Student Publishes


This case discusses the question of whether a student should be allowed to publish a paper before being made aware of publishing standards and practices in their field?


Stevens is a second year graduate student performing materials science research and hopes someday to have a faculty position. The material Stevens is working on is diamond. The cost of preparation and analysis of the samples is very high, and there are not many samples. Due to these high materials costs, few experiments can be conducted, and hence it is difficult for faculty and/or students to generate more than one or two publications from a given series of experiments. Students from Stevens's department generally have four or five publications by the time they finish the Ph.D.

Stevens's adviser is Professor and Department Chair Charlie Cordage. Cordage was recently elected to the position of chairman by the other seven faculty members in the department. Due to the obligations and time commitments dictated by the chairmanship position, Stevens is Cordage's only graduate student. Having a vague understanding of the importance of publications to get post-doc and faculty positions, Stevens based his decision to work with Cordage on the professor's outstanding publication record.

Stevens is making progress with his research and getting good data. He has analyzed his data well, and his relationship with Cordage is going very well. After one of their brief research meetings, Cordage believes that Stevens has enough data to publish a paper in an obscure journal. Cordage encourages Stevens to write a paper and tells him they can submit it for publication. After several revisions, Stevens and Cordage submit the paper, and it is accepted. Stevens is happy to start adding publications to his resume.

Because Cordage had been busy with administrative tasks, he hadn't taken the time to correct Stevens's paper beyond writing style and grammatical errors. Finishing up work a little early one afternoon, he decides to reread Stevens's paper. Reviewing the data carefully, he concludes that the paper probably could have been published in a more highly regarded journal. After a couple of months of clever revisions, making himself first author, Cordage submits the research paper to the more prestigious journal.

Upon its acceptance, Cordage sends Stevens a short email with the title and citation and congratulates him on adding another publication to his resume. Stevens had no idea of Cordage's action until he received Cordage's email. Stevens is delighted but confused. He asks himself, "How can I publish the same paper twice?" Stevens does not want to make waves, and he is not sure to whom he should turn. He lets the matter pass and says nothing.

Months later, Stevens is doing the literature review for his dissertation. He notices that a large fraction of the papers previously published by Cordage on the same topic seem similar. He realizes that aside from details such as title changes, Cordage is publishing each paper twice, once in conference proceedings and once in a journal.

Normal practice has never been explained to Stevens, and he isn't really sure what to do.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is it ethical for authors to receive credit for two publications from the same data? If so, under what conditions is it ethical?
  2. Should the authors be required to inform the second publication that data has been presented or published elsewhere?
  3. Would it matter that the first publication was in conference proceedings? Assume for argument sake that the paper was reviewed but not with the same scrutiny as a peer-reviewed journal.
  4. In an ongoing research project, it is common for data to overlap. How much new or additional data should be required for the paper to be a new publication?
  5. To whom should Stevens turn with his concerns about Cordage?
  6. When is information/data/research considered published?
  7. Consider interdisciplinary research. Should the scientists from each discipline be allowed to publish the research in their disciplines' journals? If so, can all the scientists from each discipline be on each paper?
  8. Is it acceptable to publish or present work or research without informing one's coauthors in advance?

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

. . Student Publishes. Online Ethics Center. DOI:

Stevens's experience suggests that this graduate department puts a premium on graduate students' publishing work before finishing their PhDs. The department does not ensure that students are familiar with conventions and procedures governing publishing in this field, however. It is careless, if not unfair, to encourage students to publish while failing to give them an appreciation of publication practices and standards.

Cordage's supervision of Steven's first paper is irresponsible. Limiting himself to one student (Stevens) because of his responsibilities as department chair, Cordage owes him the same careful attention owed any student. Evidently, Cordage does not look carefully at Stevens's first paper before encouraging him to submit it to an obscure journal. When Cordage belatedly gets around to studying the paper, he realizes that it merits publication in a more prestigious journal. Omitting to inform Stevens of his discovery, Cordage revises the paper on his own and submits it for publication in a well-regarded journal, without the student's knowledge. His actions in excluding the student from the revision process and taking over the student's work are indefensible. This action is not only an abuse of power. Cordage also denies Stevens an excellent opportunity to learn how to prepare a paper for publication in a highly ranked journal and to learn conventions of publishing in the materials science field. In a gesture that reflects an image of his student as a mere subordinate rather than a budding colleague, Cordage informs the student only when the paper is accepted - not in person, but by email.

