Ask Retraction Watch: What happens to a paper draft after a lab member realizes data are flawed?

Photo by Bilal Kamoon via flickr

Another installment of Ask Retraction Watch:

A lab member is asked to write up a paper with some data and after a couple of drafts and some more experiments he/she realizes the data is flawed. The lab head decides to pursue the paper anyway and writes it up with another lab member. Can they use the first drafts made by the first lab member (use the introduction, the methods, and parts of the discussion)? Or can that be considered plagiarism? And if it is plagiarism, what can the first lab member do?

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31 thoughts on “Ask Retraction Watch: What happens to a paper draft after a lab member realizes data are flawed?”

  1. Yes it is, no question about it. Moreover, if that person realizes that the data are flaw and yet the publication is going to be pursued, this person has the obligation to report it to his/her Institute’s scientific integrity committee.

    1. I agree with jjpaff. Unless I misinterpret this case description, the entire premise is flawed: you do NOT carry on with a paper that lacks a solid, valid set of findings.

      That’s why I preach to my students to first ascertain with the best possible methods (e.g., comparing data in analysis file to actual raw data to verify the validity of the data processing that went on in between; checking distributions, etc) that the findings they have obtained are real. No sense jumping to conclusions, spending lots of time on writing a manuscript, and only then realizing that it was all for naught.

      If the lab head then really wants to carry on with this, just let him/her — as far as we know, the NSA will have this all under wraps and expose the fraud!

    2. My response is conditional upon any agreement between the “lab” or employer to the ownership of intellectual property and may be state to state dependent.
      From the copy right law of 1976, (this is a rough quote) the employer or other person for whom the work was prepared is considered the author and owns the copy right (read the first draft written by the first lab member in the above example).
      this law was confirmed in supreme court ruling in 1989 the case is; community for non-violence v Reid.
      Sorry to inform everyone but you do not own your own work unless you employer has waived that in your employment contract or the terms of the grant etc. Thus the head of the lab can do basically anything he wants to with the paper, even if the first lab assistant objects.

      1. Copyright violation and plagiarism are not the same thing. The first is a criminal violation, the second is an ethical. Something can be plagiarism without copyright violation (the lab head using your work without proper attribution), plagiarism and copyright violation (someone copying parts from your labs work as their own) or copyright violation but no plagiarism (distributing copies of a paper as it was published)

        1. I did not mean to imply that it was an honorable/unethical thing to do, but as the employer of the first draft writer, has the right to do it. Although the brief description in the story does not state, the first draft writer probably had interactions with the rest of the lab people and they shared ideas which he/she used to write his first draft. would he have to acknowledge those contributions? I was just pointing out that it was not a copy write violation, I also hoped that readers of the my post would go look at their employment contract/tenure agreement to see just what their lab/university can do with work preformed by the employee (it is scary).
          As far as the nuances of copy write v plagiarism we are arguing the case of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”.

      2. Usually, it may be true that an institution may “own” the data and the right to publish them or to patent them, or both. One possible exception for debate may be doctorate students who by definition of the doctorate thesis as an “independent” work may own their data (although most lab heads may not feel too comfortable with that idea and won’t promote everyone in “their own” field to competing labs). In the context of this question here, we do not know which country or university laws would be applicable; the lab may own the (questionable) data, but to my view, the final authors would have to acknowledge some help in draft writing/”critical” discussion of the manuscribt or something similar (although the first student may not be mentioned at all). I probably would prefer not being mentioned in the acknowledgement of a falsified paper, but a “critical” reading of the manuscript may in some other cases be OK.
        I once had no contract with a biophysics lab, where I developed over years “my” project of measuring at the single-molecule level VLA4/VCAM1 with AFM on living cells – and later the first activation by SDF1. Neither the lab nor the university president ever acknowledged my pioniering work officially, but promoted someone else to professorship and now get millions for nanotechnology from German tax payers.
        In my view, I worked with no contract there, probably illegal to university laws, and should of course own my findings – and not see how others reproduce them.

