Med student loses paper when former boss claims right to data

jnsAs a first-year medical student at the University of California, San Diego, Jessica Tang already has an impressive CV. Her name has appeared on ten papers in the medical literature, including three in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine. On one of these she was the sole author.

Except that one doesn’t exist anymore. But the reason for the retraction does not appear to involve shoddy work by the researcher. Rather, Tang failed to appreciate the politics of the lab in which she worked — and it cost her.

Tang was working at the Taylor Collaboration, an orthopedics program at the University of California, San Francisco led by Jeremi Leasure:

The focus of The Taylor Collaboration is principally in Orthopaedics, but we also support biomechanics-focused projects in pediatric surgery, podiatry, general surgery, and neurological surgery. The laboratory specializes in mechanical testing of medical devices, with a particular emphasis on orthopaedic implants.

Tang says she conceived of a project to study “the changes in forces and moments for procedures that induce more drastic curvatures, such as pedicle subtraction osteotomies” — a form of spine surgery in which wedges of vertebra are removed to cause a bend in the column.

According to the abstract of her article, “Comparison of a novel pedicle subtraction osteotomy model using the traditional American Society of Testing and Materials standard for spinal biomechanics fatigue testing. Laboratory investigation”:

There is currently an internationally recognized standard (F1717) provided by the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) for fatigue testing of spinal fixation constructs, assuming relatively straight posterior rods between 2 vertebral segments. However, there is currently no standard that effectively describes the changes in forces and moments for procedures that induce more drastic curvatures, such as pedicle subtraction osteotomies (PSOs). In this study, the author proposes a modified version of the ASTM F1717 standard to compensate for changes in loading conditions for PSO constructs.


Twelve specimens were divided into 2 groups: 6 modeled after the original ASTM standard and 6 after the modified version. Three specimens each from the 2 groups had rods contoured to corresponding PSO angles of 20° and 60°, respectively. Specimens were cycled at 4 Hz at a 400 N/40 N or 700 N/70 N load ratio until failure was observed or run-out (testing cycle end point) was reached at 2,000,000 cycles. Cox proportional hazards regression was used to analyze the effect of rod curvature on the fatigue strength of the 2 different models.


Results indicated that contouring rods from a PSO angle of 20° to 60° significantly increased the fatigue life of the screw-rod construct (hazard ratio [HR] 1.57, p = 0.0144) for the original model, but had the opposite effect of decreasing the fatigue life for the modified model (HR 0.64, p = 0.0144)


Because there is extensive data showing that contouring rods to more extreme angles significantly lowers their fatigue life, the modified ASTM model may be more accurate for simulating constructs that assume insignificant rod bending.

Tang tells us that she

did everything on my own

for the study and didn’t think she needed to include any co-authors:

I was trying to think what the qualifications for authorship were. I didn’t think anyone else was qualified [to appear on the paper].

Meanwhile, Tang was getting ready to leave the lab, which she did before the article appeared. When Leasure saw the paper, Tang says, he was none too pleased:

 I think that may have contributed to the not so warm, pleasant feelings

that now exist between her and her former boss.

Leasure, she says, insisted that she retract the paper because it did not give him credit — although she is listed as being affiliated with the Taylor Collaboration in the author information on the article. Tang did not want to comply,but eventually bent to the pressure, with the following result:

To The Editor: I am writing to request the retraction of my article,  “Comparison of a novel pedicle subtraction osteotomy model using the traditional American Society of Testing and Materials standard for spinal biomechanics fatigue testing. Laboratory investigation,” which was  published online in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine on October 26, 2012; DOI: 10.3171/2012.9.SPINE12687.

There was a misunderstanding about the ownership of the data collected for this study. To preserve the academic integrity of published results, I request that the article be retracted.

I apologize for the inconvenience of the reviewers, the editor, and readers of the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine. The article was retracted on December 7, 2012.
Jessica A. Tang, B.S.
University of California, San Diego School of Medicine
San Diego, California

We left word for Leasure for a comment but have yet to hear from him. We’re hoping he has an explanation of events. On the one hand, we appreciate that his lab was housing Tang when he conducted her study. But, as many commenters have argued on this site, that doesn’t necessarily entitle lab heads to use the Royal We for work in which they were not involved. Assuming Tang is telling the truth, how would Leasure have signed an author attestation form (again, assuming such a form would have come his way) for the nature of his contribution to the study?

Meanwhile, we spoke with Joanne Eliason, a spokeswoman for the journal, who could not confirm Tang’s story but says that had Leasure contacted the publication directly demanding a retraction:

that would have been an entirely different situation.

Tang, for her part, says the experience has taught her a valuable lesson about lab politics:

I think I will be a lot more careful [in the future].

