Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Help Me Not Do This

A paper published in 2009 by some people I know contains the statement that it is problematic that a certain dataset does not exist because it would be really important to have such data but alas, such data have not been obtained, so instead they must use an ancient approximation based on a highly flawed technique.

I published just such a dataset in 2003 in a major journal, as the authors of the paper well know. One of the primary authors was a colleague of mine, although we stopped collaborating a while ago, by mutual agreement.

A few years ago, this former colleague asked me to remove his name from my research webpages because he was annoyed that my pages turned up before his in a Google search on his name. I did not think this was a reasonable request, though eventually the problem solved itself when I updated my pages to reflect new research and publications. Even so, I suppose this incident was sort of a clue that he might have some Issues.

Here is my internal debate with myself about the obvious non-citation incident:

Let it go. Their paper is lame and they undermine themselves by appearing ignorant of the literature.

Send them a passive-aggressive email with the relevant reprint attached, expressing regret at not sending the paper to them sooner, i.e. 6 years ago, and expressing surprise that they don't seem to have access to Major Journal, even though they do.

Let it go. Ignore them. Don't even admit that you read their paper.

And so on. Right now I am actually in a "Let it go. Ignore them." state of mind, but every once in a while I veer back to consideration of the insincere email/reprint option. I know I would gain nothing from contacting them and I would not feel good about it. So I won't do that, I think.

Why does it bother me that they did not cite my relevant paper? I am not upset that I lost a possible citation (really). I think I would be less bothered if they had simply left my paper out of a list of possible citations, but the overtness of the lack of citation was a bit shocking. That's what is so strange. And I suppose that is exactly why I should ignore them.

56 comments:

zed said...

I'm surprised their memory lapse made it past review.

Dr Becca, PhD said...

Ignore, ignore!! Like you say, nothing good can come of sending an email/reprint, especially if the omission was intentional (though it will feel excellent to write such an email--go ahead and do that, provided you discard the draft before you hit 'send'). That google business is ridiculous--is this guy in 3rd grade? Just sit back and revel in the knowledge that you're WAY classier than all this childishness.

Perceval said...

I would totally write another paper based on this "research gap" if you can.

FEP said...

I too will probably ignor them and let it go, because my experience with unreasonable people has taught me that any efforts in trying to reason with such people are fruitless and often bring much more frustration that is worth it.
However, if their paper has the potential to mislead readers with the wrong assertion in a significant way, I would mention it to them matter-of-factly. Just send them your manuscript and not be cynical. The better way would be to publish a new paper including statement pointing out their mistake, although this may not be easily done.

Klaas said...

It's my feeling/experience that sending semi-aggressive emails with reprints is pretty much useless. Why not try and get to review one of their grant proposals and make sure that it doesn't get funding by trashing it comprehensively...? Not that I ever would do such a thing, of course!

Anonymous said...

Hmm... what a tricky situation... and no one saw the error? Honestly, I would send the authors an email *politely* pointing out that such a data set does indeed exist and appear to be helpful. If the authors (or at least one of them) deliberately overlooked your work, he/she will get the message.

In fact, since there are coauthors who might actually even have been unaware of your work, those coauthors might even want to publish an "erratum" to their paper, which would be sweet revenge for you. The person who probably deliberately left you out might get outvoted by his coauthors.

Janka said...

I think your only relevant question here is will someone *else* read their paper and think they are right saying the dataset does not exist, and consequently waste time in their own research?

If so, you should probably write to *the journal* and let people know.

I see no reason whatsoever to write to the original authors, if you are confident that there is no way in hell they do not know of the existence of the data and/or that it could be used for the research in question.

Then again, I am just a PhD student who gets told she is "aggressively naive". ;)

Anonymous said...

Why does it bother me that they did not cite my relevant paper?

Because they didn't just omit your paper, they blatantly said it does not count which is worse. If they had simply omitted a citation it could be seen as sloppy writing. But when they expounded about how such data does not exist, it is an obvious snipe at you because it implies they made a big effort to try and find said data, so there is no way they could not know about your paper seeing as how it was published in a Major Journal. So by then saying that such data doesnt' exist they are indirectly saying that they don't think your paper counts. But they didn't even have the courtesy to cite it and state why they disagree with it, it's like saying it's not even worth their time to bring up. Ouch.

