On patience and honesty

Sep 04 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

As scientists, we all need papers (although exactly how many is still the question).  Also, we all should be loyal people who give other people honest advice. These two apparently don’t always go together well, like in the following situation:

I am applying for an important grant from the home country that will secure my desired move back there in two years. For that grant it is very important that I show that I am doing a productive post-doc and so it is kind of necessary that I have at least one publication from my current lab to demonstrate that (that means that said paper needs to be accepted in December). Currently I have two second author papers that have been submitted, so it seems to be going somewhere. One of those papers came back from a pretty decent journal the other day where they said: “That was an alright paper, but not very coherent and it would be better if you would split it in two papers.” The optimistic reader will think:”Great! Two papers for the price of one!” But that’s not entirely the case, because splitting it will require more experiments for both papers, and worse for me: my name will be on only one of those two papers. The grad student who is the first author wants to finish within a reasonable amount of time, so when he asked what I would do, I advised him to first try the current manuscript at a slightly lower impact factor journal and only then decide whether we were going to split it into two manuscripts or not. I think it definitely has a chance at that journal, but I mostly gave that advice because I want it to be accepted somewhere soon. In my opinion that was borderline good advice to give, but I admit that it’s a slippery slide to giving advice that only benefits yourself and not the other…

However, our PI already decided that it would be a good idea to split it into two and to do all those extra experiments. I don’t think I’m in the position to see anything about that, so I guess I’ll just have to be patient here…

What about you; have you ever given someone bad advice because that would benefit yourself?

3 responses so far

  • miko says:

    I don't know about "bad" advice, but to ignore self-interest when choosing among multiple reasonable options is dangerous. It is easy to get taken advantage of when you have a necessary skill/technique and in collaborations. I have certainly argued for not including data of mine in a 2nd author paper that I thought would help a 1st author a little later.

    It is also not wrong to be up front about your self interest -- no one can argue that a trainee's priority should be hir career. That said, there is almost always a way that satisfies everyone's interests to some extent. I haven't had these problems within our lab but during collaborations. The problem I've had is that the loudest / most senior / most annoying person's interests dominate these discussions. On the other hand, as a trainee, you might also be dependent on this person for a reference or other forms of goodwill. So, self-interest broadly defined is the goal. Generally, I would think that a better paper is better than a better reference, or a reference from a particular person.

    And look what I've done, veered from the general to the very, very specific.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I am generally thought of as being a careful and conservative researcher. One of my coauthors was more that way than I am. I was encouraging him to publish some of our early interesting results. He didn't agree, and commented, "I want people a hundred years from now to say that I did good work." well, I can't argue with that.

  • Thanks for your comments! I guess I just find it hard to figure out how much I can push to get things my way, or if there are instances where I should just sit back and be patient.