases, subjectivity in determining the significance of a contribution, or personal relationships may distort this picture. Hence, it would make things easier and clearer if there were a clear understanding between parties about their lever of involvement and responsibilities at the beginning of a project. Of course, these things may change during the project, but initial agreement should be discussed and a consensus reached.

Given this case, Lisa has done nothing wrong. She was open with her suggestions and ideas, willing to share her knowledge and ready to help her friend. However, she could have avoided all this hassle if she made things clear from the beginning, i.e., she told Mike that her work on this project should be recognized by authorship credit on the paper.