    3. The fact that the data is flawed is not part of the question and isn’t essential to answering the question. The question could be equally posed as “if one grad student records data and leaves, but another grad student writes the data up with the professor, is that plagiarism?” Then we have to answer the ultimate question(TM) of “who owns the data?” For me, simply earning the money for someone else to do the research is not sufficient, i.e., the professor does not own the data. However, the university would almost definitely own all or most of the data if IP were involved, so could they allow the professor to write-up their data? For me, again no. I think that the original data taker should get merit. Whether or not this is first author, authorship at all, or acknowledgement, would depend on the precise details (in the example of the first students text being used, they should be an author but not necessarily the first, depending on input from student 2). Now add flawed data back in. Perhaps the first student is mistaken – lack of training or “first paper nerves.” Perhaps part of the data is meaningful – for example the data was taken over several days and the aircon wasn’t working on one day so the temperature was different then. Perhaps the data requires calibration that the second student did.

      1. James I think your argument is valid, however I believe you are confusing plagiarism with credit/merit.
        Everyone commits plagiarism, it is to what degree, the simple use of the words “in”, “the” are borrowed from someone else, it is to this I ask, how many words constitutes everyones opinion of plagiarism, 5 ,10 or as one supreme court justice said “I know it when I see it” (he was referring to pornographic material but can equally applied to plagiarism) .
        Did the professor commit plagiarism by using boiler plate words, phrases or whole pages (prepared by someone else), when he/she wrote up the DOD,DOJ,NIH etc grant and did they give credit/merit?
        Did the first lab assistant commit plagiarism when he/she wrote the first draft because he used someone else notes/words/graphs. did the first assistant give credit/merit?
        It is my personal opinion that many who say that it is plagiarism, forget that any research paper is a team effort, from the janitor up to the head of the university. By signing an employment agreement you are committed to a team effort and are allowing your thoughts and ideas and work product, to be shared with the team.
        My original question still has not been answered, “Why would anyone, who knew or believe that false/misleading/fraudulent data was being use to write a paper want any credit, recognition or accuse anyone of plagiarism for their work on the project?

  2. I consider this plagiarism, but as long as the first lab member is paid correctly and the lab head has to take all the responsibility for publishing wrong data, there is not much to say. Unfortunaly, for a University carreer, for example in Germany, it might have been better for the first lab member to be opportunistic enough to just become a quiet Co-author – and not try to do the best for the lab. I also was always successful in NOT becoming Co-author in questionable Papers. I didn’t want to “draw” some Standard deviations into a First-Class paper.

    1. You are right, it might not be plagiarism as we define it. Theft…might be closer. Anyway, whatever we call it, it is ethically unacceptable.

    2. Dear Statistical Observer, why not “plagiarism”? They’re copying material that an original author wrote (I presume) without his/her consent (I presume) and publish it as if it was their own (I presume). That it was an unpublished draft shouldn’t matter in principle, right, although it might be harder to prove in practice then (compare: it doesn’t matter for copyright)? I’m interested in your reasoning.

  3. Real cases are seldom this clear. I.e. if the data IS flawed, obviously paper drafting should not be continued. However, in real life, it is more likely that lab member 1 THINKS the data is flawed, but lab member 2 and lab head THINK the data is ok. One or two of them are wrong, but more experiments and ultimately the editor/referees will have to decide on this. One would hope a fruitful discussion plus additional experimenting would sort out the case…

  4. I believe, precedence states that, if you work for a organization, all letters,papers emails, contents of computers, no matter how public or private belong to that organization (even if the computer belongs to you but you used it to do research for an organization), unless your contract states differently, most organizations wouldn’t waive their ownership. Several simple examples come to mind, if you work for an automobile company or build houses, you do not own any part of what you help make. That right to the product is forfeited by your personal work agreement. If you as a employee of a university and you wrote a paper that was faulty/flawed and some one died because of your actions, you of course would be a defendant in the resulting law suit but so would the organization you worked for, thus giving them ultimate control of your work.
    Having said that, why, if data, that was used in a paper was somehow flawed and you knew it to be flawed, would you want your contribution to a flawed paper, be made public.

  5. I have said YES, but I think the matter is debatable. Mainly with author 1.

    I assume the data is not right but the theme was a good one, and that other investigators decide on carrying on the analysis. Great! But if one intends to use narrative by author 1, he/she needs to be contacted. If this person is OK with it, and this was made official by written form, it would not be plagiarism anymore.

  6. The way the case is stated it seems clear that the issue at hand here does not concern the data and their validity, but rather the verbatim use of unpublished text (introduction and discussion) by one of the lab members who is no longer an author of the paper. Even under these narrow assumptions, I think this would be highly questionable at best, since most high-quality journals now ask specifically to include a statement about authorship contributions, i.e. who designed and carried out the experiments, who analyzed the data, and who wrote the manuscript. In this case, that would be hard to answer by the authors without misrepresenting their case.

