11

I am a PhD student in molecular biology & bioinformatics in Australia. I have previously presented one of my projects as a poster at a conference. This was sent for review to all co-authors, changes made and presented.

A couple of months down the line, I was asked to present a poster at a local conference. I re-submitted the poster abstract, which was accepted. I did this without consulting my primary supervisor as I thought any dispersal of the work would be welcome. Since then, she has started to dislike the results of that project. When the conference was around the corner, and I told her I was presenting, she accused me of bad scientific conduct for presenting something in her name. I apologized, explained why I had not consulted her and retracted the poster.

She’s not dropping the matter though and seems to be using it as a target for some larger disagreements she has with me. What are the rules for re-presenting work or posters? Are there any guidelines and how serious was this accidental transgression?

16

From what you've said this sounds like a honest mistake made in good faith, and if I was your supervisor I'd accept your apology and move on. At your stage it's to be expected that you're still learning some of the norms of the culture, and they're not always clear.

That said, I do get particular about authorship. Let me tell you a story from my previous career...

I was a young PhD researcher, working in collaboration with several other staff and the head of my research institute. Let's call him Toby.

I came to feel that Toby had a significant conflict of interest related to our work, one which was not being properly handled. I felt that my boss was trying to pressure me to accept methods and interpretations that weren't scientifically justifiable, but which just happened to lead to results that were favourable to our institute's funding. Another co-worker felt the same way.

We refused to accept these methods, and soon after we were both fired. While we were serving out our four weeks' notice, we learned that Toby had gone to an international conference and presented these results in a talk and poster, and that he had listed us both as co-authors in this work.

If he'd attempted to do this in a journal publication, we would've been asked for consent to be listed as authors (and would've declined). But because talks and posters don't have quite as rigorous processes, he was able to slip this through. We ended up having to contact the organising body and request that our co-author credits be removed from the published proceedings.

(Toby was furious. Toby also had right of veto over any reference that anybody in the organisation might write for us as we looked for new jobs. It was not a very enjoyable time in my life.)

As my experience illustrates, crediting somebody as a co-author isn't automatically a positive. When my name appears on a paper, I share responsibility for the contents of that paper, so it's very important that I have the opportunity to give or withhold consent for that to happen.

Two important things about consent: it's conditional, and it can be revoked. If your supervisor only agreed to the first poster, then you didn't have her consent for the second. You might think it's almost certain that she'll agree to the second one, but you still have to ask.

(I know my friend will happily lend me $20 if I ask, but it's still not okay to borrow it from his wallet without asking!)

There are reasons why somebody might say "yes" to one request and "no" to another. It might be that they have issues with the conference or its sponsors, or that in the time between one request and another their thinking has evolved and they no longer want to endorse material that previously seemed okay. Regardless of why... it's best to ask.

Moving forwards, my advice would be to say something along the lines of:

As I've said previously, I'm sorry for resubmitting this presentation without your consent - I misunderstood expectations for how this sort of thing should be handled. I've withdrawn the poster, but I get the impression that you still have concerns about this issue. Is there anything else that you'd like me to do to remedy this?

  • 1
    Did you approve publication at an earlier stage, before the time you refused to accept the methods (when it resulted in you being fired)? If so, you might want to make it clear. I'm not sure it is implied in I felt that I was being pressured to accept methods and interpretations that weren't scientifically justifiable, since you then say that you refused to accept these methods – Mark Mar 26 '18 at 7:59
  • 2
    @Mark Edit to clarify that my co-worker and I never agreed to accept authorship with those methods. (I think I told my boss that if he directed me to analyse the data using those methods, I would do so, but I wouldn't put my name to it. Something like that, anyway; it was quite a while ago now.) – Geoffrey Brent Mar 26 '18 at 10:23
9

My opinion has always been that once I sign my name on something (like a paper, or a poster), I endorse it to the extent that it can be presented, submitted, or used for any other standard purpose without any further approvals or permissions on my side. Essentially, publication (or presentation) constitutes putting your work into a public domain. Anybody, not just my co-authors, is entitled to refer to it, to build upon it, to comment on it, to try to refute it, to include it into their lectures, or to do anything else with it that constitutes normal academic communication and "fair usage" after it has appeared in public just once. If I later want to retract it, it is I who should inform the other parties about that and there should be a valid reason for the retraction (say, a flaw in the proof that went unnoticed before, etc.). Mere "disliking" is enough to refuse to get associated with the project in the first place and should be respected then but once you sign something out, you sign it out, period.

How universal is this attitude? I don't know and I doubt anybody does: academic rules of conduct are not written in some universally accepted code of law, volumes 1-13, and it is not unusual to see people disagreeing on what is acceptable and what is not. However, I find the accusations of scientific misconduct totally misplaced here. She could ask you in private not to present the results, of course (anyone is entitled to any private request) and it was rather kind of you to agree (withdrawing your poster at the last moment doesn't look terrific on your unofficial record, by the way, people notice such things), but that is where it stands IMHO unless she communicated to you some serious previously unnoticed flaw in the project between the first and the second presentation.

I don't think that the field and the country matter very much here, but, if somebody does, I'm a mathematician in the USA.

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.