Friday, May 02, 2008

Collaborating With Dead People

Have I chosen a great topic for a Friday post, or what? Perhaps I am still recovering from my near-death (or at least, near-maiming) experience last weekend.

Anyway, a manuscript recently crossed my desk and gave me pause. One of the co-authors is deceased. There are certainly many legitimate circumstances in which a deceased person's name should be included on a manuscript to which they substantively contributed, despite their presumed inability to consent to the submission of the manuscript in its final form (and/or participate in revisions).

When I was in graduate school, one of my evil anti-mentor committee members threatened me with failure and ejection from graduate school unless I promised to make him a co-author on every paper that I ever published on a certain topic for the rest of my life, even though he contributed in no substantive way to the research. The department chair was not interested in the unethical nature of this demand/threat, and merely said "I don't envy you" [for being in that position]. I said to the evil professor "But we clearly disagree about some important aspects of my work. Why would you want to be a co-author on papers with me?" and he responded by pinching me. I was not impressed by this inarticulate and immature display, though by that point I did not envy me either.

Long story short: the evil professor died before I finished my Ph.D. Is he a co-author on any of my papers? Over his dead body.. No, he is not a co-author on any of my papers. He did manage to co-author some other papers after his demise, though, including one that was submitted years after his death. It is quite possible that the authors decided to include him as a co-author to honor their former professor and his contributions to the work, but I cannot help but wonder if he made a similar threat/demand to others.

Perhaps my somewhat traumatic and, I think, unusual history with deceased co-authors makes me cynical about them, but it would be interesting to know the motivations of including dead people as authors on papers: that is, what % of these cases involved major contributions of the now-deceased person, what % are motivated by a desire to 'honor' a famous or well-liked person who may have had something to do with the work at some point, and what % have a more bizarre and/or unsavory reason? I presume the latter is a very small number, but I don't know about the other two.

25 comments:

blop said...

... and what are the % motivated by the desire to be associated with a great name (which facilitates some publications)?

Anonymous said...

Your department chair ignored this problem? And then he PINCHED you? That's completely crazy. I realize that happened quite a while ago and is not the main subject of today's posting, but I just can't get past those two details.

PhysioProf said...

The only papers I have ever seen in my field with dead authors have been in the "involved major contributions of the now-deceased person" category.

BTW, your evil committee member sounds like a fucking wacko, and the failure of anyone else on the committee to protect you from his demented wackloonery represents a severe ethical lapse on their part.

Mary said...

By the way, at highly ranked private university the opposite problem exists. The profs in the science department do not want to put their names on their students/postdocs papers. I heard of a case of a female postdoc that got screwed because her advisor would not put his name on her paper. This is the same problem that a famous female science professor had at the same institution 50 years ago. This private university is well known for its sexism. I hate this place.

Kate said...

I'm sorry, but I'm still reacting from the fact that he pinched you. He PINCHED you?!? WTF?

I am grateful for the fact that my former advisor never insisted on being on my publications, I think because he knew he never made any significant intellectual contribution to my work, no matter how hard I tried to involve him.

Southern Grad Girl said...

He pinched you? Seriously?!

Anonymous said...

wait, he pinched you??!?

Female Science Professor said...

That's included in my second scenario..

Theorist said...

A few years ago, I was involved in a project where my collaborator at another university had his postdoc use my codes to do some calculations. The postdoc died in a car crash, leaving behind his wife (don't know whether they had kids). The work was not complete, so I finished up the calculations myself, did the analysis and wrote the paper. We made the postdoc first author.

Change said...

... he responded by pinching me.

Woah!!!!! [shocked that a professor did such a thing]

Anonymous said...

My most publication has a deceased co-author. In our case, he had contributed the histological prepping and pathological analysis of some tissue samples. He was 92 at the time, and the paper underwent several revisions over a couple of years. During that time he passed away. We dedicated the manuscript to him (he had been an active collaborator with our laboratory for a long time).

When I was a grad student, one of the technicians in the laboratory committed suicide. I think his name was on at least one publication after that happened, because he had contributed the data used in the paper.

In both cases, leaving the deceased as co-authors was kind of a memorial to them.

Female Science Professor said...

Sigh. Yes, he pinched me. Another favorite way he had of expressing himself was to hold my wrist in a vise-like grip and twist. He did worse to other female students and staff members when he was younger and in better health. The various advice I got from faculty included: "Just stay out of his way." and "Have a drink before you go to his office."

Anonymous said...

wow! this is unbelievable. While the pincher is dead (good riddance), do the profs who allowed such behavior still breathe in academe?! Is this university in the East, North, West or South? Private or public? I can't believe this. This is really outrageous.

Ms.PhD said...

Let's all say a little thanks to God that evil pinching guy is dead.

I've been involved in one case and witness to two others. In all three cases the deceased co-author was included for contributions they made to the project while still alive, and their lack of contribution to the rest of it was balanced out by the virtue of honoring their memory (and this was mentioned in the acknowledgments, where the paper was dedicated to them).