68 thoughts on “Med student loses paper when former boss claims right to data”

  1. Certainly a good lesson about communication in the lab. Rather than sitting and pondering, she would have done well to talk to the lab head. He may be wrong to expect his name on every paper that comes out of the lab, but that is certainly the culture.

    In one case, my adviser’s name ended up on a paper describing work that she had actually forbade me to do. She was going for tenure at the time.

    On three other papers (later, different lab), the lab chief expected me to publish as sole author because, despite his strong support and critical input, he did not do any actual experiments. He was already a member of the National Academy, and could afford to be more generous.

    In the end, the biggest stinks I have witnessed about authorship were all due lack of communication about expectations.

  2. Tang has probably done everything for this study herself, so she was the only person eligible for authorship of the resulting paper if the rules were to be followed to the letter. However, the rules that define who should be included as a co-author of a paper are disregarded on a grand scale worldwide. People in power, who do not practice research anymore, still feel the need to take credit for any research carried out within 200 yards of their office. Overall, it is disappointing that Tang has caved in.

    1. “Tang has probably done everything for this study herself”

      Is this so? I’m assuming that she did not pay for the study, which is a pretty important detail. I certainly was never expected to pay for studies during my time as a technician (nor as a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow as I am now).

      1. Neither did her PI pay for all of this, unless this institution is his private enterprise. If the latter is the case then he can claim the ownership of the data but he is still not eligible to publish them under his name.

      2. trivial though it may not be, merely finding funding for the research is not qualification to be an author in just about every journal.

      3. This confuses listing someone as an author with acknowledging his support. The former should have done at least some of the work, and should be able to defend at least some of the material in the paper. The latter need not be knowledgeable at all of the substance.

    2. it is no secret that PhD students in the US are the cheap labor that keeps the doomed US academic enterprise afloat. As a result, PIs pick lots of mediocre students who can be taught a few methods and they can collect data. Often these students have no original ideas at all and certainly cannot tell what is a good idea and what isn’t. If a student has 10 random ideas and the PI can pick the one with potential and the students works on that one it seems to me that is a major contribution by the PI, even if the PI is not physically in the lab testing. Pis are too expensive to be doing that, any institution would tell you that. They need to focus on the high level stuff that brings in the big bucks.

  3. I think you’re looking at this the wrong way ’round.

    The journal says,
    “Authorship: The JNSPG agrees with the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) that authorship should reflect all 3 of the following criteria:
    • “substantial contributions to conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data”
    • “drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content”
    • “final approval of the version to be published” (Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Bio­ medical Journals: Writing and Editing for Biomedical Publication ( Listed authors are held responsible for their contributions to the paper and must sign the Copyright Assignment form.”

    It is possible that Ms. Tang performed her study in a manner that would deny anyone else authorship credit. (Certainly by not even telling the PI about the study, he is not an author on criteria 2 and 3.)

    But how exactly does a first year student perform such a study in a laboratory without involving *any* senior personnel? Where did she acquire the “specimens”? (Are these synthetic models or cadaveric tissue? [paywalled]) Who trained her to use the testing equipment? How could she work in this lab for months and not tell her supervisor what she was doing? Were there no lab meetings? Who paid her salary and expenses, and if it was a training fellowship, didn’t it require periodic progress reports? Who was her mentor of record?

    If someone came to my lab and used my resources for an independent study without telling me what she was doing or getting approval (essentially, working “behind my back”) you bet I would have a problem with that.

    It also seems highly likely that if she had told her mentor(s) about the study, they might have had ideas that would have made it even better and more informative. That’s the whole point of training, isn’t it? She may be a bright young mind but does she know so much about spinal fixation that there was nothing a mentor could have done to make her work even better?

    This isn’t just about politics and who pays the bills.

    1. Well, you never know. Maybe Ms. Tang does know more than her mentors on spinal fusion. Maybe she’s a better researcher. We don’t know her background.

      I don’t think it matters whether, or not, her mentor’s input would have made anything about her manuscript better. Sounds like a cheap way to get in on someone’s hard work. Bottom line is, she managed to get it published on her own. That is impressive.

      If she had told her mentor about the project, I’m pretty confident that he would have insisted to be listed as an author. She didn’t need his input to be published, so let’s assume his input would have been superficial, or non-existent. Based on the criteria you provided in your post, he would not have qualified as an author.

      Just because it’s the norm for labs to be listed as authors on anything remotely related with their lab, doesn’t make it right to be listed as an author.

      I do agree it was inconsiderate to do the project “behind his back”, but it still doesn’t justify authorship. She should be chastised for that, but retracting her paper is unjustified.

  4. I’ve helped write and edit dozens of clinical and basic science research papers over the years. I simply cannot imagine how an undergraduate, no matter how smart, could conceive, execute, and report a study without any guidance or support from anyone else. She was naive to think she did it all on her own.