I've had the same thing happen to me (though I'm not anywhere near your level, I'm a new research faculty). I had a serious conflict with my first postdoc advisor many years ago, because he was a jerk, he was a bully and everyone hated him but I was the only one who wouldn't take it lying down and he wasn't used to people standing up to him so he hated me. After I left his lab, when he has since updated his website he has removed my publications, even the citations, from his website (even though his name is on them too). He has even removed my name from the list of "past lab members". Looking at his website, there's no trace of me at all, even though it's otherwise an archive of every minute detail in his lab since its inception. It's been several years and I've since moved onto another field of research. But every once in awhile I come across one of his new papers that is on the same topic that I did my postdoc with him in. And he does not cite the work I did for him, even though it was the "first" in that topic and which he is still building on. Instead, he apparently had his next postdoc repeat the work I did, publish it again with just some barely new data point (the LPU phenomenon) and then he cites that paper in all his subsequent papers as being the "first" to demonstrate such and such. Now seeing as how he is a powerful PI and I was just a mere postdoc, the fact that he would go to all these lengths to "erase" all traces of me from association with him, doesn't that just make him look pathetic?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

A few years ago, this former colleague asked me to remove his name from my research webpages because he was annoyed that my pages turned up before his in a Google search on his name.

AHAHAHAHAH! That's totally fucking hilarious!

What you really ought to do, if you can, is to get one of your colleagues in the relevant field to write a letter to the editor of the journal documenting the egregious error and demanding that the journal publish a corrigendum containing a citation to the non-cited work.

At a minimum, even if the journal decides not to publish a corrigendum, this will almost certainly force your douchebag former collaborator to respond and defend himself and will also probably--considering what a paranoid weak-egoed loser he appears to be--cause him substantial discomfort.

DO IT!!

Lucy said...

ditto what zed said. shouldn't this have been picked up in review? in which case the journal should be notified so they can are aware of the limitations of the reviewers they selected.

LizardBreath said...

I'm not an academic, so I have no idea of the relevant norms, but would the journal publish a letter noting that the article's statement that such a dataset does not exist is erroneous, and directing readers who may need such a set to your paper? That'd be more aggressive-aggressive, but it doesn't seem like an unreasonable thing to do.

Anonymous said...

Well, logical people often just point out the objection to the article in question to the editor...it's common practise to remind people that the information is there rather than wait for it to be re-discovered.

Through history, there had been many incidences of new discoveries that were made already, in extreme cases a few centuries ago, but just people have never thought of looking back!

Genomic Repairman said...

Get some other folks to email asking to see the data set to start a ground swell against them. Then send in your stuff with a note from another colleague maybe disputing their weak-ass results. Shame on them for doing a crappy job on their citations.

qaz said...

Do you still have access to that dataset? Can you do the analysis they wanted? If so, then you can publish a paper saying "going back to classic data set (FSP et al 2003), we were able to find" and get a new publication out of it - that's even better than a citation, right? And if you do your snark just right, you can get the perfect passive/aggressive level without actually pissing anyone off.

Anonymous said...

It seems you underestimate the probability that they didn't cite your paper for non-nefarious reasons. Either they honestly forgot about it, (Your paper can't be *that* prominent, or the reviewers would have complained.) or they thought it wasn't relevant for technical (possibly misinformed) reasons. Or... they have Issues.

Anonymous said...

FSP...you are not letting this go. We won't let you. Don't be a woman about this ;)

Anonymous said...

I say do it. They are either sloppy or [insert an adverb of your choice] unethical.

Anonymous said...

Let it go!

But here is what you could do, in addition:

Your concern, I guess, is not that they have failed to cite your work, but that they failed to do so in an obvious manner saying that the data is difficult to obtain by your method. So you would like to tell the world: No this is not the case, I did it successfully in 2003.

So how about saying this on your webpages: Method xxx, the details of how you obtained it, and more importantly, a big picture where the method fits in. Basically, information from your paper, but explained in little more detail. You may have lost the citation, but this way the rest of the world will know what the real story is, without you having to take cheap shots. And yes, if you can, do this without mentioning their paper.

Anonymous said...

"....so instead they must use an ancient approximation based on a highly flawed technique."

Does use of your dataset change their results (or interpretation thereof)?

If yes, then perhaps a little note/communication in which you can clarify/ confirm/negate their results, cite your paper AND (appropriately) highlight their oversight in missing your dataset would be the best riposte (IMHO).

TAC said...

I would ignore. They know and are probably hopeful to get a raging response from you for whatever ignorant reason.

Anonymous said...

Go with your instincts - let it go! Emailing them will only give them further satisfaction that they got away with something and will not change the basic situation.

a physicist said...

I agree, let them simply appear like the losers they are. I had a case like that a few years ago. In my case, the authors had heard me talk about the work while they were in the process of writing their paper, I sent the a copy of the published paper, and they still ignored it. And my field is small enough that everybody is aware of both papers... what were they thinking? It just makes them look bad.

Anonymous said...

yes, the superficiality of reviewers is sometimes shocking. Every time I review a paper I try to do a good job, but given how flawed some of the reviews I receive are, I'm sure I'm missing relevant background especially when I am asked to review at the edge of my expertise (eg, on a technique I know well, but applied on a system that's not familiar to me).
I recently saw a paper focused on one of my crystal structures-- it's an MD paper, and it starts with the puzzling statement that we were overinterpreting it (at 1.3 A resolution, there's not much room for interpretation, really), and that their MD calculations held the truth to the system.... they proceed to demonstrate that something we never said in the paper was wrong. Anybody who read the title or the abstract to our paper would know that we never said what we were made to say...

