26 December 2018

How wasting time on the internet led to my new authorship disputes paper

My newest paper came about as a direct result of me wasting time on the internet. It’s not the only paper that started out this way, but the pathway here is a little more direct than usual.

This paper started because I was answering questions on Quora like this one: “What should a PhD student do if he finds out that his ex-advisor (for a master's) published his work in a conference paper without adding his name?” Once you answer a particular kind of question on Quora, it shows you more like that one. I started seeing lots of variations on, “I’m being screwed out of credit for authorship. What do I do?”

In retrospect, it’s interesting that I never saw these questions on Twitter or other websites where I hang out with my fellow academics. What you see on one social media site is not what you see on all of them.

I saw this question enough that I thought it was worth writing a blog post here about it. More than any other paper I’ve written, that blog post was the first rough draft of what would become the published paper. Some of the examples were largely unchanged in the progression from blog post through to final published paper.

At a time when lots of blogging veterans are shutting down their blogs (farewell, Scicurious blog, you were fun), I want to hold this out as an example of why academics should keep a blog. Blogging is still the best intellectual sketch board there is. A blog lets you develop half-formed ideas into coherent arguments by writing them out in sentences and paragraphs. For me, a Twitter thread would not have acted as a springboard that could have developed into a proper manuscript.

I first chatted a bit to a couple of anonymous people behind the SmartyPants Science blog (now deleted) to see if they would like to collaborate on it. They apparently had some experience seeing authorship disputes in action, which I never had. That... did not pan out, so I went it alone. I workshopped it with a grad student writing class, who had some good remarks.

I thought this was an article with enough general interest that if I posted it up as a preprint, I might get some useful feedback. That turned out to be... not a straightforward experience. I had my manuscript rejected by the BiorXiv preprint server for capricious reasons, which I wrote about here

The good news about posting the article on the PeerJ preprint server was that I did get people tweeting it, and expressing interest in the topic of the paper. (Indeed, as of this writing, the preprint has a higher almetric score – 33 – than the published paper – 29.) The less good news was that nobody had any specific comments to make.

My reviewers, however, did have comments to make. After some desk rejects from a couple of journals (opinion pieces without data are not the easiest sell), I got some very thorough and encouraging reviews, with comments like, “I thoroughly enjoyed reading this paper” alongside the decision to... reject?! I’ve had accepted papers where the reviewers didn’t say as much positive as in these reviews rejecting the paper.

The reviews were very helpful, too, so I went back and revised and resubmitted it to the same journal. The final paper is so much stronger because of those reviews. The first half is shorter but has more concrete data. The second half has a much sharper focus on dispute resolution, because I realized that there was enough stuff talking about dispute prevention in the literature.

The moral of this part of the story is: Look past the editorial decision itself and pay attention to the tone and substance of the reviews.

And the moral of the whole story is: This paper demonstrates something I often tell people: “Yes, the internet / social media is a waste of time... but it’s not a complete waste of time. The qualifier is important.”

P.S.—I like the picture at the top of this post because these two chess pieces suggest conflict. But if you know how knights move in chess, the reality is that neither can capture the other. In other words, from the point of view of those pieces, it’s a “no win” situation.

I think that represents most authorship disputes pretty well.

Additional, 18 January 2019: Several reviewers argued that journals would never want to get involved in authorship disputes. Turns out the model I proposed is not all that similar from the one describe in this article, which came out shortly after mine was published.

Scientific journals’ creation of dedicated positions for rooting out misconduct before publication comes amid growing awareness of such issues, and stems from a recognition that spot-checking and other ad hoc arrangements were insufficient. ...

Renee Hoch(is)is one of three research integrity team members at PLOS ONE. “We’re not working in a job where people are generally happy to hear from us,” Hoch said. “You need to be a strong communicator, but also a very sensitive communicator.”

Hoch’s team, which was created in January, sees everything from concerns about data, to failure to disclose important conflicts of interest, to authorship disputes, and more. “If you wrote a list of potential ethical issues, we’ve probably seen everything on it,” she said, noting that the largest slices of the pie are image manipulation and data concerns.

Emphasis added.

And the moral of the update is: You will always find helpful articles you wish you could have cited after it’s too late.


Faulkes Z. 2018. Arbitration is needed to resolve scientific authorship disputes. PeerJ Preprints https://peerj.com/preprints/26987/

Faulkes Z. 2018. Resolving authorship disputes by mediation and arbitration. Research Integrity and Peer Review 3: 12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41073-018-0057-z

Related posts

You think you deserved authorship, but didn’t get it. Now what? 
Does biorXiv have different rules for different scientists?

External links

This blog is dead. Long live the blog.

1 comment:

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