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Research Paper Published without Team Leader’s Knowledge/Inclusion

Situation

A consultant in a private research firm submits a written complaint to ASCE’s Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) alleging that two ASCE members—a former graduate student and the student’s thesis adviser—had violated ASCE’s Code of Ethics by failing to name the consultant as a coauthor of a paper published in the Journal of Engineering Mechanics.

The subject of the paper in question involved a project undertaken by a joint university and industry research team with funding from a National Science Foundation grant. As the author of the grant proposal and the leader of the research team, the consultant claimed that he had sole authority over using the project’s results but that he had no knowledge of the student’s paper or his intent to seek publication. The consultant further said that he had been largely responsible for establishing the nature and parameters of the testing carried out in the project, had been involved in monitoring and interpreting most of the data received, and had played the primary role in developing the theoretical basis of a computer program at the center of the research project. Although the published paper cited the consultant’s work in several places and in an acknowledgment the authors thanked the consultant for his contributions to the study, the consultant contended that, by publishing a paper under their names only, the authors had created the false impression that they alone were responsible for the project and its results.

The CPC opened an investigation into the case and contacted the two members named in the complaint.

Question

Did the members’ actions in publishing a paper on a team research project without the team leader’s knowledge and without naming him as a coauthor violate ASCE’s Code of Ethics?

Discussion

According to canon 5 of the code, “Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others.” Furthermore, category (e) in the guidelines to practice for this canon has this to say: “Engineers shall give proper credit for engineering work to those to whom credit is due, and shall recognize the proprietary interests of others. Whenever possible, they shall name the person or persons who may be responsible for designs, inventions, writings, or other accomplishments.” Under these provisions, any member who fails to give appropriate credit to another individual for work in an engineering paper or who drafts an engineering paper in such a manner as to mislead readers about the origin of another person’s research, theories, or conclusions might well be found to have violated ASCE’s code.

In response to the CPC’s communication, the accused members sent a letter flatly denying any such wrongdoing on their part.  The paper, they alleged, was not merely reporting on work done by the research team but rather contained an independent evaluation of the consultant’s theory that was supported by a number of experiments that had been conducted by the primary author alone. The members stated that the published paper was based on the primary author’s graduate thesis and that the complainant had been involved in reviewing that thesis and had raised no objections as to its originality at the time. They claimed that they had very carefully worded their paper so as to distinguish the consultant’s work from their own and that since the consultant had not been involved in preparing the manuscript they did not believe it was appropriate to name him as a coauthor.

In several letters exchanged between the parties as well as with the CPC, the dispute over attribution became increasingly heated, and accusations flew. The consultant contended that the thesis adviser, who had left the university soon after the conclusion of the project to set up his own practice, had intentionally downplayed the consultant’s involvement as a “blatant attempt to further his career at [the consultant’s] expense.” For his part, the thesis adviser argued that the consultant had concocted the complaint because he was angered that the adviser’s departure from the university had curtailed the consultant’s access to university resources and students in support of his own work. He also alleged that the consultant himself was not without blame, as he had used material from the graduate student’s thesis in research proposals and in a series of symposium presentations without giving proper attribution.

After a review of the research paper, the correspondence, and transcripts of personal interviews conducted with the parties, the members of the CPC felt that the facts of the case did not warrant a finding that the members had violated the Code of Ethics. The members voted unanimously to close the case, and they sent letters to the complainant and the accused members informing them of their decision. Although the letters stated that the CPC’s action “should be regarded as neither approval nor disapproval of [the individuals’] actions in this controversy,” the CPC’s summary report of its findings noted its opinion that all parties involved in the dispute had behaved in a way that was hardly edifying.

Issues of authorship and attribution are among the most frequent complaints brought before the CPC and often are the most difficult to resolve. The National Academy of Sciences has published a booklet entitled On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research, which is designed to help authors appropriately allocate credit when presenting or publishing a research paper.

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE’s hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society. 

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