  7. If author 1 wants to be on the paper their claim is undeniable, if however author 1 does not wish to be on the paper then he/she can’t block the publication of the paper because he/she wrote the first draft.

    Introductions and methods tend to be largely repeated between papers, author 1 could probably demand some superficial changes in wording be made to the discussion section so it is not using their text verbatim. But that is about all.

  8. My initial gut reaction is that, yes, this is plagiarism, period, particularly if the draft is being used without lab member 1’s permission. That said, my feeling is that this is one of those situations where the devil is in the many details that are missing from the description. I do agree with Michael that the question posed has to do with the lab’s head use of the draft produced by lab member 1 and not whether the data are flawed, though I believe that for reasons stated by others, the latter to be the bigger can of worms for all involved. Anyway, the quality of the data aside, whether the lab head can use the draft or not may depend on a couple of factors. For example, one that comes to mind is the question of whether the draft of the paper was initiated from scratch. For example, my understanding is that some labs have evolved templates for methods sections that are reconfigured to fit the specific experiment being described. That material may even include a list of references or even a prewritten literature review template and projected results all of which are then updated/changed to conform to the new variables being tested. If lab member 1 generated his/her draft based on a pre-existing template and there is some sort of pre-existing arrangement or common practice in the lab to share such work (see Scott Allen’s post) then the head of the lab may (and I mean MAY) be justified in using the draft though I would expect that even in this situation credit would be given in a byline for lab member 1’s contributions. But, the reality is probably much messier than the above scenario with all sorts of permutations that vastly complicates the case but that, in my view, would likely result in a plagiarism verdict anyway: For example, the paper was produced from scratch, lab member 1 did not (and would not) give his permission to use his work whether it is tradition or not to do so in this particular lab. In sum, there are many conceivable details relevant to this case that might weigh in a different direction.

  9. An old recipe: to avoid mess, tell the truth. Telling this to the institutional authority is another thing. But in the paper the story must be disclosed. That is: 1) All details of the contributions made by 1-st author with thanks, 2) The reasons why he is not a co-author. Furthermore, he must be officially approached (this is within the institution) in written; he must be told why the others want to publish (this great paper?); his reaction – recorded. Eventually, a co-author cannot close the discoveries, that’s correct, but all his other rights must be scrupulously upheld. I do not even go to the question why it all happened, faulty data or whatever, doesn’t matter. I only say that the paper must disclose all.

    And, now suppose that final paper is correct. And, suppose that the authors treated the 1-st author correctly. Why on Earth, the authors need to hide the story? They don’t. They made some extraordinary decision, did it because the research was good, right? Now they will defend it.

    1. Your comment reminded me of an interesting example of a potential co-author being in the acks. It is given below, an excerpt from

      The authors thank Helena G. Oliveira for her help in collecting data and preparing the manuscript.”

      Puzzling, ain’t it? I do not know why this person was dumped into the acks, and as you said, this surely should have been explained there. Yet these authors have had quite a few posts here on RW, thus maybe they did not want to make public their line of thought (e.g. some student who left the group?). I think this might be an interesting example for lectures on Publication Ethics.

      1. Question: One lab member’s sole contribution to a paper is to review the first author’s drafts and correct his English, so the PI doesn’t have to waste her time with grammar and spelling and can focus on ideas and content. Otherwise, this lab member does not have intellectual input into the design or interpretation of the data. Author or ack?

        A second lab member does all the routine animal handling — breeding, injections, assists with euthanasia and tissue harvest, but does not other participate intellectually in the design of experiments or interpretation of data. Author or ack?

        1. Rather tricky decisions, but I would in the first example clearly go for putting member 1 in the acks. However in the case of member 2 I think it is more debatable. I would personally ask member 2 to take part in the analysis of data and manuscript preparation and approval if he/she truly wants to join the paper as an author. There are ways of “officializing authors” which should be employed more often, I think…

  10. It’s not plagiarism, because the lab owns the data (in the US anyway, the institution or the funding agency actually owns the data, not the student or the PI) and because the first drafts were co-written with the mentor, even if the mentor’s only contribution was to red pen the rough drafts to clean them up. But the scenario definitely sounds improper on the part of the PI, and should be reported to the department chair, dean, or integrity office.

