Scientific Priority, Shooting the Breeze and Integrity

September 6, 2011

You know how waving the word “integrity” around in a discussion of the quotidian practice of science works on Your Humble Narrator, right Dear Reader?

well, one @dr_beckie mused:

tweeting for networking (baby limits conference attendance), but snr colleague warned against talking to openly about my research (1/2)


in such an open forum, is it really so naive to have faith in scientific integrity? (2/2)

a little prodding brought forth this revelation:

@drugmonkeyblog not fear it would be disappointment. Integrity is acknowledging input ie the chat in the pub that gave you initial idea.

As I observed, her Acknowledgement sections must be a wonder to behold. Perhaps the first ever need for Supplemental Acknowledgements?

Now of course I cannot possibly know the full subtlety of dr_beckie’s views on scientific priority and the “integrity” of differing thresholds for formal acknowledgement of input from scientific peers. But I do know there is an awful lot of wackaloon delusion out there about these issues.

So let me say this. A failure to appreciate that your sub(sub, sub)field of science is overladen with bushels of extremely smart, well trained and motivated individuals who are reading the exact same published literature that you are is not evidence of a lack of “integrity” in the field. If you had some brilliant idea or synthesis, odds are very good that someone else has the exact same idea.

This is why I take an exceptionally skeptical view of claims that so-and-so “stole” the ideas of some other scientist.

I am not saying intellectual theft doesn’t occur in science. I am confident it does. Someone taking the ideas expressed by another, that they have not yet arrived at, and managing to reach the threshold of academic credit (a paper authorship, usually) with that idea without properly crediting the original person. Somewhere below this is a vast, vast territory of normal scientific operation in which “theft” is not really appropriate.

Chats in the pub, discussions at meeting presentations and thoughts expressed at lab meeting do not all deserve formal Acknowledgement. If these roots of a scientific paper were accurately recorded, I’m not kidding that the Acknowledgement section would go on for pages. Clearly, this section is not intended to cover all possible casual interactions that led up to the clicks in your brain that crystallized into a scientific Idea. There is a threshold.

I guarantee you that there are almost as many opinions about this precise threshold as their are scientists who are publishing. Multiplied by two, in fact, because I feel confident that any given scientist will have a different standard for crediting some other loser colleague versus when they see it appropriate that their own brilliant thoughts receive proper attribution!

Now we come around to the original Twitt and @dr_beckie’s concern that discussing her work online involves concerns about scientific integrity when it comes to proper acknowledgement, presumably, of her brilliant 140 character contributions to her subfield. Acknowledgement, one assumes, in published papers down the road.

I am not seeing where there is any specific concern. All that differs here is the potential size of the audience…but recall that really it is only participants in a scientific subfield that matter. So you could have made the observation at a meeting during the question period. Or at your poster to several meeting attendees. Most of the time a normal scientist is not looking around the meeting room trying to gauge the “integrity” of some 200 or 500 scientists before they ask their question or make their observation. Each and every one of these people who hear you might, if the notion strikes them, communicate your brilliance to other scientists who didn’t happen to be in attendance for some reason. You have no control over this. Most of us rely, as @dr_beckie would have it, on the normal practices and “integrity” of our fields in these situations.

Furthermore, many of us realize the fundamental reality of science priority and scientific ideas. It doesn’t matter who has the idea. What matters is who can conduct the experiments, interpret the data and publish the paper. This is the way science is credited. By. Producing.

Getting into he said/she said over who came up with an idea first? Nearly a complete waste of time. If you are really paranoid about these matters? STFU! Don’t talk to anyone about “your” ideas. Fine. Whatever. But don’t come whining around about “integrity” when the off-hand remark you made in the pub* seems to be a fundamental building block of a paper that appears a year later with the author lines including one of your drinking buddies!

Let me just note here that I’ve been around the block a few times myself. There are published papers out there where I got screwed out of an authorship (and even Acknowledgement) in a manner anyone at all would admit showed a lack of integrity. It is going to happen now and again. I deal. I move on. Against this background, a lack of “We’d really like to thank DrugMonkey for his random spewing at the pub one night late at the CPDD annual meeting” kinda pales. It isn’t like your appearance in the “Acknowledgement” section carries any sort of weight or would be put on your CV or tenure package, right**?

For full disclosure, I’m sure I’ve published papers that someone else thinks should have included an Acknowledgement of their brilliant input. I know for a certain fact that a particular colleague of mine is pouty*** about not being an author on one particular paper. This person’s position is that s/he expressed the “idea” before I did. Of course I remember the event quite clearly and this person is high as a kite…it was my idea. But guess what? Either of us could very well have said it out loud first. Easily. It was an obvious thing to do. I just said it first, outloud and with that particular person in hearing’s distance. It is pathetic for me to claim that the idea was a result of my unique brilliance.

Now as chance would have it I was the one who actually did the study and published it; my colleague did not. I will note that this colleague and I probably talked about dozens of ideas that could have been, later became or may yet become papers back in the day. Hell, we still talk about many ideas that could/may/will become papers.

Back to Twitter.

