15

Last year, I was helping a colleague with statistical analysis. Originally, I was on the paper but after a personal falling out with this colleague, I removed myself as a co-author. Because I am passionate about open science, I told them that they could use the analysis I did (and the computational script I wrote to do the analysis) for their paper. I did not explicitly ask to be credited.

The paper has been published in a relatively good journal. The authors used my analysis but also used my exact words in the methods section from a write-up of the methods and results. It is around 2 paragraphs of direct copy-and-paste. They have also published the computational script along with the paper and have not changed it in anyway (it still has my settings for setting the working directory path on my computer).

I have copies of my original analyses.

On one hand, you could say: what did you think was going to happen? And - you don't have a leg to stand on. However, I am quite irked that they lazily copy and pasted my words into their paper without even attempting to make it their own in any way.

What would you do in this situation? Anything? Suck it up and move on?

EDIT: They also use figures I made in their paper.

  • 1
    There may be multiple options here, depending on the journal. You might get a correction done to the article to remove your work. You may get a correction done that adds you as an author. Or a retraction, which everyone has been talking about. Have you ruled the first two options out? – A Simple Algorithm Jun 29 '18 at 15:00
  • @ASimpleAlgorithm I think editors will side with authors when presented with any recorded communication of the fact that the OP had directly allowed them to use their analyses in a broad sense. – Scientist Jun 29 '18 at 20:12
  • @Scientist Above it says the communication allowed them to use the analysis, not the exact text and figures. Further supporting this was the OP's surprise in seeing them used. Copyright law states that text and figures are the creator's property. And there need not be a conflict at all if the other authors agree to the correction. – A Simple Algorithm Jun 30 '18 at 1:38
  • Pls edit with the discipline, as ICMJE co-authorship rules or editorial conventions might apply. – Qsigma Jun 30 '18 at 8:28
48

In such issues, it pays to be ultra-clear about terminology. This is not a case of plagiarism, as the authors have (based on your description) not copied any existing published text from you. The term here is insufficient attribution.

That said, I see your situation to be in somewhat of a grey area. You have explicitly given them permission to use your work. You may have meant that they were to rewrite what you wrote and re-plot what you plotted, but it is not difficult for me to see that this may not have been what the authors understood. In all honesty, I would also not have assumed that this is what you expected to happen.

A general problem is that there really are no well-understood rules in academia how an author who has contributed significantly can recuse themselves from a collaboration — strictly speaking, the authors cannot publish without you (as you have contributed and need to be acknowledged), nor can they publish with you (as every author needs to agree to be listed as an author). The cleanest solution would have probably been if you could have written up your part in some sort of report (e.g., a preprint), which the authors could have then cited as usual, but it is evident that this is often not possible.

What would you do in this situation? Anything? Suck it up and move on?

In all honesty, I would suggest seeing this as a learning opportunity and moving on. Your claim seems way too vague and unclear to justify retracting the paper (and, honestly, if you try to get this paper retracted after you explicitly said they can use your work, you'll probably have made enemies for life). There really is not much else that can be done if the paper is already accepted.

  • 4
    I actually would call this plagiarism. My understanding of plagiarism has been that it encompasses pretty much any attempt to pass off ideas, words, images, etc. as your own when in fact they are not, and that's exactly what the other authors seem to be doing. But really, that's just a matter of terminology. No objections with how you're suggesting the asker handle the situation. – David Z Jun 30 '18 at 7:51
  • 4
    @DavidZ Usually you would be right. But since the author has removed himself as co-author, it gets messy. – Mast Jun 30 '18 at 13:17
  • 1
    @Mast: I agree with DavidZ... plagiarism has always been "passing off someone else's idea as your own". I don't see how removing yourself as a co-author makes that messy -- it's still passing off someone's idea as your own. However, what I think does make it messy is the permission that was given. If they gave permission that you can pass the work off as your own, then you can call it plagiarism if you want, but it wouldn't make it unacceptable (otherwise employers are "plagiarizing" their employee's work, making the term useless). The question is whether this permission was given or not. – Mehrdad Jun 30 '18 at 23:28
14

I’m struggling to think of why you think there’s anything wrong here beyond a lack of acknowledgement.

