Thursday, April 29, 2010

Invisible Me

Not long ago, a Great Man of Science came to my department, gave some talks, and met with faculty, students, and researchers. I have met him before, most recently ~ 6 months ago, but we do not know each other well at all.

I expected him to be familiar with only one part of my research; i.e., research on topic X, as it was in the context of my work on X that we most recently met. Therefore, during my individual meeting with him in my office, I was amazed to hear him say:

My good friend, Other Great Man of Science, is doing some really interesting work on X right now. In fact, he is transforming the way we think about X, and has some recent results that are very exciting.

I was stunned when he said this, and sought clarification. I thought maybe I heard him wrong or somehow misunderstood.

I was stunned because he was talking about my research group's work on X.

The interesting ideas and results have not been generated by my collaborator, Other Great Man of Science, who is at another university. In fact, the exciting results are primarily the work of one of my recent PhD students, as part of her doctoral thesis work.

Other Great Man of Science was a collaborator on the NSF grant that funded this work, but he has not been the most active member of the group and has not been a driving force behind the research. In fact, although I enjoy working with Other Great Man, his part of the project has been lagging.

My PhD student (now graduated) has been the most visible person doing this research and making the interesting discoveries and interpretations. Great Man also met her 6 months ago and saw her present her research results, at length. Yet Great Man erased her from his perception of the collaboration as well. In his mind, the only person worth remembering or mentioning is Other Great Man of Science.

It was surreal to have my group's research described to me by someone else and attributed to a colleague, as if my student and I did not exist.

My ego, which is generally healthy but not too huge on most days, was wounded, but not mortally so, as I am dealing with the situation by wallowing in outrage and contempt for this particular Great Man of Science (as a person, not as a scientist).

I hasten to say that Other Great Man of Science is not responsible for this situation. He has not taken undue credit for the research. In fact, he has been very supportive of my student and would be the first to confirm that it is primarily her work and that she has made the most interesting discoveries of the work thus far.

It is Great Man of Science's perception of the research that is the problem. He sees his famous friend; the rest of us either don't exist or can't possibly be important. Given the incredible amount of name-dropping he did during his talks in my department, this may be a habit with him.

If you had been in my place when this Great Man gave credit to his famous friend for the ideas and work of one of your students and/or you, despite the fact that you and your student had published and given talks on the research (and Other Great Man had not) and you knew that Great Man had been present at those talks (and had asked questions at the time), what would you have done? Confronted him immediately? Let it slide because who cares what he thinks -- he won't change his ideas and why cause an embarrassing situation, assuming the Great Man of Science is capable of being embarrassed? Expressed anger? Used humor? Nodded silently? Wondered if he was losing his mind?

Later I shall reveal what I did, but for now this post is a cliff-hanger.

57 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think you are insufficiently paranoid about what OGMoS is saying when you are not around.

I'm sure if I had been in your situation, I would have been too timid to correct GMoS's misimpression.

Later, I would rationalize my cowardly behavior by deciding that challenging him, even gently or with humor, would have only made him hostile towards me in ways that would likely hurt me down the road.

Word verification: nonsons

Anonymous said...

Hmm... if I had the presence of mind, I might try and pretend that I hadn't heard him mention Other Great Man at all, and that I thought he was talking about my student. Something like, "Well, I appreciate you taking an interest in my student's work. Do you know that Other Great Man has taken an interest in this project."

Lisa said...

oh i totally would have corrected him. but probably bc i am still early stage career and want people to *REALLY* understand all the hard work and good science I do.

plus this stinks a little bit (to me) of sexism

grumpy said...

I guess I'd try to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was just not very familiar with the work and is talking out of his ass.

But I would definitely set the record straight and print him a few papers.

mOOm said...

I would have said: Yes OGMoS is doing that work with us but actually most of the results are coming from student x. In other words say it in a nice way and don't accuse GMoS of anything but stake out your territory.

Anneliese said...

"I'm sorry, but I think there's been a misunderstanding. That research was carried out by my recent graduate, so-and-so. Currently she and I have published X number of articles on the topic. I believe you saw her speak at such-and such conference?"

NJA said...

I've been in a similar situation... At a conference, I was talking to someone about topic X when he mentioned exciting findings that a colleague and I had recently published, but attributed them to Other Great Man of Science.

At the time, I immediately replied, "Oh that's actually my work, not Other Great Man of Science's. My collaborator is just over there - would you like to meet her?"

I hoped that correcting him quickly, and then chatting about the findings for a while without dwelling on his error, would fix the correct attribution in his mind without making him resentful that I'd embarrassed him... fragile egos, and all that. It seemed to work. However, it wasn't a Great Man of Science I was talking to, but one of his senior minions, which may have made it easier to get in a quick correction.

FSP - I hope you let him know he was mistaken in whatever manner seemed appropriate to the situation!

Anonymous said...

Maybe sometimes it's not intentional but rather a familiar name just stuck better than newer names. I know I do it sometimes. For once, I frequently attributed a piece of research to the wrong person and got corrected for as many times I got it wrong until I remembered that it was the one I kept getting wrong. Then the cycle continues for another few rounds until I got it right. Unless it's done intentionally it is forgivable, I hope...

