Feb 29 2016 Published by under Ponder

There are these moments in science where you face a decision.

Am I going to be the selfish asshole here?

Or am I going to follow the Golden Rule?

and then, if you head a lab group, you think....

I am not just acting for myself. I am a member of a team and they have their own interests. Presumably all of the staff, at the least, have interest in having a job, here, in this laboratory group or they would have left. Trainees have explicit or implicit career goals- things they would like to accomplish here in this laboratory.

Do doing unto others as I would like done to myself is perhaps not in good alignment with what my other team members would prefer done to those others. And they may not have the same short term / long term concerns that I do*.

One of those things the team may not be all that concerned about is my collection of tender sensibilities. And what I mean by that is that we all evolve a code of behavior within our profession. Some of this is trained into us explicitly or implicitly by the departments, laboratories and subfields in which we have interacted up to the present. Some of this is no doubt due to the broad experiences from parents, teachers, coaches, social influences, etc from long before we thought about starting the life of a professional scientist.

And I'm here to tell you, Dear Reader, we all differ.

You've seen it here in the comments on this blog. Many of us have very different attitudes about the proper, ethical and morally right way to be scientists. Some of these are very clearly deeply-felt issues of asserted rectitude...which other people find to be absurd pedantry and/or utterly unimportant. Some of these are issues of reaction...."those guys in our field behave like this and it is bad"....which again proves the diversity of behavior within our respective professional lives.

There is another truism which I believe deeply. We're all the asshole to somebody at some point in time. Not sure how this fits in but there you have it.

Science can be competitive. We all know that. There is sharp and pointed competition for scientific priority, for papers accepted for publication in the most highly-desired journals, for faculty positions, for grants, for graduate school admission in the right place and for a training opportunity with the right mentors.

Competition means, obviously, that you have to beat out the other guy. And science is not a time-trial. It is not just you against the clock. It is not even a pursuit race, much as we might describe it that way. Science is at the very least a mass-start race in which elbows, necessarily, are used to advantage. Some might think it is a full-contact sport in which a certain amount of checking is expected, legal and totally acceptable. Some may not like any contact.

So....what if your personal attitude is that science is time-trial or pursuit? Or perhaps it is a game of futbol that does not involve players ever touching one another, only the ball?

If that is your attitude and you are less-than-completely-correct, it's okay. You still can play. You may even be able to tolerate taking the hit but insist that you, yourself, will never throw a check on anyone else.


Also known as "the loser".

Still, we're just here to play, enjoy the game, find the beauty, eh? Who cares, as long as we still stay in the league?

Problem is, our teammates may not be so lucky. They may not be able to stay in the league if their franchise player*** refuses to mix it up. Their team might lose and fade into obscurity. Then they can't showcase their moves in the playoffs or on Prime Time teevee broadcasts. They don't get to play with the best of the best on their team, are always playing a cowering defense...and getting crushed anyway.

Point being this. I have been contemplating whether I have an obligation to play up to what the refs give me when it comes to my career. Should we be playing it physical with constant grinding defense? Should we take every opportunity to elbow and grab and hook when the refs aren't looking?

Should Reviewer #3 behavior be my watchword, instead of the Golden Rule?

It's perfectly legal.

*A trainee**, presumably, would prefer that the current short-term success of the lab is high, even if there are negative implications for the lab 5, 10, 15 years down the road.

**A technician may prefer that the laboratory is rolling in the dough now, to better facilitate raises, promotions, seniority and skill-acquisition should she or he need to jump ship in a few years.


37 responses so far

  • dr24hours says:

    You gassed a rival's mice, didn't you?

  • jmz4 says:

    Nah, then they'd know the mice are no good. Slip some codeine in their water supply. Simultaneously more humane and more evil.

    I think you have a responsibility to the institution of science that comes before your responsibility to your trainees. It's why you wouldn't cheat a result to help one of your trainees, and if your behavior would be something that detracts from the collegiality and transparency that science relies on, then you shouldn't do it.

    As regards gray areas like how sharp your elbows should be, YMMV. I think the golden rule is a good guide, but also, treat others as they treat you. If someone collaborates and conducts themselves in good faith, don't screw them over.
    But by all means, play rough with the aggro macho crowd.

  • drugmonkey says:

    In a world of blind peer review one cannot make it so customized, I would submit.

  • jmz4 says:

    True, then I guess you fall back on the "first do no harm" maxim?

  • Bill Nihilist says:

    I can tell this is going to be another great comment thread that I won't be able to fully take in because of its chronological posting order. Please DM, consider an upvote / agree system to let the cream rise to the top and prevent an echo chorus.