    1. Tang has been a coauthor of ten papers so she must know the drill. Maybe the single-author paper reported on the study that was highly derivative and related to the previous studies she conducted. Besides, co-authorship is earned when the three conditions (mentioned in on of the earlier posts) are met concurrently. So, contrary to a popular belief, mere assistance with some technique does not cut it.

  5. The original retracted version mentions the PI in acknowledgements:

    “The author would like to acknowledge Jeremi Leasure for his academic support and insight in this study”

    1. Ah! Thanks for this accurate comment which makes a very significant difference with the original study. The acknowledgements section, usually sandwiched between “supplementary material” and “References” and printed using small type fonts, is, to my point of view, one of the MOST important sections in a scholar paper. Why publishers hide this section in paywalled publications if acknowledgements never include copyrighted data?

  6. “On the one hand, we appreciate that his lab was housing Tang when he conducted her study.”
    In this sentence, “he” should really be “she”

    1. The editors of one Elsevier journal stated clearly, in Dec. 2012, that “if the professor has only provided laboratory facilities, equipment and samples, that does not entitle them to authorship, if they were not involved in experimental design, execution or writing or editing of the paper.” Different strokes for different folks? JNS is NOT Elsevier, but they both ascribe to the “principles” of authorship by the ICMJE… something’s just not gelling here…

      1. If, in this case, the Taylor Collaboration provided only samples, equipment and facilities, then I would argue Ms. Tang committed research misconduct by using those materials for an unapproved study without permission of the facility director. She may indeed be entitled to a single author publication but if she insisted on it, she might never work in research again. I would certainly not write a recommendation for someone who did that and I would never bring into my lab someone who, in a previous lab, performed unapproved studies behind the senior PI’s back.

        If, on the other hand, the PI provided “academic support and insight” as stated in the acknowledgments, then it is likely that he should have been an author all along and Ms. Tang misunderstood the definition of “substantial contributions to conception and design”.

        And someone taught her how to do torsion testing. Someone taught this medical student how to perform mock spinal surgery. Someone taught her about ASTM testing methods for fasteners used in spinal fixation. If she was taught all those things as part of a previous study, and then thought she could use her new knowledge to do something extra on her own, those people who did all that teaching probably still deserve authorship credit, especially for as long as she is in that lab.

        1. I agree that it is absolutely wrong to do research behind the PI’s back, as to submit manuscripts without permission from the lab director/PI. With that said, I strongly disagree with the following:

          “If she was taught all those things as part of a previous study, and then thought she could use her new knowledge to do something extra on her own, those people who did all that teaching probably still deserve authorship credit, especially for as long as she is in that lab.”

          Just because a senior scientist teaches a trainee a method does not mean that the senior scientist is entitled to co-authorship every time that method is used by the trainee in the future. This notion is akin to “lab feudalism”, at least in my view.

          1. “Just because a senior scientist teaches a trainee a method does not mean that the senior scientist is entitled to co-authorship every time that method is used by the trainee in the future.”

            That’s not quite what I said. I have a hard time imagining how Ms. Jones can join Dr. Smith’s orthopedics lab, and learn all about orthopedics, publish several papers resulting from experiments performed in Dr. Smith’s lab, and not be required to include Dr. Smith as an author. (This obviously does not continue once she leaves Dr. Smith’s lab, unless they maintain a formal collaboration.)

          2. A scenario: ms Jones Joins Dr. Smith’s lab and learns everything about culturing cells (or whatever). Smith and Jones publish several papers together over a 3-4-year period. Perhaps Smith earns a phd after 4 years. Now, ms Jones, who is ambitious and talented, says: “I have an idea for a small study. Can you spare xx mL cell medium, and can I use a corner in the incubator financed by your grant for a few weeks? I will do all the practical work myself”.
            Dr Smith says yes, trusting the ability of ms Jones after having trained her for 4 years. Ms Jones subsequently writes a paper, and asks Dr. Smith if she can submit it (this part obviously failed in the real version of the scenario!).
            Should Dr. Smith be a co-author here? In real-life, Dr. Smith will probably often end up as senior author here, without having contributed much. But should he, if going strictly by the ICMJE-criteria? I guess it all comes down to how one interprets “substantial contribution to acquisition of data”.

          3. @Exitpoll,
            You said, “I guess it all comes down to how one interprets “substantial contribution to acquisition of data”.”

            But remember the guideline also says “substantial contributions to conception and design”. Does Dr. Smith consult on the design of the experiment, give advice and so forth? Or do we assume that even though Jones is using one of Smith’s cell lines, her new idea is so far out in left field from his normal interests that he can not or does not contribute intellectually?

            It’s an interesting thought experiment, but I suspect that in most real-world situations, Jones’ request to borrow reagents and space would be followed by a discussion on *why*, during which Smith probably contributes intellectually.