Actually I had one opposite experience, where I had to take someone off as an author because I felt they hadn't contributed and they refused to contribute when confronted about it. This was much like the anecdote that mary mentioned.

But in this case the unprofessional behavior (and it was made clear to me that it was in large part because I am YFS rather than YMS) was most likely exacerbated by undiagnosed illness, because this person died not long after. (Surely feeling physically ill excuses misogynitis?)

I later wondered if the paper had been submitted posthumously, if I should have included this person's name (over their dead body?).

Politically it would have been advantageous for me to abuse the situation, since no objections would have been possible at that point and nobody would have been the wiser (except me)!

But I think it would have made me ethically queasy, as it does now just thinking about the possibility (although others say it certainly would have gotten me a job by now).

I do wonder, however, at the sort of people who would do this. It would have to be pretty rare, I would think?

Anonymous said...

The pinching thing only mildly surprises me. Perhaps it is "unsual", but that's why I'm getting out of engineering. Not only do these things happen - they are tolerated in many instances by the establishment. If that doesn't say "we don't care about you because you're a woman", then I don't know what does.

Squeaky Wipers said...

Gross! I may have to watch out for the pinching as I enter grad studies this fall. I hope he pinched you in a "neutral" area.

I didn't encounter anything like that during my undergrad studies. However, as a high school student, I had a history teacher who had a habit of resting his hand on my shoulder and the small of my back (but never low enough so that he was "grabbing anything." I was young and naive back then, and he did it to others (females) so I didn't think much of it.

Anonymous said...

My friend's advisor died before all the work that had gone on in the lab while she was alive had been published. Her name has been on several posthumous papers, one of which I'm sure she would have been mortified to be associated with in life, not because the data were bad, but because the interpretations were not in line with her very careful scientific approach. I was upset to see this happen. I think what should have happened is that her name be on the paper, but the collaborators be more careful to print only what she would have been comfortable with.

Gingerale said...

I realize The Pinch wasn't the original topic. But I completely agree with PhysioProf in the statement, "...the failure of anyone else on the committee to protect you from his demented wackloonery represents a severe ethical lapse on their part."

Such failures underlie so many problems. There may be one individual who behaves very badly -- but others allow it. Indeed, they benefit from it because it makes them look better by contrast. Passive complicity can be very bad behavior.

ScienceGirl said...

I've seen 2 papers published with deceased authors; in both cases, they have contributed significantly to the work, and the first authors chose to dedicate the papers to them.

The pinching is insane!!

Anonymous said...

I just want to say this about the comments regarding the pinching relating to being disrespectful to females...

The pinching isn't so spectacularly ridiculous because you're a woman. The pinching is ridiculous because HE is not a four year old! it doesn't matter who he pinches (male or female), it is appalling and abusive.


(as a side note, a very prominent scientist in my field passed away suddenly a few years ago and she still shows up on papers periodically. I don't know the circumstances of any of those papers, but it does make me think about how it might be hard in some scenarios to figure out when to phase that out- like, if someone sets up a lab and a whole line of research and a series of experiments, but never saw a particular paper, I can see it being complicated)

Davey Jones said...

I will agree with everyone else and say the pinching is very very strange...but I have another question, what field of science are you in? Just a general curiosity question, and if you don't want to answer my feelings won't be bothered...

TomJoe said...

I know of only one case where an author was deceased at the time of publication. He was the mentor of a graduate student, and unfortunately he came down with brain cancer. He survived for awhile, but eventually succumbed to the disease. I'm sure this threw his lab into a total mess, but IIRC one of his postdocs was allowed to run the lab through the last series of grants. One of his graduate students eventually published a paper and his name was on it. I think it could reasonably be said that he had been a "major contributor" to that paper.

Honestly, to be put on a paper (after death) any other way is pointless. Who's career is it going to help? Certainly not the deceased ... and they can't exactly gain from any of the fame either.

Laura said...

The pinching didn't surprise me. If people in authority can get away with poor behaviour then they do. The Chair tolerated his poor behaviour so why would he moderate his actions?

I still remember reading letters in Chemical and Engineering News from graduates several years ago who were still traumatized by their former advisors. My partner had a 4 month internship in his first year as an engineer that still wins him the water cooler award for the worst job ever. His 250lb boss used to sneak up behind him while he was at his computer and put him in a choke hold and scream- "you long-haired, white-socked, box-headed, faggot....". (I am not making this up.) It was just awful.

Alethea said...

We have a paper being sent back and forth to journals and then reviewers for a year now, for which a major author died from breast cancer just before we started writing it up. It was obvious that she would be a co-author - and she's the one who got the R01 to begin with that funded all the work, on top of the scientific reflection throughout. It was a no-brainer.

However, it's a bit more touchy to put a deceased author as *first* author, which is the place I usually consider that of the person who did either most of the work and/or most of the writing. If it's the former, how can you be sure you are interpreting for them as they would have done? In that situation, I'd be reassured to see a joint first authorship with the major writer of the work, someone you can presumably contact about it. Unless that major writer is the last author, and also for correspondence.

flit said...

So now I know

Gee, I'm looking forward to grad school :)