  • Philapodia says:

    "consider an upvote / agree system to let the cream rise to the top and prevent an echo chorus"

    "Letting the cream rise to the top" sounds like an elitist vertically ascending system where certain individuals words will count much more than others and those with perhaps different views (or newbies/lurkers) will be relegated to the bottom and irrelevance. One of the nice things here is that everyone gets their say and it's all treated the same even though it's harder to read. At least it's not the Twitter, reading that crappola gives me a migraine.

    It may be legal to be an asshole and act like Reviewer #3, but do you feel good about yourself when you do it?

  • Dusanbe says:

    You do have an obligation to fight for your trainees. Like the baseball manager who gets tossed from the game for arguing balls and strikes. In the end, other managers do the same, and it is understood you are doing it to back your players, not because you really hate the umpire's guts and are a sore loser. Most of the time, anyway.

    It will be understood that most PIs are expected to back their trainees in the same way. Obviously, the PI needs to do so within certain ethical guidelines. If somebody has a problem with that, most likely they don't understand the true role of the senior scientist.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Philapodia- I don't think you are taking my point. The issue is when the behavior that makes you feel smugly proper looking at yourself in the mirror falls short of the best effort on behalf of allowing the team to succeed. What percentage of the field would have to behave in a given manner you dislike before you agree you are the one who is out is step? Are you ever willing to do things that make you feel uncomfortable of it will advantage your trainees? To avoid having to fire a tech?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Dusanabe- ethical guidelines. Hmm. We had a prior thread discussing reviewer demands for additional experiments in the course of manuscript review....let's take that up as the example. Clearly it is within ethical guidelines to opine that a manuscript needs six months more of work to be publication quality. There are really no clear rules on when this is ok/not, how much work is fair to demand and how consistent any given reviewer must be.

    Generally speaking, you could just always be the player that throws hard checks and harasses the opposite team all over the ice. Or maybe you only step up your game against a key division rival? Or maybe just against the one player who has pissed you off since Mites.

  • drugmonkey says:

    jmz4- harm to who? The other lab or your own?

  • Dave says:

    DM, you should do what you think is best for your people within the limits that you are comfortable in as a human being. Simple as that.

  • drugmonkey says:


  • DJMH says:

    Write a shiny nice review but put the lead weights in the private comments to the editor. Everyone loves that solution.

  • zb says:

    As jmz4 said, there's a responsibility to Science; that's the definition of professionalism in my mind.

    Hearing the train of thought hear sounds Orwellian, to me, to try to argue that what is fair and just isn't really fair and just because . . . .

    I can't tell for sure without the specifics, but we do agree that there is a line that shouldn't be crossed, right? We can't make up data to get the grant that will mean that we can't fire the tech (even if the next line on that slope is the tech, with the magic hands, who is going to do the experiment that cures cancer).

    If it's true that everyone is cheating in your field (and there have been times when I've worried that's true in mine, but I am glad that I am wrong; there are cheaters, broadly defined, but there are also honorable scientists).

    Then, what to do?

    "‘I had no choice about that,’ Ranald said fiercely.
    ‘Not so.’ It was, surprisingly, Valery of Talair… ‘We can say no and die. It is a choice, my lord of Garsenc. In the face of some things asked of us it is the only choice.’ "

    Oh, and I can quote Alan Paton, too

    " I do this not because I am courageous and honest, but because it is the only way to end the conflict of my deepest soul. I do it because I am no longer able to aspire to the highest with one part of myself, and to deny it with another. I do not wish to live like that, I would rather die than live like that. I understand better those who have died for their convictions, and have not thought it was wonderful or brave or noble to die. They died rather than live, that was all."

    (and, in those quotes, of course, people were being asked to literally die for their convictions, so I'm guessing the consequences are different for you).

    So, it depends on what you are asking of yourself, and the right compass is not whether others will do it, but whether you can, and live with yourself. I could tell you if I would cross your line. As you say, there are lines that some of us will cross while others won't, and I have no reason to presume that my lines come first. I just know that I do have lines I won't cross.

  • David says:

    As someone who does science and plays hockey, I like this analogy.

    Regarding reviewer #3 asking for more experiments, it is up to the ref (e.g. the editor / AE) to judge. And just as sports refs are human, the editors are human and will make decisions that confound you. It will seem like they play favorites (and sometimes they will), it will seem like they are blind or just don't care (and sometimes its true). This logic extends to grants and every other aspect of your career.

    In sports, both professional and recreational, you have all kinds of players - those who work the refs and those who allow other people to "walk all over them." I think my mantra is, at the end of the day, the only person you have to answer to/live with/can control is yourself.

  • Dave says:

    I'm really confused

  • drugmonkey says:

    zb- I'm not really talking about cheating per se, I just love that scene from Breaking Away because it represents the utter dismality of the destruction of naïveté.

  • jmz4 says:

    @DM, do no harm to science, first. Regardless if a few people do it and succeed, if everyone else did what you're contemplating doing, would it wreck the system? Then I'd think it should stay out of bounds.