Understandably, Cordage's action leaves Stevens confused and disturbed. Do Cordage's actions amount to publishing the same paper twice? Is it legitimate to do that? Having been excluded from the revision process, Stevens is reluctant to raise such questions with Cordage, fearful of "making waves." Seeing nowhere to turn for answers to his questions, Stevens does nothing. His puzzlement and timidity about asking questions show the damage from Cordage's high-handed treatment of him with respect to the second submission.

Stevens does not forget the incident. Months later, he is dismayed to discover that Cordage's publishing record contains a large fraction of papers published once in conference proceedings and once in a journal. Now Stevens must confront the issue, in all likelihood, even more stymied about what to think and where to turn. Unless he has relationships with other senior members of the department or someone trustworthy and knowledgeable outside the department, he has no choice but to raise his questions with Cordage. He could prepare by seeking advice from someone knowledgeable in a research office or ethics center, for example, about how to raise his questions in a tactful way, seeking information and guidance without judging prematurely.

Because the questions that disturb Stevens concern issues of importance for the responsible conduct of science and require careful consideration, it is unfortunate that Stevens feels blocked from raising them with his adviser. Discussion might have brought out justification for publishing the second version of Stevens's own paper. If the work merits greater visibility, publishing the second version can be ethically justifiable so long as the prior publication is acknowledged. That is so despite the fact that the second version is a result of Cordage's scanty attention to the first version. Investigators can have good reasons for republishing work (for example, when they make changes in interpretation). These are matters to be aired in graduate departments and research groups. Questions about what makes papers the same or different and how different they must be to count as distinct should also generate worthwhile and interesting discussions in departments and research groups. Lacking information about Cordage's "duplicate" publications, we cannot say whether they were justified or not. Assuredly, the later publication should acknowledge the earlier one.

Interdisciplinary research raises additional issues because the findings may be of interest to quite distinct audiences, each associated with a different journal or set of journals. Members of interdisciplinary collaborations should anticipate this issue and should agree -- before problems come to the fore -- on publication arrangements that can be publicly defended if they are not already compatible with journals' policies. Again, prior publication or publication in other venues should be acknowledged. That is required not only to prevent underhanded dealing but also to guide other investigators and readers to other versions of or perspectives on the findings.

Cordage's supervision of his graduate student cannot be defended, ethically speaking. It appears that a case can be made to justify publishing Stevens's work a second time in a well-regarded journal. As to Cordage's publication record, we do not have enough information to pass judgment. However, the practices it reflects should be a matter of open discussion in the department.

Author: Vivian Weil, Illinois Institute of Technology.

This case attempts to raise issues related to publishing habits and standards. Indirectly, it points to topics such as mentoring and student concerns with professors. As the number of scientific journals increases, the effort required to track publications also increases. Most beginning graduate students almost immediately become acquainted with the "publish or perish" mentality. Publishing is crucial to academic survival in many ways:

  • It is a means of demonstrating one's competence as a scientist.
  • It is used as a criterion by funding sources such as private foundations and government agencies.
  • In some cases, students must publish in order to complete their graduate degrees.
  • Potential employers consider one's publication record after the graduate degree is completed.

Stevens, like most graduate students, is looking to his adviser for advice, which may be offered verbally or communicated to Stevens through actions. Stevens hopes to obtain guidance that will enhance his career possibilities, but his adviser's actions could also taint Stevens' view of the scientific and academic processes. To some extent, Stevens may feel betrayed by his adviser's misrepresentation.

Question 1 is intended to address the issue of multiple publications of the same data. This issue will increase in importance as scientists from different disciplines come together to perform research. That has been in case in instances where biology and medicine merge with engineering and physics, for example. More recently, fields such as human factors may involve educators, psychologists, and engineers. In research that relies on the expertise of all disciplines involved, would it be acceptable for the scientists from each group to publish the same paper in their respective journals? Some scientists argue that a researcher should know where to find relevant papers and that data should be published only once. Others argue that publishing in different journals is the only mechanism for informing those outside a possibly small subset of a given discipline.

Question 5 probes the responsibility of the student and the professor. Stevens may be guilty of not knowing the rules of the publication process. One thing is sure: At a minimum, Stevens should have discussed the incident with other graduate students or faculty. It is not clear if he did. One would hope that eventually he would have a discussion with his adviser about the expectations for publishing. Professor Cordage's reasoning or motivation behind publishing the paper a second time is also not clear. Cordage may believe that he is acting in the best interest of his student by filling his resume with publications, or it could be the method by which he padded his own CV, and he figures it will help with future promotions. Either way, Cordage is setting a poor example for students by being dishonest with the students, journals, and possibly even his peers.