Today’s guest post is by The Blundering Ecologist, a Ph.D. candidate at a research university in Canada. In addition to research, she is passionate about asking uncomfortable questions and learning the rules so that she can break them properly.
I can’t do this.
That was my only thought when my class professor told me on the first day of classes I had to list my M.Sc. supervisors as co-authors on all the work I submitted to his class. I anxiously took notes until class was over. Loitering in the hall, I waited until all the other students had left so that I could ask for his advice. Why was I supposed to list my M.Sc. supervisors as co-authors when they have not significantly contributed to my work?
“For my dissertation my PI was just like that. The whole four years I struggled alone and the last thing I wanted to do was put his name on my work. In the end, I didn’t have the guts to publish alone. It was just easier to put his name on it.”
“I can’t do that.”
“I mean, if I was you, and I had the [expletive] to do it I would go back and publish without him… Put him in the acknowledgements. That would really show his co-workers what kind of researcher he was.”
“But, for now?”
“For now, put their names on your work and keep your head down. He has complete control over your M.Sc. and the headache isn’t worth it… at least, not yet. Don’t make things difficult for yourself.”
One of my supervisors was an urban geographer (primary M.Sc. supervisor) at my university and the other an ornithologist (secondary M.Sc. supervisor) at a university in another city. My M.Sc. work was in Ecology and on mammals. My project was handed to my primary M.Sc. supervisor from the funding agency. The funding agency’s questions were clear and decisive, all I needed to do was the fieldwork, data collection, statistics, and interpret the results.
Twelve months later…
That professor’s words never left my mind. As I quickly moved through my degree at a pace that surpassed my labmates and colleagues, I constantly grappled with that notion: gift-authorship.
Was I prepared to allow my primary M.Sc. supervisor to be listed as a co-author on work he did not significantly contribute to? Could I live with my decision to list him? On the other hand: could I stand up on my own? Was I strong enough to take a stand and make such a controversial statement about my ethics as a researcher? My gut was much more clear about what I needed to do. I was going to publish my thesis without my M.Sc. supervisors. But, on what grounds? Google was only so helpful. Turns out this is a very discipline specific issue which made it hard to pin-point how to handle matters in my situation. In Ecology and Biology, it is common for junior scientists to list their supervisors as co-authors on their thesis. It is socially expected. It is a given. Usually students and supervisors have this discussion early on in their degree, however this was never something I knew I should bring up, nor was it ever mentioned by my primary M.Sc. supervisor. The closest he got to mentioning authorship was when he asked me to list him as an author on a class project that I submitted to a professor on a topic unrelated to my M.Sc. work. After seeing my face, he recanted and said that he supposed he would need to read it first, however my class professor should be a co-author seeing as she taught me the material. (Yes, you read that right.)
Point was: I needed guidelines and I needed them fast.
I ended up finding a dozen different opinions on authorship from my field published in both official (journals) and unofficial capacities (blogs, newspapers, web forums). The consensus was clear: academia needs more honesty in not just publication preparation (data handling, results, etc.), but also authorship lists. The informal channels cautioned: students, be warned: you will be swimming against the current. If you burn a bridge, you better have a boat waiting.
There I was, match in hand, about to burn a very large bridge. My actions, to me, were justified. The journal I wanted to submit my work to had very clear authorship guidelines that I planned to follow to a T…
Paraphrasing, authorship should be based on:
- Significant contributions to conception and design, acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for paper; AND
- Writing and revising it critically; AND
- Final approval of the version to be published; AND
- Accountable for all aspects of the paper.
Caveats followed: Everyone who meets the four points should be listed as authors and anyone who doesn’t meet all four points should be in the acknowledgements. Using this outline, solely obtaining funding, collecting data, or providing general supervision does not qualify someone for authorship. Especially important: all authors should be able to take public responsibly for the work and therefore have sufficient knowledge about the paper.
Pen to paper, I sat down and wrote out every single volunteer, employee, friend, parent, and colleague that helped me write my thesis – from start (funding) to finish (thesis). The list was long, but two things stood out:
- My friends, labmates, and colleagues helped me more than I realized. (One former labmate actually qualified to be a co-author due to her extensive participation in all aspects of my thesis.)
