The following thing happened

A couple years ago I was applying for personal fellowships to return to the homecountry and work in a PI's lab in order to set up my own group within their bigger lab (which is how things usually go in the homecountry). I talked to a junior groupleader (JG) in this lab and we brainstormed about what I would write in my fellowship. I wrote the fellowship and asked JG for feedback because they had experience with said fellowship. I submitted the fellowship and it got rejected. Twice. Then I moved back to the homecountry and JG told me they were doing one of the experiments that I had proposed in my fellowship. And recently I saw that they had published the results. Aim 1 of my fellowship is done. But not by me. If this doesn't make you a disgruntledpostdoc, I don't know what does.


What is the worst academic backstabbing you have experienced?

31 responses so far

  • eric says:

    I had an academic editor side with a bizarro reviewer to reject my first grad school paper. This dbag then turned around and published in a glam journal a few months later touting how he was the first to link two processes that we had shown were linked in our paper. By spiking our paper, they ensured that their paper looked more novel. We eventually published our study in a slightly lower tier journal that accepted it without any changes.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    How is that backstabbing?

  • physioprof says:

    DoucheMonkey is being pedantic. Backstabbing supposedly doesn't just mean "being an asshole who acts nice to you in order to take advantage of you". Backstabbing supposedly means "being an asshole who acts nice to your face but criticizes you to other people when you're not around". However, if you read the lyrics to this great song by the O'Jays, it's pretty clear that the broader meaning is in use.

    Unless DoucheMonkey is gonna say the O'Jays are "wrong".

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    If you contributed to the original intellectual idea that sparked the research even if you did none of the actual experimental work or write up, you should be a co-author (at the very, very least an explicit acknowledgement). Anything else is intellectually dishonest.

    • drugmonkey says:

      For "one of the experiments" Jim?

      • Noncoding Arenay says:

        @DM - OP says they essentially completed and published her Aim 1, so it doesn't seem to be just a minor experiment.

        @JW - While I second that, I don't think this is common at all for junior people. Senior folks might be able to pull some weight in this regard. I can say this from a few personal experiences as a junior researcher having made significant contributions (including entire Aims) to other people's grants without being listed as Co-I or co-PI (often due to bureaucratic issues) or given authorship (which I did not insist on). I did it anyway because I knew I wasn't going to be able to pursue that work anytime soon, but doing so held some goodwill value which I know the recipients recognized.

        • Jim Woodgett says:

          The discussions of the experimentation were under the context that she'd be setting up an independent (albeit underwing) lab. I see that as peer-to-peer. I think too many people take creativity contributions for granted and it really shouldn't be. We all "pay our dues" but it is always better to offer even if they decline than to act as though they did nothing.

          I know ideas are just the beginning of work but OP clearly feels disrespected and that could easily have been avoided.

          • drugmonkey says:

            and I think many people over-value their own "creativity" without understanding that many other people can, have and will arrive at the same ideas.

  • eeke says:

    Where do I begin? The data that my post-doc handed over to a collaborator was published without giving either her or me authorship, credit, or even acknowledgement. That's one. Another one, I conducted all experiments, conceived of some of them (I was a wee tech at the time), wrote the fuckin manuscript, and then the PI gives first authorship to a male post-doc in the lab because, he said, he needed it for his career. I was supposed to be ok with that. The list goes on. Assholes abound everywhere, I don't know how anyone can get through their career without being fucked over at least once.

  • Dave says:

    What is the worst academic backstabbing you have experienced?

    In grad school I went to run a Western one day, and ALL the buffers were out. I mean the STOCK buffers for the gel AND the transfer. I've never recovered.

    ....JG told me they were doing one of the experiments that I had proposed in my fellowship

    And what was your response?

    • babyattachmode says:

      I didn't say anything. I had just started there, whereas JG had been there for quite a while. I was on a very short-term grant, hoping to be able to stay. I was afraid saying something would hurt my future prospects.

  • babyattachmode says:

    It's been interesting to see that the responses to this story, as becca points out in her comment at DrugMonkey, are quite different between men and women. Men tend to mansplain to me that this is how science works, that it's not my idea because billions of people have ideas, and that I should be happy that anyone conducts this experiment. Women on the other hand let me know (on twitter and via DM) that it has happened to them too. That they didn't know how to speak up without damaging relationships. And somebody pointed out that it would have been easy for them to include someone as a middle co-author, because that doesn't really harm them.
    And yes, this idea was something we had discussed (in the context of me writing a grant and establishing a line of research) and it was not a blue ocean-type of idea, but it was still something that I'm pretty sure I came up with. Also, if this is how academic science works (as was mansplained to me), I'm glad I left. At least in industry there's confidentiality agreements, contracts and other things that make this type of stuff clear.