    1. The question states: “Can they use the first drafts made by the first lab member (use the introduction, the methods, and parts of the discussion). The key is “made by”. If the question would have been: “made with the help of”, then you will be absolutely right, but this is not the case. Also, things would be seen different if you are a PhD student or you are a Post-doc. Anyway in the real word things aren’t black and white, as we all know.

    2. StrongDreams I completely agree with you. If the people who voted that this is plagiarism would contemplate this for a moment. The head of a project/ lab assistant etc. agrees to work in a lab on a specific project, becomes disillusioned, or offered a better job and then quits after writing several reports and goes to work at another university/employer, the person who left wants to get back at his/her former employer. Using the definition that some have given in this blog as plagiarism, that person could then state to his/her former employer, I withdrawn my permission to use any of my notes, reports etc. all work preformed by that person would have to be completely redone and the reports rewritten. One person could shut down any project.

    3. I agree, it is not “plagiarism” — in ORI terms, it is an authorship/credit dispute between former collaborators, which ORI does not consider under its Federal definition of “plagiarism” — leaving it to institutional officers (as you suggest, Strong Dreams, to resolve — best done outside the cumbersome :research misconduct” investigative process.

  11. Answering above comments:
    There are of course rules saying who should be the authors. And there is another way – to list all contributions in details. When there are complications, the second method must be employed, I believe. Writing “The authors thank Helena G. Oliveira for her help in collecting data and preparing the manuscript.” is an outrage. It’s not clear also what is “help”: holding the mice and printing MS or doing all experiments and writing. If Helena objects, the ack can be, after investigation, qualified as anything including fraud.

    StrongDreams, all concept of the “ownership of data” that was introduced some 15 years ago is completely illegal and moreover – intentionally misleading. The true situation boils down to this:

    1. There is rule of confidentiality. It’s not that anyone who became aware of some unpublished research can use it, even giving full acknowledgement. By the way, in the example with 1-st author this rule is set aside. In very rare cases, it’s possible, but there must be an explanation which is – necessity to publish extremely important research; I know only this one as justification.

    2. No one “owns” data after publication. Before publication, this “ownership” is simply the same rule of confidentiality.

    3. Authorship, which, if falsified, called plagiarism or piracy. The latter – is when the research was unpublished by the true author(s).

    4. Again, “ownership of data” does not give any right to the “owners” to falsify authorship, i. e. to commit plagiarism, here – rather a piracy.

    5. There is also copyright.

  12. A paper claiming growth of a new crystal was first published by three authors in an Elsevier journal.

    The corresponding author has later written (actually he has rewritten the same work) with a different name for the same crystal in a Wiley journal which also got published.

    The most unfortunate part of both these papers is that the crystal claimed as a novel material was already published as early as 1967.

    The question is, what should be done about these two papers which are wrong?

    1. My personal opinion, mind you: without having read the papers, is that if the Wiley publication is essentially based on the Elsevier publication (same data and such), the latter should be retracted because of duplication. I did note that the Wiley publication does not cite the Elsevier publication (according to Scopus), so that’s a red flag right there.

      The fact that this is yet another example of people reinventing the wheel is no good reason for retraction, but a journal with strong ethical control would likely want to publish a correction, noting that the compound had been produced and characterized before (but what about the properties that the Indian authors claim? Also already known?).

      1. Reinventing the wheel is a very common example of scientists not being taught how to do literature searches properly. I had a grad student once whom began a sentence with “I’ve found this really old paper…” which was 7 years old. I realised at this point that he had so far only used the papers I had given him at the start of his project, plus a very small google search. Aaaargh! There must be a limitation at some point…imagine how many papers already exist that are based on graphene – I wouldn’t expect a grad student to read them all. On the other hand, I would expect the combination of the grad student, plus me, plus my colleagues, plus the editor, plus the referees to know enough of the literature base.

      2. The papers in Materials Letters and Crystal Res Technology describe the same compound namely [KI(thiourea)4] under different names. Authors call this as a novel NLO material (see the title) A material can show SHG signal only if iit crystallizes in a non-centrosymmetric space group) which is impossible because the 1967 work which is a classic paper in this area has shown that most such thiourea compounds including [KI(thiourea)4] are centrosymmetric. This only means that the claimed SHG property is also dubious.

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