On cleaning up scientific competition

May 19, 2009

You just knew I was going to love this one.
Janet Stemwedel has posted a two part interview with scientist Sean Cutler (lab website). As described by John Tierney at TierneyLab:

The journal carries an article by Dr. Cutler and 20 other researchers in the United States, Canada and Spain reporting a long-sought technique for helping plants to grow with less water by activating the natural defenses that enable plants to survive during droughts. (Here’s the Science article; here’s a summary of the research.) Dr. Cutler, an assistant professor of plant cell biology at the University of California, Riverside, knew that the rush to be first in this area had previously led to some dubious publications (including papers that were subsequently retracted). So he took the unusual approach of identifying his rivals (by determining which researchers had ordered the same genetic strains from a public source) and then contacting them.

Reading the interview of Cutler over at AiE&S I noticed that commenter qaz put her/his finger right on a key issue:

I wonder if he’d have been so sanguine about this procedure if one of his rivals had contacted him first saying they’d like to publish his data and offered him a co-authorship for his trouble.

Yeah. From the way Dr. Cutler tells it on Janet’s first post:

The background is this. After several years of work I found myself sitting on a major discovery in one of the most competitive fields in plant biology. “Competitive” in science is usually code for “cut throat”, and can be associated with scientists who abuse their power to get ahead unfairly. I thought to myself — what is the one thing that those “cut throat” types would not do in my situation — because I really do not want to end up like them. Contacting people I might of scoop seemed like an interesting approach. … I sent emails out to people who I determined were sitting on the same jackpot discovery as me, but I gathered that they didn’t realize it. That got the ball rolling.

Right. So if you look at it from the standpoint of one of the Cutler lab’s competitors they are being offered a chance to get in on a Science pub on something that they may not have even realized they had. Even if they did have something, their first assumption had to have been “Holy schmoly, the Cutler lab is ready to submit at any moment so we’ll get scooped if we don’t accept!”. As another commenter at Janet’s place, Neuro-conservative, pointed out:

Note that Cutler’s lab got first and last authorship on the Science paper. For all intents and purposes, the other guys were scooped.

So the devil really is in the details here with respect to how far along the Cutler lab was, how collaborative the interactions were from the first contact between labs and how accurate the characterization that the collaborating labs didn’t realize what they had. It could be the case that the labs all really did start from a nascent idea of Cutler’s and build substantively forward. Or, the Cutler lab might have been essentially ready and able to go it alone and generously offered to bring along some competitors who otherwise would have been really screwed.
Or….a really, really cynical person might see this as a brilliant power move to ensure that you most-likely competitors would not be trying to scoop you nor even be able to edge their way into one of those lame co-publication games.
I would really like to hear the interviews with the competing labs that Cutler got to contribute..as well as those who took a pass on the offer.

No Responses Yet to “On cleaning up scientific competition”

  1. msphd Says:

    Very interesting. Thanks for pointing this story out.


  2. Luigi Says:

    This kind of breathless obsession with collaboration-cum-politics makes me want to barf. It’s like TMZ for science geeks.
    Personally, I’d like to learn more about whether this is really going to make crops grow in the Sahara. ’cause that would be awesome.


  3. anon4this Says:

    I actually tried to do this when I was a grad student.
    It would have been amazing.
    But, the other people didn’t want to play nice.
    So they got scooped and I got the fancy paper, much to their continued chagrin.


  4. Cutler sounds like a crackpot to me, one of those types who continuously harrass journal editors about how unfair and biased the reviewers of their papers are, and who consistently misinterpret contemporaneous discovery with ZOMFG! INTELEKSHUL THEFT!!1111!!!!111!!, because they consistently overestimate the novelty and brilliance of their own ideas.


  5. Really interesting, DM, thanks.
    And CPP, I hardly think Cutler sounds like a crackpot. His reasoning makes a lot of sense, and I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt that his intentions were good.


  6. Neuro-conservative Says:

    I wouldn’t go as far as CPP (surprise!), but Cutler does sound like someone who believes his own press releases. If I were more cynical, I would suggest he is engaging in a bit of reaction formation.


  7. Lab Lemming Says:

    Is it just me, or is the whole Last-author-as-corresponding-author thing just a smoldering pile of passive-aggressive sleaze? If any of the first four ‘tied’ authors really own the research, then she or he should take the correspondence. The only time this sort of arrangement makes sense is where the primary author dies (or quits) after submission and somebody tangentially related to the project has to co-ordinate the revision process.


  8. Pinus Says:

    I don’t know…the last author is generally the corresponding author in my field.


  9. Nat Says:

    Well, one time in my thesis lab, a number of us submitted manuscripts which had the first author as corresponding (they were nearly all 2 author papers).
    Each received very difficult and annoying reviews, much more so than typical. We came to the idea that the absence of the last author as corresponding was a signal that the last author didn’t really endorse the whole thing.
    Maybe we were wrong, but it did seem to get better when we switched back.


