Project Selection and Authorship in Biomedical Engineering Research


These cases describe incidents regarding (A) the appearance of favorable treatment of an advisor towards a trainee with regards to authorship, and (B) the appearance of a misaligned project assignment and breach of intellectual property by an advisor during doctoral training.


Case A: A Graduate Student in Biomedical Engineering

Ahmad was a doctoral student of Biomedical Engineering in the US; he worked in Dr. Goldstein’s lab. During the first two months and during a lab meeting, Ahmad suggested an alternative artifact suppression approach in an MRI method previously developed in Dr. Goldstein’s lab. After the meeting and following Dr. Goldstein’s recommendation, Ahmad started working on this idea. Almost a month later, Dr. Goldstein mentioned to Ahmed that Steven, a post-doctoral researcher in one of his collaborator’s labs, had already found a solution based on Ahmad’s alternative approach and asked Ahmad to reach out to Steven to learn about his solution. Ahmad reached out to Steven and they started working together on the problem; the new solution was based on a deep learning method. A few months later, Dr. Goldstein and two of his trainees (Stephanie a senior doctoral student, and Peter, a new post-doctoral researcher) attended an out-of-town workshop to learn more about deep learning. Ahmad felt confused about why he was not asked/invited to attend the workshop as he was the sole person in Dr. Goldstein’s lab to use deep learning in his research project.

A year and a half later, Ahmad performed all the experiments and data analysis of his project and finished writing a manuscript on the work. His list of contributors included himself, Steven, Steven’s PI, and Dr. Goldstein. After final editing of the manuscript and before the submission, Dr. Goldstein asked Ahmad to include Peter (the post-doc in his lab) as a co-author due to his intellectual contribution to the work. Ahmad was again confused, and asked Dr. Goldstein for an explanation. He was told that Peter and Dr. Goldstein had a conversation during the earlier workshop that shaped the idea of the work. Still perplexed, Ahmad replied that this work was initiated before the workshop. Dr. Goldstein asked Ahmad if he was accusing him of lying and further complained that Ahmad does not perform well in receiving advice from his advisor.

To Ahmad, Peter had no contribution to the work. In fact, throughout the project Peter demonstrated no intention of helping Ahmad in progressing. Nevertheless, Ahmad felt he had no choice but to include Peter as a co-author, as this was instructed by his advisor, Dr. Goldstein.

Discussion Questions:

  • What should Ahmad do at this point?
  • What could Ahmad have done differently?
  • Is there a possibility that Dr. Goldstein was biased against Ahmed, and in favor of Peter?
  • Ahmad felt misled regarding credit for authorship:
  • What criteria should be used to determine authorship?
  • Who should make the final call on the author list of a manuscript?
  • How should co-authors be able to identify each other’s contribution?
  • How should co-authors have confidence in everyone’s contribution?
  • What should a graduate student do if he/she experiences a breach of research ethics and trust with their advisor?

Case B: A Graduate Student in Biomedical Engineering

Ahmad is a graduate student of Biomedical Engineering with a strong interest in the physics of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and its application in diagnosis of cardiac diseases working in Dr. Goldstein’s laboratory. Ahmad’s educational background emphasized computational methods, theory of imaging, and signal processing. After Ahmad’s doctoral qualifying exam, his committee recommended he take an additional class related to human physiology to expand his knowledge especially in the physiology of heart.

During the human heart module of the physiology class, Ahmad came up with the idea of mapping human heart’s mechanics during the propagation of electrical signals that initiate the contraction of heart muscles as an indicator of cardiac disease. Ahmad discussed the idea in one of their lab meetings and Dr. Goldstein indicated that he thought it was very interesting, but never mentioned anything else about it after the meeting. A few months later when Ahmad was conducting some MRI experiments on human subjects, Dr. Goldstein asked Ahmad to acquire additional images and try to optimize the MRI parameters to pursue his idea. Ahmad got very excited and demonstrated that the idea was feasible through multiple iterations of parameters optimizations and conducting human experiments on 4-5 human subjects. Dr. Goldstein and Ahmad both agreed that this idea should become the 3rd research aim of Ahmad’s doctoral dissertation.