          4. Exitpoll, I believe that you are absolutely right if you are referring to an undergrad, or even an MSc or PhD student. Only on extremely rare occasions would a student be allowed to (or have the ability to) conduct independent research and thus also publosh that data set independently. However, your logic does not necessarily hold when we are referring to a post-doc, in which all planning, execution and publishing could very realistically be conducted by someone who is not a PI, or lab leader.

          5. An appropriate way of dealing with your scenario, exitpoll, would be that Ms. Jones and Dr. Smith are coauthors, and that Ms Jones is the corresponding author. That way the reality of the situation is made crystal clear, i.e. that this wasn’t a study of Dr. Smith’s performed by Ms. Jones, but that the student has taken the initative in inventing and performing the study while using the resources of Dr. Smith’s lab (and perhaps involving the expertise and knowledge of Dr. Smith).

            That actually does happen quite often in my experience (i.e the student or postdoc is encouraged to take on the corresponding author responsibilities as a recognition that they’ve been the dominant driver in a particular piece of work).

        2. Alloutwar: we may be speaking about two different situations. The point I was trying to make was that one can easily imagine a situation in which a trainee, be it an undergrad, phd-student or post-doc, could come up with an idea, conduct the experiment and write the paper on his or her own, without any senior scientist being entitled to co-authorship.

          : And yes, I am also well familiar with situations in which the entire research production, from idea to manuscript, is 100% driven by phd-students/post-docs/associate professors, and where an old ‘alpha-scientist’ PI puts his/her name as corresponding author on every publication leaving the lab, despite not having had an original idea for ten years, not knowing the methods used, nor the literature after year 2000.

          However, the trainee, who does not hold a permanent position at the academic institution, still needs institutional authorization before submitting a paper. In other words, someone with authority has to vouch for the young scientist. The most obvious person for this is the lab head, who hired the young scientist. I have difficulties imagining a high-level academic institution that would allow junior scientists to submit papers under its name, unless vouched for by a senior (tenured) employee.

          just to be clear, I am talking in general terms, and not about the specific case (ms Tang), which I do not know anything about except what I read here on RW.

          1. Exitpoll, I hear you loud and clear, but must insist that what I describe is common, and the frequency should not be underestimated. The case I describe is common, but, depending on the country, the interpretation will be different. In this sense, I fully agree with Elsevier. Even if permission is required, that still does not give the right to authorship. To do so would be abusive, and, to call a spade a spade, would be guest authorship, which is unethical and is cause for retraction. Unfortunately, there are still too many bullying “seniors” out there who need to be exposed by those smart juniors who need that the system be fair in terms of recognition. That senior “official” who gives the stamp of approval or go-ahead is entitled, at best, to a mention in the Acknowledgements. To omit the person altogether from the paper, however, is introducing a “ghost”, in this case it’s not a “ghost” author, just an unrecognized source of support. At least this is how I’m interpreting the above case.

          2. Alloutwar: I completely agree with everything in your last post. In an ideal world, the lab director gets mentioned in the acknowledgement section in the above scenario. I actually know of some senior scientists that practice this when they feel their contribution has been minor (however, as another in this thread noted, these senior scientists tend to be widely known and respected already, ie National Academy of Science-level.)
            Still, the lab director / PI has to see the paper and accept the submission. In this case, the lab director / PI is representing the academic institution, giving the go-ahead for ITS (not his or her) name to appear on the paper.

      2. AllOutWar,

        Not really related to you latest comment, but I appreciate you are also #RobinHood from other threads. I am really curious: did your new option to Impact Factor index get published? And other related papers? You said it would be happening within 2 weeks about a month ago… good luck!

        1. Hello Hibby, all that you need may be found here:
          I was hoping that RW managers would make a special blog post on this special issue, but they are still considering it. I hope that these ideas and concepts will be useful, as another “window” on the publishing process, also providing deep insight into cultural differences that underly many reasons for retractions. Jaime

  7. Just to be clear, this post is 99% sarcasm and the meaning may be lost in translation…

    There will always be at two camps debating issues like this… the peasant and the landlord. Landlords never imagine that mere peasants can generate ideas of their own and cultivate it to the point of producing tangible results. In the rare occurrence that this happens, then it must be a direct result of the their (the landlord’s) generosity of time helping develop the peasant into something a little more usual than a mushroom. Of course, if the peasant ever tries to claim rights to the intellectual property bestowed by fellow honorable individuals, then it’s the landlords God-given right and duty to teach the peasant the facts of life and force them to kneel to the wills of the powers that be.

    It is unfortunate that no one really regards the guidelines for authorship or academic credit and many consider it to be a nuisance in getting their name on publications. Why else did they agree to be the director of the department, lab, or unit in the first place if it wasn’t for the fame and fortune to come from enslaving young, energetic souls and wielding their energy for the benefit of the director. That’s the way they were brought up as young investigators and now it is their turn to shackle new minds with the chains of ‘mentorship’.

