Left in the Dark


This case discusses four major ethical issues: data fraud, authorship, the mentor-student relationship, and journal editors' responsibility.


Dr. Conway is a tenured associate professor of biochemistry at a large research institution. His research group consists primarily of graduate students. Since Conway likes to see work in progress, he requires all of his students to participate in individual meetings as well as group meetings with him every week. He insists on seeing each piece of data and working through the projects with his students.

Elizabeth is a second year graduate student in the biochemistry department, and Conway is her thesis research adviser. Elizabeth has recently completed the majority of the coursework that is required by her program and is becoming more involved in her thesis project. Her research focuses on purifying a novel protein complex from mammalian cells and testing its effect on the regulation of a specific cell cycle gene. Although she has completed only a few experiments, some of her initial data look promising.

Conway has not published a manuscript in more than a year. Sensing that many of his peers are making progress in areas related to his own, he is feeling pressure to extend his publication record, in order to remain competitive in their field of research. In order to remedy his current situation, he decides to begin writing a manuscript that includes some of Elizabeth's data. He is aware that many of the experiments have not yet been reproduced or are still in the process of being repeated. He meets frequently with Elizabeth about her progress, and they go over all of her data regularly. Based on this involvement, there is little chance that he could have been misled about the preliminary status of the work.

On a recent occasion, he asked Elizabeth if he could look through her notebook, because he would like to evaluate and think about her data. Elizabeth willingly gave him her notebook. Conway finished writing and putting together the figures, and he submitted a manuscript for publication without telling Elizabeth. Conway listed Elizabeth as first author on the paper and himself as the second and final author. He submitted to the journal Molecular and Cellular Biology and recommended an editor who has been a personal and professional friend of his for many years.

When Elizabeth realizes that her adviser has submitted a paper with her name on it without her consent, she is very upset with him. If any of the data turn out to be erroneous, her scientific career could be damaged. She has just begun her involvement in a research environment, and she is unsure about how to react or if she should do anything at all. She tries to convince herself that maybe this is the way things are done. She has been working in Conway's lab for only a short time, and she is not very comfortable with him yet. She wonders if she should talk with some of the other graduate students about what has happened, hoping that they can help her deal with the situation.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who, if anyone, should Elizabeth talk with about the possible publication of very preliminary experiments? Fellow students? The department head?
  2. Should she talk with Conway first to ask about his authorship policies?
  3. Should she just forget about the manuscript submission for now and work on trying to reproduce the experiments that were included?
  4. Is it justifiable for professors to recommend a friend to edit or peer review their manuscripts?
  5. Is it ethical for a researcher to submit a manuscript without the consent of all authors?
  6. At this stage in her graduate career, what complications might Elizabeth face if she changed research advisers?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 6, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2002.

. . Left in the Dark. Online Ethics Center. DOI:https://doi.org/10.18130/h99g-vf48. https://onlineethics.org/cases/graduate-research-ethics-cases-and-commentaries-volume-6-2002/left-dark.

If Dr. Conway has submitted the paper, listing Elizabeth as first author without her even knowing that the paper had been written, something is seriously wrong. Conway cannot have any justification for submitting this paper without Elizabeth's knowledge or consent. Furthermore, it seems that Elizabeth has good reason for doubting that her data is ready for use in a publication. If that is the case, Conway is putting Elizabeth at some risk as a credible researcher, and he may be contributing to a misleading, if not mistaken, path of future research that relies on this paper. Nevertheless, it would be a good idea for Elizabeth to talk with Conway before going to the department head or another member of the faculty. Rather than being overtly confrontational, she can ask him about how the paper came to be written, why she is listed as first author (or listed at all), and whether this practice is common. She can express her concerns about the inclusion of preliminary data.

Elizabeth may find Conway's responses to be completely unsatisfactory. However, if and when she goes to the department head or some other appropriate person in her institution, she will be able to report his account of the matter. Anticipating that she might well take her concerns to another level, Conway may withdraw the submission, agree that his decision to go ahead with the paper was unwise, or even apologize to Elizabeth for what he has (and has not) done. However, it is unlikely that this response would end the matter for her. She still has to face the question of whether Conway should continue to be her thesis research adviser. Even with his apology, she may have good reason to be uncomfortable having him as her adviser. Furthermore, she may wonder whether, if she keeps things to herself, he might continue to treat his other advisees in this way.

At some point it will be important for Elizabeth to be able to confer with someone else about her situation. It should be someone she can trust and someone who is in a position to give her meaningful support should Conway try to create difficulties for her graduate life, and possibly even for her career prospects. It is to be hoped that someone in her department will be able to play this role B if not the department chair, someone on the faculty who is in a good position to provide support. A worst case possibility would be that what Conway has done is commonly accepted practice in the department. In that unlikely event, it would be best for Elizabeth to leave the program entirely.

In any case, Elizabeth would still be well advised to do her best to prevent the paper from being published with her name on it. Whether she should do more is a good question. The answer may depend, in part, on whether removing her name from the paper would also include removing reliance on the data she has collected. However, quite apart from whether Elizabeth might have an obligation to carry matters further, it seems that she would be justified in doing so if she chooses to. It is difficult to imagine what explanation Conway might come up with that could justify his conduct thus far, and any threatening or retaliatory measures on his part would only make the case worse for him. Sadly, it could also make it worse for Elizabeth; but at least she would have the consolation that her complaints are just.

