Thursday, December 08, 2005

Zoinks! Another publication ... sort of.

Googling my name last night (shut up! you do it too!), I was shocked to discover that I have one more scientific publication than I thought I did. As second author, even! But this shock should be understandable given that I never saw the manuscript, not even in early drafts. Nor, for that matter, was I ever informed that it was published.

And yet, there's my name on it. If any problems with the content of the article came to light, I'd be on the hook for them.

What the heck is going on here?

I was, in fact, a student in the lab from which the manuscript was produced. I did, in fact, run a gazillion experiments and collect stacks of data on the experimental systems described in the article. So, my involvement in the research was actual rather than fabricated.

Most of the data was collected during my last summer in this laboratory, which was the summer right before I went off to graduate school. However, it may be worth noting that I worked in the lab as a "student intern" -- I wasn't (to the best of my recollection) funded at all by the PI's research grants, and instead had to scare up student research grants through my college so that I didn't have to sling hash during the hours I wasn't in the lab. This made me a bit of an outsider in the lab group -- I was there primarily to learn a variety of laboratory techniques that broadened my experience, giving me more research options in grad school. I think I left a forwarding address when I left the lab, but it's possible I didn't.

While I was in the lab group, my interactions with the PI were very limited. After my crash course in the experimental techniques I'd be using (from one of the senior lab techs, who was a very good teacher), the PI handed me a project to do, and I passed back the data as I collected it. That was pretty much it. I was never included in any discussion of why we were studying what we were studying, or of what the predicted outcomes might be for the particular experiments I was doing. I was a somewhat glorified piece of laboratory equipment. (Why glorified? I actually had to find some clever ways to deal with non-standard parts of the experiments. And, apparently, my data was very clean.)

In some ways, though it was pretty frustrating to feel like I was only a few steps up from a sonicator, the data may have benefitted from my being out of the conceptual loop. I was just reporting what I saw. I wouldn't have known how to fudge data if you had asked me to, simply because I had no bloody idea what "we" expected to see.

So, yes, I produced a bunch of data from experiments I did with my own two hands. And, some of my brain power was directed at tweaking the experimental design to make it work. And, it would seem, the fact that a discussion of this data resulted in a publication means that the data showed something of value.

But why am I an author (the second author, right after the PI) on this paper? If my contribution to the research was significant enough that I should be listed as an author, shouldn't I also have at least seen a manuscript (if not have participated in drafting it) before I was submitted to the journal? If I was listed as an author as a recognition of my hard work (and something that would potentially help my scientific career -- hey looky, a publication!), why wasn't I, say, told about it by the PI so I could realize the benefits of being published? (This was before Google, so there was no reasonable expectation that I'd quickly come across my achievement in the course of Googling myself.)

By the way, I don't really see how I can add this publication to my CV, given who I am and what I do now.

I take it that there are many more cases of "authorship" of this sort than most people outside the scientific bubble realize. I'm hopeful that there's less of it now than there was back then ... but I'm going to have to start asking around to see.


At 9:56 AM, Blogger Trailer Park Girl said...

I google my self sometimes. I get some crazy search results.

At 11:41 PM, Blogger coturnix said...

This is a very interesting question. I hope to, one day, publish results on a study that an undergraduate contributed to (not just hard, hard work, but also discussion, literature searches, etc...). What do I do if I cannot trcae down that individual any more. Nothing in Google! I feel that person deserves ao-authorship, but I don't want it to be a surprise (like the one you just received). How should I proceed?

At 9:10 AM, Blogger Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D. said...

To track down former (i.e., graduated) undergraduates, an alumni office can be very helpful. They tend to stay on top of addresses -- at least of parents, if not of actual graduates -- so they can keep mailing out the fundraising stuff.

At 10:03 AM, Blogger coturnix said...

Good idea. Thanks. As I never had a college experience in the USA myself, some obvious things are not so obvious to me....

At 2:35 PM, Blogger unclefishy said...

'tis true. I've been tracked down by both my high school and my college within the past year.


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