    I agree that there should always be good and clear communication between employers and employees, mentors and students, but I don’t see the clear ‘obvious’ need to put supervisors names on everything that comes out of a department or unit. Then why stop there, may we should put the academic deans as co-authors as they nurture an environment of academic progress, and on and on and on….

    Also let us not forget about the rampant issue of guest authorship whereby the supervisor/ mentor invites their close friends and colleagues to join in on the achievement because they’re just great people. Of course in reality, it’s a pro bono move so that they will reciprocate the gesture in the future. In the end, everyone is happy… the supervisor gets another publication, their friends get additional publications, and the system… well it’s already messed up, so who cares. The important thing is we supervisors are happy. Isn’t that what academia is all about…

    Disclaimer: I have had somewhat similar events happen to me in the past, but instead of having a retraction, the supervisor decided to put herself and her friend as the first and senior authors, respectively, in a top journal publication. I should mention that she was on sabbatical when most of the work happened, and have no idea how to justify her actions.

    1. The awkward “who the hell are these people?” moment comes after your PI has added random people as co-authors to a manuscript describing your own research. The PI considers it proofreading.

  8. Almost every time an authorship dispute appears on RW, the main controversy seems to about apportioning professional credit. That’s fair enough, for a discussion among scientific producers. But many of the people who will actually read the author list are only scientific consumers — at least as to the paper being published. Quite often, if we care enough to read the author list at all, we’d like to know who runs the lab and pays for the materials, whether or not they had anything to do with these particular results. That information has some bearing on issues like: “should I take these assumptions seriously?” “can I trust the results of this notoriously tricky assay?” “Could these results be biased in light of the lab’s overall research program?” or even, “Who do I say is squandering my tax money when I write my Congressman about this crap?”

    Quite aside from authorship, Dr. Leasure was right to be upset. Consider what would happen if Ms. Tang’s data were later determined to be fraudulent (which isn’t the case). Would Dr. Leasure be able to take much comfort from the fact that his name was not on the paper? “So, Dr. Leasure,” asks the ORI investigator “are you telling me that you didn’t supervise — you didn’t even *know* about — the work a junior med student was dong in your lab with your federal grant money? You do realize, do you not, that this work affects how a physician goes about reconstructing the spine of a living human being?” Ouch.

    1. A key problem is this sloppy use of the word “substantive” or “substantial”. We all know that these terms were devised by marketing managers and not by scientists. There is no way that you can publish a scientifc paper without a hard-core quantitative analysis, so why not the same for authorship? It’s one big, fat joke, actually, these pseudo-ethics and authorship guidelines that are floating around…

    2. Mr. Leasure maybe has a “right” to be upset, but he doesn’t have a “right” to force Ms. Tang to retract her paper, if she’s followed the journal’s guidelines to a tee. Just because every other lab basically breaks the rules by putting nonsubstantive PIs on the papers, doesn’t make it right for Mr. Leasure to insist on perpetuating an incorrect practice, ORI or not.

      1. Bear in mind the context in which this happened is that someone wanted to do a study on why curved rods have a higher incidence of breakage in a certain type of surgery, and the standard test method only works for straight rods.

        Did the other 5 authors of that paper have no clue at all how to test curved rods, so that the only person who contributed intellectually to the development of the modified test method was Ms Tang?

  9. In looking at the lab page, it is a very young team! And Jeremi Leasure is not a PhD – he has a master’s degree as his highest degree achieved, and that was in 2008. Maybe this reflects a lack of prior experience (on the student’s part in writing up her work and acknowledging contributions, on Mr Leasure’s part for not adequately “onboarding” new students and supervising their work)?

  10. I don’t think this is about Ms. Tang being innocently naive to the politics in a lab. Ms. Tang conducted the research under the auspices of the Taylor Collaboration, using their materials, equipment, and physical space, and she listed the Taylor Collaboration as her affiliation in the paper. She was a much-published author already, and so despite lacking a graduate degree she could easily be considered a seasoned veteran in research and publishing papers. So, am I to believe that it never occurred to her to at least have a conversation with her PI that she would be submitting the paper? In fact, why would it not occur to her to talk to her PI well in advance of even drafting the manuscript? It’s unimaginable to me that she would have kept Dr. Leasure and the Taylor Collaboration completely in the dark about this. I agree that use of the Royal We is not an automatic right, and there may well have been no justification for including Dr. Leasure as a co-author. But he also should not have found out about the study and paper for the first time after it was already published. This whole mess could have been avoided by some simple communication on Ms. Tang’s part. I am a less-experienced researcher and author than Ms. Tang, but I wouldn’t even dream of NOT inform my PI about a study I was conducting in his house. If he argues that he should have authorship, then that is something we would discuss and settle well in advance of submitting a manuscript. I would at least anticipate that my PI might want a say in things, and why Ms. Tang wouldn’t anticipate the same with Dr. Leasure is baffling.