Anonymous said...

ooops. anyways, I struggle with what to do often. Sometimes I've called up the editor in cases of blatant errors like the one you describe... other times, I think the best response is actually to write a review and set things straight that way.

I. said...

perhaps a co author on the paper they "forgot" to cite can drop them a line instead? just a thought.

ME said...

I would either let it go or write a letter to the editor of the journal stating that you believe there is a mis-statement of fact in an article. Really it's sad that the peer review did not catch this, although frankly the whole buddy system leads to some astonishing reviews.

Helen Huntingdon said...

Whatever you choose, I would definitely avoid contacting the author you're talking about. When someone's behavior has gone that off-kilter, it's only going to get weirder from there.

lost academic said...

Could you not send a letter to the publication in which they were published commenting on the existence of this data set and some additional comments as to its meaning and relevance in the light of their article? That way it's a more positive way of bringing important information into the public eye in a more timely fashion without getting into a direct pissing match with them. They didn't want to cite you - fine. But they can't or shouldn't pretend the data aren't out there.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

I'm with Perceval and qaz: ask for the data they based the paper on and use your data set to better them at their own game. And be sure to properly cite them.

Or--if this was an honest mistake--they may be willing to publish the combined analysis with you. Either way, you win.

The History Enthusiast said...

While the passive-aggressive email approach may make you feel better, I agree with the other comments that taking the moral high ground and being the bigger person will work out best for you in the end.

However, it might be possible to inform the journal, as others have suggested. That doesn't strike me as a snarky response. 'Course, I'm only a grad student in a completely different field so my opinion may not be that useful.

I have seen this sort of behavior occur at conferences, though, where instead of having a question for the panel of presenters, a historian just raises their hand and says "you didn't cite the article I wrote on this in 2001." That person always comes across as a petty narcissist, and no one respects a person who is so wrapped up in their own work that they fail to understand that the volume of work in many fields is so dense that you cannot ever catch up on all the literature.

Anonymous said...

Im also with zed and perceval. The editor of the journal and the referee should have caught this. I would send the editor of the journal an email pointing this out. It sounds like a major omission, especially given that the authors point out the lack of this data set.

Then, in your spare time (ha ha ha -- Im an aspiring FSP myself so I jest) write a better paper incorporating your data with theirs (i.e., what they *should* have done).

Anonymous said...

I agree that it would be a pointless, useless and futile exercise to waste energy on the authors.

I disagree with doing nothing. In fact, I think it is your Scientific Responsibility to make sure the record of progress in the field - in this case, the existence of an important and relevent dataset - is correct. You cannot allow this error, the statement that there is no such dataset, to propagate.

As you are the only and best person to make this correction, it really is your responsibility. This is neither for your own sake nor his, but for the field in general, which is bigger than either of you.

Call me an idealist, but I'm an academic researcher - I have a degree in idealism.

thm said...

Isn't this precisely what the Comments section of journals are for? I suppose you're supposed to first try to get the authors to publish an erratum, but it sounds like that would be unlikely to work.

The classic guide to comments (warning: pdf).

Kim said...

Comment and reply, FSP! (Or at least, follow Physioprof's advice and encourage someone else to write a comment.)

If your dataset would have improved the analysis, there's a great reason to write a comment (or encourage someone else to do it). But even if not, their statement that the dataset doesn't exist is a problem for future researchers, like Janka said. A lot of people search for papers by reading the most recent relevant paper and then hunting down the references. Don't let your dataset be lost to the science!

another junior FSP said...

I think you're right not to entangle yourself directly with your former collaborator. I disagree, though, with your "let it go" position. Don't let the written record be distorted by this uncontested assertion that the data do not exist, when you know and have published that they do. A letter, a comment, a response to the journal all would be appropriate. Don't get drawn in emotionally, of course. But don't let the record be warped. I know that I, as a grad student, might well have believed and accepted as truth the assertion that "this dataset doesn't exist". Fifteen years from now, will someone reading this paper necessarily know about yours, published 6 years earlier? Who knows? Set the record straight, with a comment or letter that cites this paper as well as your previous work. Tie them together in citation networks so someone finding this paper will also have a citation trail leading back to the appropriate data. Don't let the lie stand.

Let's put it this way: if someone else, unknown to you, had written the paper....if someone else had written any paper in your field containing such an egregious error....would you let it go, uncorrected? If there were no history between you and one of the authors?

Anonymous said...

Isn't this also an oversight by the journal? This seems like something reviewers should have caught. Perhaps you should send a note to the editor?

female Science Professor said...