When it was time for Ahmad to write his proposal and defend it, he discussed the proposed research aims of his doctoral dissertation in a meeting with his doctoral committee and received initial approval from everyone. He spent additional time and reviewed related works to his 3rd aim to provide enough scientific background. However, when discussing this later, Dr, Goldstein, told Ahmad that the 3rd aim was initially his idea and no longer available for Ahmad to pursue. Dr. Goldstein added that he intended to pursue that idea with another trainee and asked Ahmad to replace the 3rd aim with one of his own research grant’s aims.

Discussion Questions:

  • What should Ahmad do at this point?
  • Does he have any choice other than to do as his advisor has told him?
  • Has Dr. Goldstein done anything wrong, ethically?
  • Who should be able to work on the novel idea of a graduate student?
    Mohamad Abdi. . Project Selection and Authorship in Biomedical Engineering Research. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

    Case A: Commentary

    The authorship criteria for biomedical research are recommended by the international committee of the medical journal editors (ICMJE), which many academic groups practice. ICMJE suggests authorship based on a substantial contribution to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work. The ICMJE recommends individuals conducting the work determine the co-authors. In addition, ICMJE established that an author should be able to identify which co-authors are responsible for specific other parts of the work.

    The project idea was conceived in a discussion during a regular lab meeting. According to Ahmad’s statement, the work was conducted and delivered in collaboration with Steven. It can be inferred from Ahmad’s perspective that Dr. Goldstein, Steven, Steven’s advisor, and himself should be considered co-authors. According to the ICMJE’s recommendations, Ahmad should be able to identify the co-authors and their responsibilities and contributions.

    There are three possible scenarios:

    1. Peter had intellectual contributions to the work outside of the interactions between Dr. Goldstein and Steven. This would raise the question of why Ahmad had not been involved in those interactions, which is particularly important since Ahmad was involved in the conception of the idea and was responsible for implementing the work. This raised the question of bias.
    2. Dr. Goldstein’s claim about Peter’s contribution during their interaction at the conference seems to be orthogonal to Ahmad’s claim about the start date of the work. It may have been a more trustworthy approach if Dr. Goldstein had a conversation with Ahmad earlier to identify all the possible co-authors of the work and address the questions that might have arisen.
    3. Peter did not have substantial contributions to the work. This scenario will raise an ethical concern on whether Peter should be credited as a co-author while at least one author cannot identify his contribution.

    ICMJE recommendations suggest delegation of judgment call on authorship to the institution where the research was conducted in the case when agreement cannot be reached. Although this option is open to Ahmad to reach out and seek external help, given the imbalance of power in advisor-advisee relationships in academia he hesitates, as this might negatively affect his relationship with Dr. Goldstein. Furthermore, this approach might play against Ahmad in his future as a research scientist.


    Case B: Commentary

    It appears that Dr. Goldstein was excited about Ahmad’s proposed idea and wanted to pursue the idea himself. The most straightforward approach could have been to have Ahmad work on expanding and delivering the work. However, it can be inferred from Dr. Goldstein’s response that he had other trainees in mind to work on this idea. This raises the question of how Ahmad will be credited for his contribution to the idea's conception. In the academic setting, graduate students are expected to seek advice from their mentors on project selection, design, and implementation. Because of this, Ahmad probably won’t have the authority to secure the proposed project for his dissertation after Dr. Goldstein requests the replacement. In addition, dismissing Ahmad’s contribution to the idea’s conception by Dr. Goldstein can suggest that Ahmad will not be credited for his contribution even if another trainee worked on the idea. Ahmad’s potential options are:

    1. Accept Dr. Goldstein’s proposition and move on with his advisor’s proposed plan. However, since Ahmad conceived the idea and generated initial results by optimizing the imaging parameters, ethical concerns might arise if he is not appropriately credited for his contribution.
    2. Another option for Ahmad would be to have University authorities involved in investigating the matter to help him secure the project for his dissertation. But, one can predict from Dr. Goldstein’s response that he might not appreciate this approach, which might negatively affect Ahmad’s relationship with him.