    1. Has any one heard of “ideas piracy” in Academia, you would be having a social conversation with a colleague and some idea spills: oops it’s gone and you don’t even get any credit?

      1. I know of several people who had this happen to them. In one case, a visiting scientist suggested doing a review of the evidence on a topic. He told the supervising mentor and the idea was disregarded as of little to no importance. After much thinking, my friend decided to still go ahead with the project and submitted an application to an international organization supporting this kind of research. To his utter amazement, they asked him to collaborate with another colleague that the same university who had submitted the exact same proposal… anyone want to guess who that colleague was???

        In another case, a researcher was discussing an idea for a new ‘large-scale’ project with a colleague at the water cooler. Surely enough, the researcher was denied funding because a colleague from the same university had submitted a similar proposal… anyone want to guess who that colleague was???

        and on and on and on…

  11. Everyone in medical research knows the politics of authorship (we are introduced even more keenly to egos and poltics than our scientific cousins since there are more overweening egos in medicine)so Ms Tang’s profession of naiveté is disingenuous.

    1. Sexual harassment occurs more frequently to women than men in the workplace. Would it then be ‘naive’ of women to expect not to be sexually harassed by their colleagues? Would you tell them to shrug it off and learn the ‘office politics’.

      Academic misconduct is another form of intellectual property theft. How we define unfortunately differs according to who you ask and the system is set up for failure. That’s why these authorship ‘guidelines’ are so lame and offer no real red lines that should never be crossed.

  12. Well well well. See this article,

    Effect of Severity of Rod Contour on Posterior Rod Failure in the Setting of Lumbar Pedicle Subtraction Osteotomy (PSO): A Biomechanical Study. Tang, Jessica A. BS*,§; Leasure, Jeremi M. MS*,‡; Smith, Justin S. MD, PhD¶; Buckley, Jenni M. PhD*,‡,§; Kondrashov, Dimitriy MD‡; Ames, Christopher P. MD§

    Submitted to Neurosurgery July 1, 2012.

    Then look at the retracted JN:Spine paper (submitted July 13, 2012). Compare table one of both papers.

  13. OK, here’s my reconstruction of what happened.

    1. Someone decided to investigate why spinal fusion rods have a high incidence of breakage when used in PSO surgery, where a curve is introduced to correct a flat back condition. Probably the PI of the Neurosurgery study, Christopher Ames.

    2. The test procedure for spinal fusion rods is designed for straight rods and fails when used on curved rods.

    3. Jessica Tang, “Lead Engineer for the Spine Research Team” ( is tasked with developing a modified test procedure that can evaluate curved rods.

    4. After the procedure is developed, it is used to test the failure characteristics of rods of various curvatures. The results are submitted for publication on July 1, 2012 and eventually published in Neurosurgery.

    The authors are
    Jessica Tang (probably did most of the work)
    Leasure (Taylor Collaboration director of operations)
    Smith (MD at UV, probably provided patient data)
    Buckley (Taylor Collaboration Director)
    Kondrashov (Taylor Collaboration board of directors)
    Ames (UV, provided patient data and may have originated the idea)

    The Neurosurgery paper includes the description, “This is the first study to examine
    a PSO construct using a modified version of the ASTM F1717-01.
    Preliminary testing validated the modified model, which accommodated
    the variations in rod angles and preserved the moment
    arms at the fulcrum of the PSO across different PSO angles.”

    5. After the Neurosurgery paper was submitted, Jessica Tang wrote up a separate paper describing the preliminary testing that was used to validate the model. She re-used at least some of the data, and also re-used several specific textual phrases. She did not credit Smith, Buckley, Kondrashov or Ames in any way, and credited Leasure for “academic support and insight” in the acknowledgements. She submits the paper, without telling Leasure, on July 13, 2012.

    6. Jessica’s paper is accepted and published first (which — because it includes data from the group paper — puts the group paper at risk for retraction due to prior publication/dual submission policies).

  14. you wrote:
    “Rather, Tang failed to appreciate the politics of the lab in which she worked — and it cost her.”
    this assertion is not supported by anything from the lab, nor is is supported by the retraction letter from Tang. Tang gives entirely different reasons for retracting the paper in her letter to the editor.

    what you have is inconsistent statements from Tang, a letter from Tang in which she requests retraction, and you haven’t followed up on inconsistencies as to why Tang retracted the paper- or at least, if you have, it isn’t in your article.

    Maybe it is worth getting a little bit more information before you conclude that the “politics of the lab” have any relevance to anything whatsoever ?

  15. Tang failed to appreciate the politics of the lab in which she worked — and it cost her.

    Sorry, but that’s an inaccurate assessment from where I sit. Who paid for the research? Who developed the hypothesis? Who paid the publication costs? If you could show that the principal investigator is somehow violating the traditional contract with his technicians/employees then you might have a case.