  10. Luigi Says:

    I must be in the same field as Pinus. I think it’s a good idea that the corresponding author is last author anyway, assuming the last author is the one with the most professional stability and authority. It’s frustrating to write to a corresponding author that has moved on or is for some other reason no longer in charge of reagents. I have no idea how ‘corresponding author’ got to be some sort of status symbol, when it is really just supposed to be the most reliable contact for editors and later readers needing more info or reagents. Basically, ‘Corresponding Author’ is a secretarial position.


  11. msphd Says:

    @Lab Lemming, in my field the corresponding is almost always the last-author.
    @Luigi, I like this description, but it doesn’t really work that way. Nobel prizes usually go to this person, not necessarily to the first author if it was someone else.


  12. DrugMonkey Says:

    What Luigi said. I was surprised when I first figured out that people thought this was some kind of prestige marker to go along with author position…..


  13. antipodean Says:

    I’m usually the corresponding and 1st author on my stuff. But then my boss hasn’t got ime to deal with that inane shit.
    I’m sure that the last and corresponding isn’t that widely insisted upon at least in the field where I’ve done systematic reviews and had to tabulate the corresponding and first authors.


  14. whimple Says:

    Basically, ‘Corresponding Author’ is a secretarial position.
    Not in my field. ‘Corresponding Author’ by default is code for ‘the brains behind the whole operation’, particularly when the C.A. is also the last author. C.A. as first author means one of three things: (usually) the C.A. is an ego freak who doesn’t know the chief underling is supposed to be the first author or (sometimes) the other authors hardly contributed anything meaningful at all or (rarely) the C.A. is a nobody and C.A. is a secretarial position. Your field milage may vary. From time to time you’ll see a paper with a lot of authors where it’s clear the work was a shared collaboration between two labs and then the C.A. is the second-last author, meaning C.A. was the consolation prize for not being last author. The other thing I’ve seen (rarely) is when the last author is some Enormous-Cheese and the first author, usually starting a new lab or having recently started their own lab is made C.A. as a token of handing the project off to the new lab, which is a nice thing to do for your trainees.


  15. Whimple is correct in every particular.


  16. qaz Says:

    Corresponding Author is a way of marking the author least likely to change, that’s why it serves as Luigi#10’s secretarial position. But because it’s the author least likely to move, it’s also the author with the “big picture”, the author who’s other papers are most likely to be interesting if your interested in the topic. Corresponding Author is a way of marking the author who holds the “ownership” of the bigger project that this specific paper sits within. In my experience, in neuroscience, this is almost always last author. In a couple of cases, I’ve seen what whimple#14 describes where the CA is the second-to-last author. In every one of those cases that I’ve seen, CA is the better marker of who to follow the project up with than “last author”.
    BTW, not all fields have senior author last. However, in all those other fields, corresponding author always marks the senior author who runs the project. First author usually marks the person who did the actual project itself, but corresponding author is the big picture/lab head.


  17. ScienceWoman Says:

    re: last, first, and corresponding author. This is a different custom in different fields. In geosciences, where LabLemming and I work, the first author is the one who did all the work and most of the writing, the second author is the advisor if the first is the student, and nth-order authorship means that the person contributed, but not much. Usually, the first author is the corresponding author, if the first author is a PI or a PhD student headed toward academia. The only cases I see a second author as corresponding is if the first author has moved away from the ivory tower.
    But yes this can be frustrating for correspondents post-publication. My first pub now has outdated contact info for me. Still I’m not sure that the other system (and its apparent attendant political posturing is any better).


  18. Luigi Says:

    The really interesting thing to me coming out of this discussion is the realization that so many things so many of us hold precious (authorship position, corresponding author, journal) are really moot. Sub-discipline specific at the very most.
    It’s worth keeping that in perspective when conflicts arise. No one really cares besides you and maybe 142 other people.


  19. It’s worth keeping that in perspective when conflicts arise.

    Dude, thank fucking god you’re around to remind us to keep things in perspective. Without your incredibly wise and deep insights into this kind of thing, we’d all be completely fucked to hell.


  20. Luigi Says:

    Dude, thank fucking god you’re around to delete comments that round off your so carefully honed and shiny sharp edges.


  21. DrugMonkey Says:

    The really interesting thing to me coming out of this discussion is the realization that so many things so many of us hold precious (authorship position, corresponding author, journal) are really moot. Sub-discipline specific at the very most.
    I agree and actually I am always fascinated by the degree to which people insist that their traditions are the only possible one true way to do science. Accusations of fraud if the senior author really did the lion’s share of the paper writing. Insisting that larding up the middle with technician names is bad. That courtesy authorships (#7 on the list) somehow diminish the credit to the first author. Etc.
    I come back to the notion that this is just all arbitrary signaling. Dialects of a language if you will. The important thing is to learn to understand the communication as best you can, not to bang on about how one dialect is superior to another.


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