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PhD student stood up to top scientist

PhD student Annemette Nielsen refused to credit a top scientist and two members of his team as co-authors on her publications. She thereby broke an unspoken rule, but was officially deemed to be in the right when the matter was taken further -

Few tutors would recommend their PhD students to start their career in conflict with a renowned scientist. This was, nonetheless, what Annemette Nielsen, now an associate professor at the Department of Food and Resource Economics at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) did.

When Arne Astrup, Head of Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports at UCPH, wanted himself and two members of his team to be credited as co-authors of her papers, she refused. As far as they were concerned, she thereby broke a norm on giving accreditation.

»It felt like an unfair attack on my freedom to do research,« she says. »It was only about what’s fair, plus I was honestly annoyed that their team wanted to be my co-authors, when they couldn’t possibly have anything of academic relevance to say about my research project – it was a sociological study,«

Two separate takes on obesity

The health science research team, with Arne Astrup at its helm, was working on an intervention project, researching the effects of dietary changes. Annemette Nielsen’s PhD project dealt with the social and cultural challenges of dietary changes.

Her research project was rooted in Astrup’s group work, and without access to their data and study participants she couldn’t have completed it. But in terms of thesis, methodology and theoretical basis, the two projects were founded in totally differing practises: sociology and biology.

»The projects were separate – we didn’t interfere with each other’s research, nor did we read each other’s work, but we kept each up-to-date, as is good form. And I was also invited to many meetings in their research group,« she says.

Committee stepped in

The disagreement didn’t happen until she sent the first of a total of three articles to Arne Astrup and his team, so they could see what she had written before it was published. Astrup replied that according to the rules, it would be natural for them to be accredited as co-authors.

»I argued that they hadn’t contributed to research design, collection of data, analysis or writing, and that I was conducting a study into identity formation – a far cry from their area of expertise. I didn’t feel as if they had anything against me or my work on a personal level, but rather that they seemed to believe that I had broken some ‘standard rules of conduct’,« says Nielsen.

Both parties agreed to let the Practice Committee (which oversees issues on scientific practice at UCPH [Danish = praksisudvalg, ed.] ) settle the matter. The Committee’s verdict was that Astrup’s team’s contribution to Nielsen’s PhD project should be credited with a mention on the list of contributors – not as co-authors.

Cultural differences cause conflict

Annemette Nielsen got a position as Associate Professor with another research team at the Department immediately after finishing her PhD in 2007, so the case hasn’t had a negative impact on her career.

She has never since been involved in a research project with the same team. But she is today working with one its members on education. She is happy with the partnership, she says, adding that she has chosen to come forward with her story because she wishes to discuss the principles behind it – not to give anybody a bad reputation.

The case highlights the big differences in conduct between scientists of health and natural sciences and those that do research in the humanities and social sciences, in terms of co-authorship, she says.

Under constant pressure to produce more

Within the human and social science subjects it’s traditionally seen as less ‘proper’ if there is more than one or two co-authors. Within the health and natural sciences, it’s completely normal to have multiple authors and contributors.

The problem, says Nielsen, is rooted in scientists’ value and reputation being measured by the amount they publish and how often they are cited. They are under pressure to publish more.

It can tempt some to earn extra ‘publishing credit’ by being credited as unwarranted co-authors. And this temptation is magnified by a culture that supports multiple co-authors, as well as a broad interpretation of the Vancouver Protocol (which defines what constitutes authorship), according to Annemette Nielsen.

Co-authorship as payment

At the Department of Food and Resource Economics, salaries are based on the amount they publish, so she feels the same pressure.

»It’s a basic fact that all scientists must be aware of if they want to get by in this world, but I don’t feel as if the shortcuts to extra ‘publishing credits’ exist in my particular area of research,« she says.

In wage negotiations, she has been told that a reward for her role as project manager and PhD tutor would be that she could be included as co-author of the publications the research groups publish.

Same funding, different rules

»At many departments, it’s standard practice that the tutor is credited with co-authorship as a form of payment for their help, but it’s a grey area – tutoring takes many forms,« says Nielsen.

She thinks that UCPH setting up standardised guidelines on co-authorship could be solution. And the Vice President of the practice committee [praksisudvalg, ed.] agrees.

»We all compete for the same research grants and funding, so it would be good to clarify what counts, so you’re not worse off if you happen to be hired in a part of UCPH that has a stricter approach to what constitutes co-authorship, and thus have a more modest output,« says Annemette Nielsen.

See Arne Astrup’s response to this article here.

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