It strikes me that there is one nasty little implication here, one that I think pervades a lot of the rationale of these OpenScience and WeNeedCreditForBlogging!!!11!! types. They are trying to get credit for “having the idea” when they do not deserve it and should not deserve it. I don’t blog about actual science all that much but I’ve done it now and then. I’m pretty sure in a handful of such posts I’ve made observations or expressed curiosity about matters that could possibly be addressed in the field by a publication or two. Just like I’ve expressed observations or curiosity, IRL, in 1) poster sessions, 2) platform presentations, 3) shooting the shit with colleagues, 4) grant reviews, 5) paper reviews, 6) lab meetings and other places.

I don’t expect credit. I do not assume as a default that papers that come out later that can be six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon connected to my blathering must have stolen my ideas. It is nice to receive an Acknowledgement if the authors believe it is appropriate. Sure. Everyone loves that. But I’m not on the barricades screaming about “integrity” if it doesn’t happen.

Life is too short.

And I have science to publish.
*for all you know, the drinking buddies are all “Oh shit, I better k3rn my postdoc! Some lame-brain in doc_beckie’s group finally thought up the thought we’ve been working on for six months….we’re gonna get scooped!!!

**Please tell me I’m right.

***This is not infrequently in a context in which this person may be trying to get me to buy the next round, FWIW.

No Responses Yet to “Scientific Priority, Shooting the Breeze and Integrity”

  1. dr_beckie Says:

    Okay before I start a slight disclaimer, I am dyslexic so apologies for spelling mistakes or missing words.

    I feel you may have rather over interpreted my comments, however, given that the format was 140 characters; a medium to which I am new and I am not know for being succinct, this is understandable.

    So firstly I will clarify the sentiment that I was trying to convey. I was expressing my surprise at my senior colleague’s fervent warnings against the discussion of science in an open environment and I didn’t feel the strength of his response was justified given that I have faith in the integrity of the majority of fellow scientists.

    And whilst you don’t blog/tweet specifically about your science that is precisely what I intended to do. I have recent got my first PI position and whilst I delighted with career progression/loving the freedom to take my science wherever I want etc, I willingly admit that I find it rather isolating and I am missing the constant interaction of being a post doc in a large research group. I miss discussing the minutiae of a paper or the variety of possibilities that a weird experimental result could be due to. Whilst I had made one or two tentative forays into twitter previously, more activity was initiated by a discussion on linkedin that we could use twitter to talk immunology.

    Now that I hope I have more clearly established where my original comments where coming from I will attend to respond without launching into a rant as this is actually a topic that is reasonably close to my heart.

    I will start by reiterating that this is not because I am fearful about things, as I said I have no lack of self esteem when it comes to my science. If someone pips me to a publication more fool me for not getting the work done quicker – it is frustrating but it happens. This is not in the slightest what I am referring to.

    Unlike you I have not been round the block a few time and have only had one experience where I spend considerable amounts of time (and evenings) chatting in the pub, whilst doing field work, with a ‘friend’ and help them develop an entirely new research/analysis approach. We then communicated regularly by emails afterwards when they had questions about the immunology details that the local research collaborator wasn’t able to answer. However when the reasonably high impact publication was published I was not an author and I wasn’t acknowledged. When I enquired about this I was told my PI was on there and that cover my input. Personally I think this is a shitty thing to do!

    I am in no way suggesting that every person who makes a comment on the work goes in the acknowledgements. But i do think that a person who has made a significant contribution to the sparking of an idea deserves recognition of that.

    Perhaps my strong feelings on this are because of my previous experience and once it happens a few times more I will care far less. Alternatively it may be because my Mum is a hippy and one of her favourite expressions is ‘you don’t have to snuff out other people’s candles to make yours appear brighter’.

    I feel that I have been fortunate in my career so far to have worked with/ be mentored by some really excellent scientist. Two pieces of advice/ conversations that they have imparted that come to mind regard this are;

    ‘only ever collaborate with people you like’ – if you play nice and treat other people with respect and make sure they get the credit for their ideas they they work with you again, if you behave in a shitty manner people think you are a shitty person.

    Secondly, I had a conversation with my old boss and mentor about eminent scientists. Someone commented that you had to be a b@st***d to make it big in science, when I asked him his opinion he said ‘yeh, it seems to be the rule but I am determined to prove it wrong’ – I think he has.

    So if all of this makes me naive and I need to STFU about my idea then perhaps twitter isn’t the correct forum for what I am looking for. Apologies I feel I may have decented into rant territory


  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    But i do think that a person who has made a significant contribution to the sparking of an idea deserves recognition of that.

    I just don’t see where someone’s choice to engage on blogs or Twitter about their science really changes things much. Sounds like your negative experience was as up close and personal as it gets and they screwed you over. This can happen within lab, within University, within academic society…..and within social media.


  3. HFM Says:

    If the quarter-assed idea you threw out over beers is going to make or break your career, you’re doing it wrong. Furthermore, if you’re not soaking up at least at many ideas as you’re giving out, you’re also doing it wrong; go drink with more interesting people.

    There are projects where discretion about key technical details may be required, and people who will happily waste your time and stiff you on the credit. But ideas are cheap.


  4. “go drink with more interesting people.”

    Always good advice.


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