  • drugmonkey says:

    My point is what if the system is already wrecked in this way, the majority either don't care or like it, and it is costing my lab on the scoreboard?

  • zb says:

    Oh, I wasn't thinking that you were talking about straight out cheating.

    And I know there are lots of grey areas. One that comes to my mind is a friend/colleague who would give people his ideas freely at posters, and sometimes got scooped. Back then, he couldn't help himself, and he did OK anyway. I admired him then and thought he was good for science. The world has gotten more competitive, since, though, and if he could live with himself, I would certainly understand if he bit his tongue more often.

    Ultimately, though, I don't the idea of playing to the refs doesn't work in science. There are no refs (editors don't really count, since they have their own interests, some of which aren't necessarily in the service of science). There has to be some sense of honor. If we're going to do science with refs, we are going to have to get a lot more rigorous about the rule-making and refining and not rely on personal honor and responsibility to the profession. Science will have to be regulated by independent observers then.

  • LIZR says:

    I requested a mouse KO from a PI (this KO was published by the PI's lab 15 years ago). PI would not share the mouse strain because the PI had a grad student doing experiments on the KO. There was some experimental overlap with the grad student's project and my own plans for the KO. The PI's refusal to share a published reagent may benefit of the student and serve to protect the interests of the PI, but this is not good for science. And, of course, the failure to share published reagents violates the policies of most funding agencies and journals.

  • jojo says:

    Your obligation to your trainees isn't just publishing, IMO but also teaching them how to be decent and honorable people/scientists.

    I don't know your field but IME people know who the jerks/cheaters are. I would much rather my students not be seen as jerk-spawn (which is how many of the trainees of jerks are seen and I think not for bad reason), and lose some "priority" in exchange. A massive part of what people are looking for in grads/postdocs is collegiality, along with smarts and hard working. So I'd be doing a disservice if my student(s) are seen as cheaters/unethical because of my actions.

    By the way your idea of deliberately asking people to do extra shit for no reason other than to delay publication is way beyond the bounds of what I'd consider (or really, is definitionally) a COI. It's not "dubiously unethical" it's disqualifying as a reviewer to be that close to something and even accept the review. While the author won't know what you were up to (or can only guess), the editors should if they are paying attention. Sometimes they won't be but are you going to take that risk?

    Not sharing reagents is... seemingly a culture thing. I guess I've heard about the mouse people not sharing like LIZR said. Drosophila people share IME. I guess I'm sorry your culture is so toxic? IMO you can help change it or be part of the problem.

  • Drugmonkey says:


    I fail to see how *anyone* can determine intent when a reviewer asks for more experiments. It is positively endemic and it is clear from a recent discussion that many people have this stance that a paper might "need" additional data to be 1) a complete story, 2) support the claims or other equally slippery reason. It is totally and obviously okay to demand more experiments. It is absolutely trivial to couch this in the sort of language that the field apparently finds acceptable and routine.

    Nobody is checking up on reviewers to try to parse how hard they hit all reviews or whether they only hit certain labs.

  • Dave says:

    @DM: could you be a little more specific on what is actually bothering you....?

    Are you basically asking: should I be an asshole like 'everyone' else in science? Or should I continue to be a good human being but suffer the career consequences, and by extension damage the career prospects of your trainees?

    What is the context of your post here?

  • new PI says:

    This review example hits very close to home. I'm a new PI, and the first project of one of my first grad students is on a really, really exciting topic that we magically got funding for and got some neat results on... and I recently received a manuscript to review that basically scoops us. We had independently generated five of six of their figures. We had gone beyond their analysis in several ways (they took some shortcuts, maybe justifiable ones). I explained the situation in confidential comments to the editor. Rather than demand the authors do exactly what we are doing--which takes a lot longer--I left it as a suggestion in the review, and I let the editor know that I couldn't completely trust my judgment about the necessity of the analysis. The paper has been moving ahead in a very good journal, and the editor has decided to keep me as a reviewer for it.

    I can't say it's not painful to watch the paper proceed, especially given the state of my lab. (This manuscript comes from a BSD.) We're still figuring out what scraps of a story are left. But I couldn't in good conscience try to hold the paper up in any way, and I think it's important to disclose to the editor when our own interests may cloud the review.

    But maybe with this kind of attitude, I won't be here long.

  • Newbie PI says:

    New PI, why are you not immediately submitting a similar manuscript to the same journal so that they can publish back-to-back? Or even more sneaky, submit to a journal of lower impact factor that is likely to accept it faster so you publish first. Isn't that the way science works?

  • k elliott says:

    @New PI

    Excellent attitude and outstanding comment.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Are you basically asking: should I be an asshole like 'everyone' else in science? Or should I continue to be a good human being but suffer the career consequences, and by extension damage the career prospects of your trainees?


