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I am a graduate student submitting a computational biology paper for peer review. It is intended to be a “methodology paper” for the journal. Our paper uses new methodology to analyze several public datasets and demonstrate the use and benefits of the new methodology. There were originally two authors (my advisor and I). We added a third author (Author C) for having shared one of the datasets (data #3) with us several years ago (and it became public recently). Author C had a few discussions with us about the results of our methodology applied to data #3 and provided a few interpretations. I recently asked Author C for how we should state author contributions and two of the sentences they added were along these lines:

“Author C planned, designed, and conducted the experiment to identify results for data #3. All authors analyzed data #3.”

I was a bit concerned by both sentences.

Data #3 is open/public. I believe Author C planned, designed, and conducted the experiment to generate data #3 for their own earlier paper, where they analyzed it using traditional methods. The current paper simply uses multiple public datasets (including theirs) to demonstrate the benefits of new computational tools. It is not about the collection of data #3. I feel they simply shared data #3 for the current paper and that we analyzed it with our own methods. If we state sentence #1, we may be expected to include a detailed methods section for the wet-lab collection process of data #3, which is really a part of their own previous paper and deflects from the focus of the current “methodology paper” (it would start to feel more like a “research paper”). At that point, it would be strange to not also include method sections for the collections of data #1, 2, 4, etc. (which are also public datasets).

Regarding sentence #2, I did not feel that Author C analyzed data #3 with us in the current paper, but simply provided interpretations based on their previous analyses of the data #3 for their own paper.

I do not plan to mention my concerns with sentence #2 as it is ambiguous, but I plan to propose to Author C that we remove sentence #1 or specify that it was for a previous paper. Is it reasonable for me to ask this? Or, when a wet-lab biologist like Author C generates data, can they add that they planned, designed, and conducted the experiment to generate that data as their contribution on multiple papers, without even including the details in the methods section of the papers themselves? Could this put them (or me as first author) at risk for appearing unethical?

I am mostly hoping to better ascertain what the “norm” and ethics are in this area, and how I can handle this situation respectfully and fairly.

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This seems like a totally reasonable statement which is perfectly clear. Unless you took raw bcl files or whichever image file comes direct off the scope the other author analyzed data. Clearly they collected the data. You don't have to do anything other than cite their work.

This is a normal statement and if you complain about it your collaborator will think you're weird.

  • Thanks @CJ59. I do not intend to complain. I intend to propose rewordings. As I said, I do not plan to propose rewordings of the second sentence, even though I think it can be made more clear. However, I do plan to propose rewordings of the first sentence, which I do not think you touched upon in your answer. I intend to make it clear that the "conducted experiment" was part of a previous experimental paper, and not part of the current analysis/methodological paper. Possibly by citing their previous experimental paper again immediately after the first sentence of the author contributions. – PhDToBe Dec 24 '18 at 19:06
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    The author statement is your explanation for why this person is an author. This person is an author because they generated a data set and gave it to you a data set before it was published elsewhere. The original is clear to me, and if you propose adding a bunch of qualifications (like a citation in the author contribution section) to it, it's gonna come off as petty and passive-aggressive. – user101106 Dec 24 '18 at 19:50
  • Okay @CJ59. Thank you for sharing your ideas. I certainly do not intend to come off as petty or passive-aggressive but as clear, honest, and direct. My main concern was that it would misrepresent the current "methodological" paper and put them (and possibly me as first author) into question for adding this as a contribution of the current paper when it was clearly related to another paper. If it is the "norm" and especially if it will not call into question my ethics as a scientist, then I am less hesitant with the statement. – PhDToBe Dec 24 '18 at 20:01
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The statement seems to be accurate, but it could be made a bit clearer since different methods were used in the various analyses. It may or may not give the impression that C helped in your experiment. Perhaps you could suggest a rephrasing of the second sentence:

"All authors analyzed data #3 using different methods."

That would make it clearer. You could also cite the paper of the third author there to make it even more clear.

It may be that C didn't intend to leave it a bit ambiguous.

  • Thanks @Buffy. I may make that suggestion for Sentence #2 (although I might just leave it as is). Do you mind sharing your thoughts about Sentence #1? – PhDToBe Dec 24 '18 at 16:17
  • That one seems a bit less potentially misleading than the second. It seems consistent with your description, also. – Buffy Dec 24 '18 at 16:25
  • I had thought statement #1 was more misleading, but it may be that I am unfamiliar with the norms. The experimental part (data collection) of data #3 was planned, designed, and conducted for another paper. The data itself is already public. In this paper, data #3 was simply analyzed. Is it the norm to still add the first sentence in the acknowledgement section without having an experimental methods and/or experimental design section for the collection of data #3 (as it was published in another paper)? – PhDToBe Dec 24 '18 at 16:38
  • The fact that the data is public is of no consequence. You can cite the paper with the original setup/analysis and thus be clear. Making it public doesn't mean you don't need citations anymore. The data didn't magically appear nor create itself. – Buffy Dec 24 '18 at 16:50
  • Thanks @Buffy. I definitely agree: We cited their data article throughout the manuscript. I was speaking specifically about the "authorship contributions" section. I was concerned that Sentence #1 "planned, designed, and conducted the experiment" in the "authorship contributions" section would make it appear that the data acquisition experiment was part of the current paper. The current paper did not include any experiment, only analysis of the public cited data. – PhDToBe Dec 24 '18 at 18:57

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