Author: Michael S. Pritchard, Western Michigan University.

This case raises at least four major ethical issues: data fraud, authorship, the mentor-student relationship, and journal editors' responsibility. Each of these issues is faced by many, if not all, researchers at some stage in their scientific careers and if not handled properly, can result in serious consequences. I will address each topic as it pertains to this particular case and tie in some insight to the discussion questions.

Honesty is an important part of research. All research grants are based on previous work that has been published in scientific journals. Falsification or fabrication of data can lead others astray and prevent them from fulfilling the expectations of their grants, as well as leading science as a whole in the wrong direction. Falsification and/or fabrication of data is the primary basis for the definition of research misconduct and, in a newly recommended definition by the Commission on Research Integrity, it falls under the category of "misrepresentation." (Commission on Research Integrity, 1995)

In this case, Conway is feeling pressure since, even though he has established himself as a good scientist, he has not published a manuscript in quite a while. He makes a couple of mistakes. First, he decides to try to publish preliminary data. No matter how convinced a primary investigator (PI) is that his student or postdoc's data is correct, he has to be sure that it is reproducible. In many cases, the PI is not working at the bench and is not aware of how good his researchers are at the technical level.

Second, Conway decides to publish a manuscript without the consent of his student, Elizabeth, whom he lists as the primary author. For many peer reviewed journals, if not all, this procedure is contrary to policy. In this case, Conway submits the paper to Molecular and Cellular Biology. Under the editorial policy and the instructions to authors section, this journal's website states: "All authors must have agreed to its submission and are responsible for its content." (Molecular and Cellular Biology)

Elizabeth should discuss his authorship policies with Conway, to avoid such problems in the future. It is quite common in labs for individuals to be left off the list of authors although they feel they have contributed enough to be included. It is also common for individuals to receive credit for authorship when they have contributed little to the manuscript. Authorship policies vary from laboratory to laboratory. However, in general, an author is one who made a substantial contribution to the overall design and execution of the experiments.

In this case, Elizabeth is in a relatively tough situation. On one hand, if her findings turn out to be erroneous, her career could suffer. Furthermore, if another laboratory bases a project on her results, another person's career could suffer. On the other hand, when students begin graduate school they begin to feel pressure to produce results and publish. Since Elizabeth is at an early stage in her graduate career, she will benefit from a publication, which will demonstrate her ability as a scientist and provide further benefits as she completes her degree and looks for a job and/or applies for fellowships. Nonetheless, Elizabeth needs to confront Conway about his publishing her preliminary work without her consent, since these actions are not good scientific practice. In the meantime, she could continue to work on the reproduction of her results. In most cases, the paper will come back from peer reviewers with a demand for revisions and by that time, her results may be much less preliminary. Please note that Conway's approach is not a suggested route for submitting manuscripts. If something like this does happen, the best practice would be for Elizabeth or Conway to call the MCB editor and withdraw the manuscript from review.

At first glance, it seems that Conway monitors his lab very closely. However, through his relationship with Elizabeth as illustrated by this case, Conway demonstrates that he considers himself superior to her and doesn't feel that she needs to know everything that goes on, even if it relates to her work. What are Conway's responsibilities to Elizabeth? What are Elizabeth's responsibilities to Conway? As a thesis adviser, Conway is responsible for training Elizabeth to be a good scientist and teaching her how the world of academia works. Elizabeth is responsible for working hard and contributing as much as possible to the overall scientific advancement of the lab. Since Elizabeth is early in her career, she needs to decide if Conway is still the person that she wants to work for. She might find that another advisor would better suit her. However, the longer she waits, the more involved in her research she will become, and the harder it will be for her to just drop it and start fresh. Furthermore, it will take her longer to complete the PhD.

Another issue that is raised by this case is editorial responsibility and peer review. Question 4 asks, "Is it justifiable for researchers to recommend a friend to edit or peer review their manuscripts?" An editor's responsibility probably varies a little from field to field. In biochemistry and molecular biology, the editor has the final decision on whether a paper will be published. A manuscript is submitted to a particular editor (or one is chosen) and that editor identifies two or three appropriate referees. On the basis of the reviews, the editor decides he whether the manuscript is appropriate for publication in that particular journal. In this case, Conway decides to send his paper to an MCB editor that he knows and is friendly with, personally and professionally. It can be inferred that Conway acts in this way to help the chances that his paper will be published. It is probable that if the reviews are marginal, then the editor's decision will favor publication, which will be a biased decision based on his relationship with Conway. Such conflicts of interest should be avoided at all times, to enhance fairness in evaluating research for publication. However, such cases do occur, and all scientists should be aware of this problem. Conflict of interest cases are also very common in the peer review process, which can also cause the advancement of many labs to suffer.


  • Commission on Research Integrity. "Definition of Research Misconduct and Other Professional Misconduct" in Integrity and Misconduct in Research: Report of the Commission on Research Integrity to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the House Committee on Commerce, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. Washington, D. C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1995.
  • Molecular and Cellular Biology. http://mcb.asm.org/misc/ifora/shtml.