    1. Joel, I agree, but it is VERY clear in all the official publication rules that merely paying for a study does not warrant being an author on the resulting paper(s). There needs to be an intellectual contribution. The problem is that many times it is hard to quantify the intellectual contribution of a PI or a student. A good lab takes a long time to establish, it is based on the work of one or more PIs and their team. When a new student comes in and does a study, it is only possible because of the existing infrastructure. It is a difficult issue. When people have lab meetings and lots of discussions, it is very difficult to decide whose idea it was. PIs many times play the game of letting the student think it was their idea to increase motivation. Most of us know how it is done: student has no clue, you casually through there an idea and gently push for it until the student thinks it was his/her idea and hopefully goes off working on it. In a few cases, students really do have original ideas. In my experience, PIs usually respect that. I’m wondering if there might be also some cultural differences at play here…

  16. When my PhD supervisor told me she was invited to publish a review paper and will include my ideas, experiments, etc., I agreed. She was not going to make me a co-author. I had no ambitions. She published it:
    In it, she repeated several times that this idea and that experiment was “personal communication from M. Pyshnov”. When she gave me the reprint and signed it with thanks, I only asked her why she said that certain experiments which I already did (and initially asked her not to publish, as I wanted to leave them for my thesis), are only planned to be done. She answered: “You don’t know how the papers are published”. (By that time, I had two papers in J. Theor. Biology. Her one MS sent there was declined.)
    Well, you must have ambitions these days. I don’t blame Jessica Tang, if her paper is indeed good. Where she is going to find a good lab now? And it sounds terrible to include a co-author for giving space, money and training.

  17. Interesting thing is the “ownership of the data”. It looks that, after the publication, the whole world “owns” the data, can use them, refer to them, etc. The question is who “owns” the data before they are published? Someone who “created” the data must be the first “owner”. Should there be a consensus in the group of “owners” to release the data for publication? Can some of them prevent the publication? In the case with Jessica Tang, she clearly was the “owner”. What were the rights of her mentor? I think that, by the common sense, he was one of the “owners” (his money, etc.), i. e. his approval of the publication was needed, but that did not necessarily made him a co-author: it’s better to keep authorship clean. The mentor, therefore, was very wrong requesting retraction on the basis that he was not made a co-author. If he had said that he wants retraction because he did not approve the publication, he would be right, but, of course, a bit ridiculous.

    1. A few provocative thoughts on authorship that makes us think that something fundamental, and basic, is being lost in these cases, either because of ambitions, power struggles, financial competition, or other distortions to the academic fundaments. That “thing” is trust.
      a) A new term, snub publishing:
      b) Hardy-Weinberg Axioms:
      c) Collaborative authorship:
      Hope it’s useful to trying to understand what went wrong between Tang and Leisure.

      1. Apologies (erratum to comment): Hardy-Weinberg should be Hardy-Littlewood (the former relates to population genetics!).

        1. Your first reference made me smile because it talks about misspelling names of researchers to make them undiscoverable. My name was misspelt twice in one paper and in addition they made reference to a non-existent publication. This was the first paper celebrating my removal from university.

          I am thinking that multiple authorship is wrong. Science is like Hollywood in that it makes fiction, but unlike Hollywood it does not give the details of who did what. I believe that one author does intellectual job. If one person has the idea of what should be done, the same person would know how it should be done. This person, I believe, knows how to write the paper. This is probably the corresponding author, although the latter can be a PhD student of the real author. Multiple authorship probably is also seen in projects where they know at the start what the results will be, and they build the project like a Lego house, together. My be the Hollywood list is a better solution.

  18. I’ve read a bunch of comments related to authorship here; however, I feel that authorship is not the central question. Rather, the central question is data ownership. Author guidelines are stated explicitly in the journal, and if the PI had not seen the manuscript he could not qualify as an author.

    The central question is who has the right to publish data. While authorship criteria are often covered in ethics classes, data ownership is often left out. I would assume that the University and also the PI to whom the money was directly given are the ones who own the data. Unless this student brought in all of the money to fund the research as a PI.

    This brings up the ethical dilemma that we see here: while the PI may own the data, the PI may not have contributed sufficiently to warrant authorship. That does not mean that the sole person who could author a paper has the right to publish it without the data owner’s consent.

    Ultimately, because a “substantial contribution to interpretation of the data” is sufficient to to justify authorship at most journals (along with criteria 2 & 3 that involve the actually writing of the paper itself), the OWNER of the data can publish anything they choose without involving anyone else, so long as they don’t see/approve the final version. Basically, all of the power lies in the PIs hands AND technically, they don’t have to have any involvement whatsoever in the project, until it is time to interpret the data and write the paper. Further, they can simply kick anyone they want off by not letting them draft or revise the paper.