Actually, my problematic former colleague was the editor for the special issue in which his paper was published, though I assume/hope that he did not act as editor for his own paper.

My 2003 paper is in a more prominent place than his 2009 paper, is easily findable by a search on the obvious keywords, and has a decent number of citations, so I am not worried at all about my work being lost.

yolio said...

I second CPP, that is absolutely the way to handle it. Obliquely. At all costs, do not engage the colleague directly. No good can come of it, only pain.

Anonymous said...

don't most journals allow you to write letters to the editor stating errors in published papers? I know that's the case for certain in Science, Nature and the like. I think that a clear statement that dataset X does not exist, when in fact it does, is worthy of a letter of correction.

Anonymous said...

Don't do it, FSP. They ignored your research on purpose and you're not going to make them stop doing this type of thing in the future by saying something to them. It's unfortunate that this sort of thing makes it past reviewers and editors.

Kevin said...

I was going to chime in with the "send email to the editor" opinion, until I got to further information that the problematic "colleague" was both editor and author. This makes the whole issue much harder, as you will not get a decent response from the editor.

The next best thing to do is to do the analysis properly using your data, and write a short paper that cites both the dataset paper and the junk paper. You probably can't get it into a first-rank journal, but there are plenty of second-rank journals that live on this sort of minor paper.

Nazzy said...

I don't know if its just me but it your last two posts seem to be addressing a similar issue. Bullies and the anger the incite in us. I don't know what you should do about this douche-bag colleague but I would suggest you discuss your anger at someone trying to intellectually bully you with your daughter. It might make her feel better to know that you react the same way to bullying that she does.

Hope said...

Actually, my problematic former colleague was the editor for the special issue in which his paper was published….

Ahhh … I knew there must have been some reason why you didn’t come up with the obvious third option: letter to the editor. Sounds to me like in this case you should probably just let it go. I don’t see what’s to be gained by contacting your former colleague. I’m just a grad student, though. Is there a down side to simply ignoring the situation?

Anonymous said...

just going through a very similar "internal debate". I have decided that we have no power over other people's behaviour, so there is not point in wasting energies.... I believe, though, that this situation reflects a more serious problem in the referee process. -Claudia

EliRabett said...

As was said, your website, and maybe arXiv are the keys. The trick is to make your "web correction" come up higher in Google than their paper. Get everyone involve (except your old friend) to link to your on line correction.

Helen Huntingdon said...

Actually, my problematic former colleague was the editor for the special issue in which his paper was published, though I assume/hope that he did not act as editor for his own paper.

This person is definitely going to keep getting weirder. I'd go with avoiding all contact.

Mr. Gunn said...

As many others have said, this is exactly what "Letters to the Editor" are for. Write one to make sure the public record is set straight. This happens all the time, so it's not going to look weird and it's important to do.

Great job on ranking high in search, BTW. It pisses my brother off to no end that when people search for Dr. Gunn they find me, but that's his problem, isn't it?

luisa said...

can you ignore them and quickly redo the analysis properly, using your better data?

female Science Professor said...

Their analysis isn't worth redoing. I am working on a related project that I find much more interesting.

Peter said...

Just ignore it. taking any action at all, even if it is done under the guise of "setting the record straight for the benefit of the rest of humankind" will give your former collaborator the satisfaction of knowing that you are upset. Showing that you don't care one way or the other makes you look like the bigger person.

Daniel said...

I likewise am a professor at a major research university. This happens to me quite frequently. I find it distressing. I would be inclined to ignore it of only I were involved, but often, the reputations of my students and postdoctorals are involved. In such an egregious case, I would write a letter directly to the editor of the journal pointing out the omission, so that the written record is corrected.

SunnyQ said...

Could you submit a review paper to the same journal that (re-)introduces your data set, explains why it is appropriate/relevant, and perhaps add some additional thoughts/recommendations whatever (think "positive criticism") for their work? :)

Anonymous said...

As an editor at a journal myself, I would want to hear about the problem. If the omission significantly impacted the importance of the paper, that is a big problem. Even if not, as someone else mentioned, I would want to know that the referees were doing a sloppy job so I wouldn't contact them again.

Doctor Pion said...

I haven't read the comments to see if anyone added this suggestion, but ...

Why not find a junior colleague interested in the subject (perhaps at a different instituion) and bring the opportunity to hir attention? Perfect opportunity for a comment pointing out the data set and perhaps even the application of it to the problem in question.

Rosie Redfield said...

I'm with Comrade PhysioProf on this one. Stand up for your science.

UtahGamer said...

Ignore.... but, maybe send a message to the editor of the journal expressing wonder at their poor quality peer review process that didn't catch that error.

No, ignore... life it too short for such battles that yield nothing good for anyone. Though offering to be a reviewer for that journal might be a good idea, particularly if that person favors submitting to it.