You told them they could use the analysis and script. As you did the analysis your write up is likely to be better than any paraphrase they might come up with.

You should have been credited (can’t tell whether that should have been as an author or just acknowledged - there’s not enough information, but as you removed yourself from authorship I don’t see there’s a lot of grounds for complaint there)

Maybe you should have been more specific on how these people could use your material, but I’m not really seeing any malpractice on the part of the people who published the paper.

Next time be more specific on what permissions you’re giving.

5

What they did was likely unethical, but if your work wasn't published anywhere you are unlikely to have any redress. It may be, in fact, that they interpreted your words as a statement that you didn't want your name associated with the work in any way. If that is the case it would have been unethical to ack you. But it is also unrealistic to suggest they abandon the work because you collaborated earlier, but not later.

I'll also guess that if you press it too hard it will put yourself in an unfavorable light. If you need to work with them in the future, it might be worth your smoothing the waters even if that is over generous in this case.

But in future, of course, you need to be clearer about the use of your work.

2

In short: I think you should not do nor say anything, and move on.

Recently I have put myself in a similar situation. I have removed myself from a paper where I analysed all the data, generated the figures, and reformulated the whole writing. Later it became clear that the story I wrote was not truly supported by the data, as the PI admitted to a major flaw in the methods which had been brushed over (tested solutions were not prepared as described and were likely >100 more concentrated). To date this specific paper hasn't been published but I am sure it is coming out soon. I suspect they will not change the manuscript significantly from my version, and might use the very same figures. Also an annotated .txt R script with raw data I prepared might get published as a supplementary file (they did not see value in doing so, and wouldn't know how to edit the code.)

I have, however, requested being mentioned in the acknowledgments as they'd publish material I produced. I sent the following request to the responsible PI by email.

"Please insert some disclaimer in the Acks section that [Scientist] provided lengthy suggestions and statistical analyses, and wrote a previous version of this manuscript."

In my understanding you have given them freedom to publish the analyses you "did (and the computational script [...])" any made no further request. They have done exactly that.

In such case I do not think you can formally complain nor accuse them of misconduct even though many bystanders would agree in that your contribution should have been acknowledged.

2

However, I am quite irked that they lazily copy and pasted my words into their paper without even attempting to make it their own in any way.

The way the question is written, makes it look like if they have tweaked the OP's words and if they were not "lazily copying and pasting", the OP would be quite happy by seeing the work published without the OP's name on it. Well, humani nihil a me alienum, but I think we have a case of more fundamental combined missteps here:

The author of the paper made an obvious misstep, because attribution does not require to be explicitly demanded by the creator, and can be suppressed only by his explicit wish. If they were in doubt, they should have contacted the OP, icy/non-existent relations or not (if I remember correctly civilization is also about being able to communicate in a non-lethal way with even your greatest enemy).

On the other hand the OP made a "practical" misstep, by not explicitly stating his wish to be (or not) acknowledged as a co-author or in some other way in the paper. The misstep is "practical" in that we should recognize, anticipate and manage flawed behavior by others (because our behavior is also flawed), and not trust that simply because some well-known principle exists (here, related to attribution of intellectual works) people will automatically respect it.

What to do?
Assuming that the situation is exactly as the OP describes it, then:

I would avoid accusations or contacting third parties, and I would treat the matter as a simple oversight (which maybe it is). I would write to the authors in a detached professional manner asking them to ask from the journal to insert a "correction" in the paper, that acknowledges the work I have done (not as a co-author). I would include in my message the desired acknowledgment text verbatim.
In today's on-line world, such corrections are not costly to the journals, at least for the on-line version of the paper. If the journal is also printed, the correction will likely appear separately in the next volume, and so of not much use related to the scientific work, but the vast majority of readers will access the digital version.

What does this accomplish?
Several things: I stand my intellectual ground (and both the authors of the paper and the journal will be aware of this), which is professionally beneficial. Moreover, if I want, in the future I can reference this work of mine as mine (the part of it). And I also gain the high moral ground, exactly because I avoid attacks and accusations, while pointing out their oversight.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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