  • Anon says:

    "I had the understanding that if you asked someone to give feedback on your fellowship or grant, they would not go and do those experiments themselves. But I guess I'm wrong there."

    Otherwise, by agreeing to give feedback on someone's fellowship you would be obligating yourself to avoid whatever lines of thought are hidden within -- before you read them.

  • jmz4 says:

    If they were doing the experiments when you were still in a position to do them, then I'd say it's pretty clear cut example of backstabbing.
    I do feel sad for the people that have so little going on upstairs they feel the need to appropriate experiments from trainees.

    I will say though, that quite often people lose track of where ideas came from during these "brainstorming" sessions. I got into it with a grad student recently because he's trying to cut me out of some experiments I designed. He was claiming to our PI he initiated them, until I pointed out to my boss they were done months after I had submitted them as part of a fellowship proposal. I think the student was honestly surprised when I demonstrated this.

  • […] other day I wrote about how the following thing happened. As many people have pointed out: a. it is hard to distinguish exactly who the idea-owner was, and […]

  • Zuska says:

    Thank god for mansplaining, else women would just go on being stupid about How Science Works for forever.

  • chall says:

    When I left my grad studeis we had written up a manuscript that I used in my thesis AND in a collaborator's thesis. It was going to be submitted after I left (since we didn't have money so I got to leave right after defending - nothing strange there).

    I saw the paper in press a few months later. My name was left off and other names had been adeed. When I asked about it, I got told that they had repeated my contribution that was in the paper so it really wasn't "my blots in the paper" and when they added two more people it was too many names on the paper. Yeah, that felt.... not so good.

    [there was also another sidebar discussion that I was a woman was probably (?) not going to go for TT and therefore wouldn't need publications in the future and the guy who got added was applying for a grant and needed more pubs..... not to mention that I was already out of the country doing my postdoc (so why I wouldn't go for TT is not really clear to me).]

    It's water under the bridge by now but I will admit that I am a lot more paranoid about authorship now than I was back than. I make sure to have discussions and emails about things to at least have a clear expectations on what 'others" see in terms of pubs

  • […] this, from In Baby Attach Mode, a case of academic backstabbing? DrugMonkey’s not sure, and In Baby Attach Mode reflects on the […]

  • CGH monkey says:

    When I was a post-doc, I had a disagreement with my PI over the progress of a multi-year human genetics study. I argued that the lab needed to automate many steps of their microarray fabrication process for reasons of data quality and employee ergonomics. The PI said she "hires postdocs to be robots," and my hand surgeon told me I would end up crippled if I stayed.

    Within hours of my departure, my freezer shelves were apparently cleared into the biohazard waste. Almost 2,000 RNA extractions, cDNA preps,and spotted/QC'd microarray slides, easily enough to complete an entire grant aim, gone in a fit of vengeful fury. Two technicians were re-assigned to my project, given my notes, and told to replicate my work exactly, just so they could keep me off the paper. That was eventually published in Nature Genetics without even an acknowledgement.

    Karma took care of it though, ten years later, her hubris led her to publish one of the highest profile artifacts ever seen in the pages of a prestige journal, making her the butt of jokes in the Human Genetics community. I look forward to attending the bigger international genetics meetings so I can catch up on the latest one-liners.

    Stabbed in the back? Keep walking away and don't look back. If Karma exists, the knife-wielder will find out soon enough.

  • Carolyn says:

    I already had a PhD and had already done a post-doc but could only get a sort of inferior 'research faculty' type position basically working as a data analyst under a statistician PI on a statistical-epidemiologic project. He and his co-PI decided on a particular way to do the analysis and I was supposed to analyze the data that way. I realized thinking about it carefully one evening that the model needed to be re-parameterized in a different way that made more sense. Unfortunately as it happened, I didn't go straight to the PI to explain this but instead mentioned it to a favored male grad student who was supposed to be working with me. The grad student mentioned this to the PI. Everyone realized that my method was a better approach and I analyzed the data that way and wrote it up. Then to my surprise, the PI, the grad student and another favored male grad student wrote a statistical paper about my parameterization method. They even used the same data set! And I wasn't a coauthor and didn't even appear in the acknowledgements. I had left that institution but wrote to the PI to protest but got nowhere.

  • The original story told here is I think interesting, and there could be layers of the onion we have not yet peeled away. One the one hand, there was a proposal on the table. I do not know this person's country of origin, but, were this the USA, then he likely established intellectual property rights with the proposal. The legal definition of a "publication" in the USA is often not well understood, and it is really pretty minimalist from a statutory perspective.