    1. Further, because the PI owns the data, it is his right to involve himself to a level, even after the data has been collected and even if he played no role whatsoever in designing the experiments, where he contributes substantially to the interpretation of the data, if he so chooses, in order to warrant authorship on the manuscript.

      1. In sociology, majority of the papers are written by single author (either as a book or a research article (i would say research opinion) – I assume that the paper is a result of literature review or observational research. This may not involve funding or may require minimal funding. In this case, authorship will not be a problem. In biology and biomedicine, most research involves experiments. Experiments require funding, ethical approval etc. In some institutions, ethical approval may require proof of funding – how a student can acquire this? PI with funding should be aware of this even if the student conducts research, right? Authorship is totally another issue, I guess.

      2. QAQ, Indeed, we are entering that dangerous domain where business has not overlapped with science, but where business has now taken over science. I think this is the real rot. While many may be critical of my position, even calling it something archaic like anti-capitalistic or something, in fact, if we were to take out the economic benefit aspect out of the equation, how much of science would have been conducted had there not been funding there? What I am trying to say that there are deep invested interests. The lab in this case isn’t some charitable organization working in the name of society and humanity. The Taylor Collaboration is at heart a business eeking a neurosurgical solution but one which will bring profitable returns. Let’s not be naive now! Think about it, if you loved to study the movement of cockroach legs, but can be given big funding to study horse excrement for biofuel, which way will you go? Unfortunately, far too many have gone the wrong way, I believe and this “masking” of ethics by business takes away the whole rationale about “who owns the data”? The data should be public, as should science. In my opinion, scientists who work purely for commerce should get kicked out because something fundamental has become corrupted.

  19. Sorry for the interruption of the comment thread. This is just to mention a small correction.
    The story written by Adam quotes a web page about osteotomies:
    The page is fine, with nice figures. However, it’s seems to me that the figure explaining vertebral column resection process (VCR) is wrong: it’s a copy of the figure for pedicle subtraction osteotomy (the Tang’s paper is about the latter surgery).
    More accurate figures for VCR and related surgeries may be consulted, for example, here:
    (see section 3).

  20. Actually, three things are entangled: Authorship (A), Ownership (O) and Copyright (C). Universities at one time were claiming C. These attempts were sort of rebuked. But all three should be disentangled. Probably, the solution should include giving money to the authors, i. e. apportioning the public money given to the lab. Indeed, there should be more independent researchers than just one PI.

    Example: I was PhD candidate. According to the rules of UofT, I presented my own research proposal, the grad. committee hearing approved it. My supervisor applied for and received grant from funding agency for this project. Then, I never heard again about any moneys. The question is: If I was mature enough to make research proposal and I had this PhD candidate status and I myself received scholarship (separate from the lab. grant) from that funding agency, Why I was not given separate money for research? The same question should be asked by post-docs and any researchers with PhD in large labs. Moreover, all these people, by a bad tradition, depend too much on the PI in their research also, it looks like they are still undergraduates. Laboratories are not supposed to be factories. And if moneys play such role in ownership of data, researchers should have moneys.

  21. Unless Ms Tang was renting the lab space, the way this usually works is that she should have consulted the PI(or its equivalent) about the project before embarking on it and discussed the way potential authorship were to be handled. Such guerilla research is not unheard of, but it usually indicates either tensions in the lab, lack of trust and/or respect, or an over-sized ego. All the rules regarding authorship apply – in my opinion – only when the protocol is followed, recognizing collegiality and, indeed, seniority.
    Incidental question – does this journal have publication fees and, if so, who paid them in this case?

  22. It seems to me this wouldn’t be an issue at all if Tang and the journal had insisted on written consent for any acknowledgements, a requirement for the last few papers I’ve published.

  23. The author of the retracted paper wishes to clarify the way the information was conveyed in the article as she believes the Taylor Collaboration in particular was unfairly represented. She believe the retraction of the article was not for inappropriate reasons and does not claim to have had right to sole authorship. She made a major error in failing to recognize the authorship due the PI’s in the more critical roles of supervision in the study, and therefore believes the retraction was entirely appropriate and necessary. The blog is written in a way that she does not support.

  24. Two questions:

    1) Is Ms. Tang willing to personally verify the anonymous statement here in the comment section?
    If it is indeed her, it is VERY weird. It came a full month after the publication here. A month in which everyone was certainly aware of this piece.

    The default explanation is that (IF it is Ms. Tang) it took a month of threats to get her to support the retraction being “honest”

    2) Can someone elucidate what kinds of pressures / threats were used to make Ms. Tang retreat the paper?
    She initially refuses, we are told. But after “pressure” caved in. Were there institutional pressures?

    3) A honest complaint about credits could have been fixed via an addendum / correction.

    I have no idea what actually transpired. nobody knows. I can only guess with how it looks on the face of it

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