- My M.Sc. supervisors contributed very little to my thesis.
So, there I was, faced with a reality I could not walk away from. It would be me and my labmate publishing my thesis “solo”. Her response, “I thought you would never ask.” Then, as if an afterthought, “Is that even allowed? This might sound ridiculous, but is it even legal?” I got where she was coming from: would I lose my degree for doing this? Would I be kicked out of my M.Sc.? Stopped from doing Doctoral work? Dramatically (albeit justifiably), I wondered, would my career be “over”?
Those were tough questions that I didn’t have the answers to. None of the documents I read explained just what could or would happen to me if I published without my M.Sc. supervisors. Unsure where to begin, my first stop was the Ombudsperson office. She explained that she, frankly, had no idea. From there, I went to the Thesis Office, asked for a confidential meeting and put forward the question to my Department’s representative. She didn’t know either. She suggested I speak to my Department’s Graduate Program Director. His response was least helpful, “You don’t have to, but it would be nice.” “Nice” as if I were simply doing someone a favour, rather than allowing my primary M.Sc. supervisor to gain credit for work that his involvement (or rather, lack thereof) did not warrant. I explained my fear of my primary M.Sc. supervisor mishandling my results (based on a heated discussion I had with him over coffee where he asked me to omit information and change how my results would be presented to our funding board so that he could continue to get funding even though my results did not support the claims he wanted me to make). Again, the Director’s response was noncommittal as I repeated, “Am I allowed to publish my thesis without X as a co-author?” Leaving his office I was vaguely aware that no one really knew what a student had to do. All I knew was that I would be breaking a “rule” that didn’t exist in writing and there would be consequences. At that point, I went ahead and submitted my paper to my top choice journal. By the time I got to my defense, revisions were invited.
Two hurdles remained:
- My secondary M.Sc. supervisor was much more supportive and I respected him as a scientist, researcher, and colleague. Based on conversations with him, I knew he didn’t feel he qualified as a co-author for my thesis, but I felt I owed him the same honesty and respect that he gave me.
- The funding board had strict guidelines about publishing work funded by them and they needed to know my thesis would be published very soon and not in the traditional way they may have been expecting.
With my labmate, we decided to tackle problem #2 first. In a heavily proofread email, I explained that I am about to publish my thesis in a top journal in my field. I then explained why my primary M.Sc. supervisor (one of two people who got funding for my work – the second being a man I never met or spoke to) wasn’t a co-author on it. I explained I wrote a very generous and considerate acknowledgements section clearly (and painfully) outlining in what ways every single person who has contributed to my work contributed. Then, I explained my fears, which for anyone who knew my primary M.Sc. supervisor intimately, was well aware they were warranted: “I have yet to inform my [primary M.Sc.] supervisor of this decision as he controls my future and can make my life very difficult by taking away my funding or preventing me from graduating.” I asked that my decision be confidential as my primary M.Sc. supervisor could considerably modify my future. The person who handled publication related matters was understanding and assured me not to worry. Problem “solved”.
Problem #1 I didn’t have to face until three months after I defended my M.Sc. thesis. The publication was about to be released and I felt it was time to inform my secondary M.Sc. supervisor of my decision as he was beginning to offer his services in helping me get my thesis publication ready, if I so desired. I held my breath, and then sent him a painstakingly honest email that was well overdue.
I explained things from my perspective as follows: “I was a very independent student from the start; I often forged ahead and made decisions based on my knowledge of the circumstances. There was no denying that my work benefitted from [my secondary M.Sc. supervisor’s] input, however I did not find [my primary M.Sc. supervisor’s] contributions to be marginally more than the minimum required from a M.Sc. supervisor (namely, acquisition of funding).”