    Essentially, if a written work is distributed to a broader audience, it is a publication. It need not be commissioned, or placed in a journal/ book, or registered with the Library of Congress. So, if you compose an original work and say, email it to 20 people, then you likely meet the definition of a lawful publication in the USA. I suspect many other countries have similar statutory guidelines. The added element here is, this person's publication was commissioned- by his peers and supervisors, and so I believe there is no doubt his proposal was a publication, per se.

    The flip side of the argument, raised here by the blogger, rests in the legal principle of disambiguation. Disambiguation is the process that attempts to clarify that which is ambiguous. Thus it is possible, although it seems unlikely, that the idea in dispute was ambiguous. One might, for example, propose to explore a specific molecular pathway by investigating the methylation state of a specific amino acid. That very clearly is not ambiguous. Alternatively, one might suggest in a proposal that methylation generally could be a process regulating the pathway, which would be ambiguous.

    So I think what needs to be determined in the dispute under discussion is whether or not the specific aim in question was ambiguous or not. Answer that question and I believe this debate is resolved.

    • babyattachmode says:

      Thanks for your interesting comment. I'm not quite sure what intellectual property has to do with authorship on a scientific paper. Where I work now, often the people who are inventors on a patent are not necessarily the ones who are also authors on a paper that describes data that support the idea in the patent. Similarly, many people argue that 'just' providing an idea for an experiment does not even warrant authorship.
      Regarding your second point: I do believe that the experiment I described in the proposal was not ambiguous. However, I'm also not sure it was such a unique idea that nobody else in the world could have thought of it. And I'm not sure if there is a debate to resolve here, or just me being upset and the people in the lab I was in unaware that I was even upset about this. Like I said in the post after this one: I guess I should have said something when I was there.

      • Ah... well, it sounds like the issue could be more an ethical than a legal one. Patent law is an entirely different animal than publishing law. To be frank, I do not know much about patent law.

        Your proposal likely qualifies as a lawful publication. So, if your novel ideas were taken from that, without permission and/ or credit, then you have a legitimate complaint. Experience, and unfortunately more often bad experience, is usually the best of teachers. Even though copyright law does not require one to print the copyright symbol, or otherwise assert copyrights in a document to establish those copyrights, I think it helps when you do so.

        Although I do not know the specifics of your conflict, I am thinking if you had asserted copyrights on every page of your proposal, likely in the footer of the document, with a statement along the lines of "John Doe [copyright symbol]; All Copyrights Reserved; August 4, 2014" then your prior collaborators would have exercised greater caution.

        To some, this might at first seem an overly-vigilant behavior. But I believe if you simply do that in a nonchalant manner, most will not give it any notice.

        • drugmonkey says:

          Not every social conflict is a matter of ethics, right?

          • I guess that would depend on the parties' involved in the dispute. I myself have always guided my life with as few ethics as possible, to keep things simple. But you raise a fascinating issue here, because, it could be the people on the other side of the conflict we are discussing may not see it as an ethical issue. I can think of many examples of this- and a recent one involving Hillary Clinton.

            This thread of comments reminds me of two books written by Richard Carlson: "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff" and "It's All Small Stuff". What Carlson astutely highlights is that our perceptions are altered by circumstance. So for example- if your spouse accidentally backs into your car using her car, then it's probably perceived as small stuff. But if it were your ex-spouse, then it's likely perceived as "big stuff".

            I think ethics can be affected in a similar fashion. We are often prone to forgive our child for doing or saying something inappropriate, but less so for a stranger's child. The dispute under consideration concerns parties that parted ways before the issue arose. It could well be the issue would be perceived differently had they remained collaborators.

            At the end of the day, though, I believe it unwise to exclude a collaborator under any conditions when it appears some justification, however remote, indicates they should be included. It never hurts to offer someone authorship, even if they happen to be the guy sweeping the streets at the end of the parade. Personally, I have always offered authorship to anyone contributing effort to a project, and this includes undergraduate trainees/ technicians & volunteers.

            Elevate those around you, and inevitably you elevate yourself.

  • JG says:

    Yep. It was a backstab. They probably think of it as a minor one because of the ideas-are-free-work-is-what-counts bit that other people have mentioned in the comments. Certainly they are clearly not the kind of people you want as friends... allies if needs must, but not friends.

    The worst backstab I received as a postdoc coming into a project started by my PI, spending 9 months getting it to work, and being left off the 1st two publications (including PNAS) and the resulting patent because I didn't come up with the idea or write the paper. No, I only fixed the idea and generated the data. Asshole. Of course I didn't know enough at the time to try to force my way into the paper writing process... I just assumed that generating new data or different versions of figures on demand would guarantee my authorship.

    The worst part is being in a slightly more advanced position a few year later, and seeing the same exact thing come down the pipe to fuck over someone else. And not being able to do something about it since I was still dependent on that asshole.

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