    What is the context of your post here?

    If there was a highly specific context do you imagine that I'd be talking about it directly on the blog?

    Anyway, you've been around here long enough to know that I often launch fairly general questions, detached from specifics because the motivations build up over time from various sources- my own experiences, people commenting on the blog, twttr conversations and privatish communications. And because I ponder about a lot of this shit in the shower and driving to work. Ultimately, my specific context, if there was one, is far less interesting to me than what you all commenters have to say about how you perceive my questions and ponderings.

    But maybe with this kind of attitude, I won't be here long.

    yeah. this is tough. I know for certain sure that at least one BSD lab of my acquaintance would manage to turn this into a co-publish in the same issue situation. Like NewbiePI says. just one of many issues about glamour chasing that irritates me..... but it IS reality that getting scooped is going to hose you and your future to some extent.

  • Newbie-Ish says:

    Newbie PI, that sucks. Big time. But honestly, it's encouraging to read that people do the right thing sometimes.

    Maybe I'm in the same category as you (the "I won't be here long" category), but I don't see enough value in edging other people out to extend that effort. If my internal ethics prevent me from doing something for my own benefit, I don't see why I would change the ethical code for a trainee. (And I do a LOT for the people in my group). This is a job, in the end. It might be a job that I am incredibly emotionally invested in, but there are parts of my life that don't involve science and I have to be able to look myself in the mirror at the end of the day.

    Besides, the people that really make it to the true top, that achieve all of those measures of success? I can't imagine that they feel satisfied either, which is why I don't feel bitter when I see their achievements, even knowing that much of it is dubious (politics, resting on laurals, questionable data in a high impact paper, whatever). I know that no matter what I feel jealous of, they probably just want more, too.

    Getting my first grant, I think was on a high for at least a month. Second one, the high lasted about two weeks. Third one, a smile, huge sigh of relief, and business as usual by the next day. Now it's the R01 that I want and anything else feels inadequate. I think many of us excel precisely because whatever we have is never enough. There's always another (bigger) carrot. So why push my ethical boundaries when I know I'll be just as tempted and further along the slipper slope the next time a potential reward (for me or my trainees) comes along? It doesn't actually help them. Teaching them how to find value in themselves, to value their work ethic in spite of behavior that goes on around them, that's a far more enduring and valuable lesson than receiving a fancy fellowship or publication, even if the reward was in fact deserved.

  • Jojo says:

    DM I meant the situation you were talking about where a lab uses the review process to delay until they get the exact data from their lab published, not that they are picking on anyone in particular.

    It's pretty obvious when Reviewer gives delay this paper comments and the follows wih a submission of their own paper showing the exact same thing 3 months later. If editor is generally aware of the lit she should notice.

  • Namaste_ish says:

    I agree. We are all an asshole to someone at some point. Indented or not, we change the tragectory of people in ways we can not fathom.
    I disappoint my trainees and family. Your twitter hero is someone's jerk boss, neglectful parent or space stealer.
    IME Twitter and blogging gives you space to think about who you want to be.
    I refuse to play defensive science.
    I demand diversity and inclusion.
    I demand safety.
    I demand physical and mental health support.
    And fuck any university or person that gets in my way.
    Liars are not entitled to the truth....CPP said that. It's horrible and it's true.

  • I0A says:

    Moral deterioration is a slippery slope.

    "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space, lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom".

    -- Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

  • The Other Dave says:

    We are supposed to be figuring stuff out.

    Anything we do that sacrifices that goal for any other, such as keeping ourselves sub-optimally employed, keeping other sub-optimal scientists employed, accumulating unwarranted fame, accumulating research dollars, acquiring shiny new unnecessary equipment, going to meetings to get drunk and hit on young postdocs, sabotaging rivals to ensure continued dominance in the field, etc... must be eliminated, in ourselves and others.

    Thus, it is OK to poison a rival who fakes their results or lies in grant applications. It is not OK to poison a rival who is a good scientist.

  • Chris says:

    If you have to be an asshole in order to maintain a lab and keep your staff employed, then you must not be very good as a PI and should probably find another line of work. Maybe you should work for another lab rather than heading one up yourself. Seriously. Science is full of PIs who really should not be PIs because they have poor leadership and management skills so they have to resort to dishonesty and sabotage to compensate. If you want to be an asshole to benefit yourself, so be it. But please don't use your trainees and employees as an excuse by claiming you are doing it for them. That is just cowardly. If you aren't good enough to fulfill your obpigations to them on your own merits then step aside and find another job.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Interesting. You have set up a neat little no lose, No-True-Scotsman scenario here with this logic.

  • […] confidence in this was wavering a tiny little bit in recent times. It's nice to be reminded that people who act the ass eventually are going to pay a […]

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