I continued: “From the very beginning, my work was statistically sound and my writing was clear. However, for that to occur I had to repeatedly ignore and overlook all of [my primary M.Sc. supervisor’s] comments concerning my work. At every junction I have had to challenge his judgement and his seniority, which quickly left me to make decisions without consulting him at all. Putting it bluntly, my work is solid despite [my primary M.Sc. supervisor]. My frustrations in having a [primary M.Sc.] supervisor so unknowledgeable about the biology, statistics, and the writing process required for a scientific paper in this field left me deeply concerned for my reputation as a scientist moving forward. I do not want his name professionally attached to my work in any way. Including [my primary M.Sc. supervisor] as a co-author would give him free reign to manipulate the results to suit his agenda. We have had many arguments where I have had to firmly put my foot down in response to him suggesting I could stretch the data to say something it did not, or worse, misrepresent the data to the [funding agency] (so he could obtain more funding). I refused and my being so disagreeable caused considerable friction in our relationship. I cannot allow [my primary M.Sc. supervisor] to get credit for work that he does not understand, cannot properly present, and has no right to call his own by simply having hired me. Obtaining funding is not justification enough to warrant co-authorship. Such practices do not promote better science.”
His reactions were mixed. True to his character, my secondary M.Sc. supervisor was supportive in that he himself generally made decisions that went against the grain, however he did not feel like “others” (my hitherto unnamed primary M.Sc. supervisor) would so readily agree. He expressed concern that I withheld this from both of them and that this could have serious repercussions for my future as a young scientist.
His concerns were warranted. However, my primary M.Sc. supervisor never contacted me. Former labmates told me about the smear campaign occurring in their meetings with my primary M.Sc. supervisor. They explained he would denounce my thesis and spend large parts of their meetings discussing how he felt my work was very poor and my thesis did not warrant my graduating at the top of my class.
Then things went quiet.
This did not help settle my nerves. I knew him (my primary M.Sc. supervisor) and I knew to always expect the unexpected.
Three more months had passed post-publication and I was sitting with my mother checking my email after a “long” (read: four weekday) absence from internet. Mostly work related emails and then there was one for a faculty member who served on my M.Sc. thesis committee, someone I considered a mentor. I was on the other side of the country, but that email still found its way to me. My M.Sc. committee member explained that he had learnt about the paper I published “without authorization”. He explained his disappointment in me and expressed that he felt there were no grounds for such action. The label he used was “scientific misconduct”. He felt that our relationship was a mere sham – a ruse. Yet, in the same paragraph he wished me well and hoped my actions did not prove disastrous for my career and reputation. The message was clear: my primary M.Sc. supervisor was still upset. I had burned a bridge.
And, here I am now. Seven months post M.Sc. defense. Some hopeful higher level summer jobs fell through. I can’t shake the feeling that it may be due in part to potential employers in my field reaching out to my old M.Sc. supervisors, but I will never know. (I did receive three summer job offers one month later.)
My M.Sc. defense is a distant, but haunting memory. I am about to start my Ph.D. at a different university – just about as far away as I could get from my old university – and I still hold my breath anytime new emails arrive in my M.Sc. inbox.
Of course I can’t have my primary M.Sc. supervisor provide me with letters of recommendation anymore. It’s an obvious consequence of my actions. But, that suggests I needed a letter from him to begin with. As with the publication issue, I quickly realized my primary M.Sc. supervisor would not be a suitable a reference for my future job or graduate applications. Similar to other female students in the lab, we all avoided being openly affiliated with him. He did not hide how he felt about women in the sciences from his female M.Sc. students in the privacy of his office and I could not risk giving him the opportunity to express how ill suited he felt women were for fieldwork and intellectual challenges. However, I still needed letters for my job and Ph.D. applications. I had planned for that. From the moment I realized I couldn’t rely on my primary M.Sc. supervisor to be an advocate for me and my abilities, I worked diligently on making connections with other professors, colleagues, and coworkers. I stayed active in the volunteer community throughout my M.Sc. degree, I collaborated with people outside of the lab I worked in, and I gained respect and made relationships in a less traditional way.
I did burn a bridge, but I had a boat waiting. This boat (other connections, relationships, future careers) has helped me continue to progress forward in my career. Collaborators still agree to work with me and I am not proving to be the pariah my primary M.Sc. supervisor is making me out to be. The only catch, as of now, is that it appears I am now only working with like minded people. So, I can’t say anyone will be giving me a gift-authorship anytime soon. But, that I can live with.
Maybe I would have handled matters differently under other circumstances, but that theory cannot be tested. What I do know is that I do not believe such practices (gift authorship) promote better science. The best I can, and continue to, hope for is that people respect my decision as it was not made lightly, nor is it a highly socially acceptable one either.