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Given the incredible amount of name-dropping he did during his talks in my department, this may be a habit with him.

This shit makes my fucking skin crawl. I was meeting with someone the other day--of course a fucking d00d--who kept dropping references to famous people in our field by first name. Every time he did this, I was all like, "Steve? Who's Steve?" And he'd be all smug like, "Oh, hahahah. Steve Famedouche. Sorry.", as if they're total BFF.

In relation to what I'd do if someone pulled what you describe, although this hasn't happened to me, I'd like to think that I'd politely inform the d00d that his perception of reality requires revision. "I can see how you might think that Dr. Famedouche and his trainees were responsible for this work, but actually all that work was done here in my lab by me and my trainees. Here, let me show you some of the raw data. Isn't that cool?"

Anonymous said...

Never assume malice when incompetence (or ignorance) is an adequate explanation.

"Actually, I have to correct you, that research was done by Julia Science and myself".

zed said...

Using humor would be great, but I'm not clever enough to come up with something on the spot (I can't even think of something now off the spot). I would probably have said something like 'Yeah, Other Great Scientist is collaborating with us on X, it's really great stuff. My grad student Sophie is the one who deserves all the credit though- don't you remember her talk last year on this?'

Female post-doc said...

I would have offered some information to him. "Oh, yes, we are equal collaborators on that funding. I'm so glad you think so highly of it. It is to bad my brilliant graduate student just finished. SHE has been a driving force on that project and would have been delighted to meet you again."

Anonymous said...

Something similar happened to a friend of mine who is not tenured. He and his student were presenting a poster when a person approached my friend and asked him why his dept. chair wasn't listed as a co-author. My friend does collaborate with his chair, but had not done so on this particular research. The person viewing the poster did not even consider the fact that my friend and his student had done the work without the chair. With one question, this person also indirectly accused my friend of not properly crediting the work. My friend didn't think much of it, as he has a pretty laid-back personality. I also think the person who made the comment was not another faculty member or researcher but was from industry (so his opinion wasn't terribly important to my friend). I don't remember what my friend did in response (if he did much of anything).

Considering how important it is for untenured faculty to establish their own, independent research and not just rely on collaborations, I wonder if the response in a situation like this would/should be different if it had happened to an untenured prof who is still trying to establish him/herself in the field.

For what it's worth, I like to think I would speak up and inform Great Scientist that the project was actually done by a student who worked under my supervision. But, I don't know that, in the moment, I would have the courage to actually say anything.

ScienceGrad said...

I would point out a lot of the other work on this collaboration, the work done by yourself, and particularly, your student's.

Anonymous said...

I know of a similar situation of frequent misidentification of research effort in my field, except that Other Great Scientist and your counterpart are now bitter rivals, perhaps in part because of these sorts of occurrences... Hopefully you, your student, and Other Great Scientist can keep the collaboration from melting down!

Anonymous said...

As a FSP myself, I would have rolled my eyes into the back of my head (mentally, of course) and then said "Yes, Other Great Scientist has been a phenomenal collaborator on this project. However, my graduate student was the driving force behind project X and we are very excited about continuing her work on project X here in my lab. Here, let me give you a copy of her first-authored paper on that subject."

Anonymous said...

Confronted him, but then I am not known for my discretion or political subtlety. I would have been polite, though.

Rob1606 said...

"Yes, we are working with OGM on X, but a lot of this work was actually done by my PhD student Y. She's really great. Didn't you attend her talk at conference C?"

Something like that anyway. I definitely would have said *something*, you cannot let this slide...

Anonymous said...

I would have corrected him politely, like others have suggested.

I confuse names and people all of the time (and I'm too young to blame senility). I hope that when I do, I am corrected, but I'm sure that's not always the case.

John V said...

I'd lead my saying what the famous person DID do - some limited fraction of the effort - then follow with the broader context of the graduate student leading the effort and who was doing the advising.

It's a common mnemonic device to associate research with the participant one knows best, so taking it personally may not be warranted.

Anonymous said...

Use the chance to thank him for his interest in the work, and tell him about how the graduate student in your lab who did that work has recently extended it by doing X and Y

Mark P

Fia said...

I surely would have corrected him. This is exactly how the old-boys-clubs work, a perfect example of it. He doesn't think in terms of names, he only things in terms of buddies.

Micro Dr. O said...

I wouldn't be able to resist pointing out GMoS's mistake, but I'd probably try to make it a brag-about-my-former-student moment. I'd give respect to OGMoS who collaborated with and gave my wonderful student all the help and support (even if this isn't completely true). I'd also probably say something about how wonderful it is that my former student's work was mistaken for OGMoS's work. If only for the sake of my student, though, I don't think I could've let that one go; or maybe it's just my pride...

Imogen said...

Amazing. Or rather, sadly not.
This reminds me of the article by Rebecca Solnit about the man she met at a party who started explaining her own book to her.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

How fucking hilarious is it that a buncha fucking d00ds are telling FSP "not to take it personally" and "not to attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence" and "blah fucking whiny bitchez shut up blah splain"? Splainer fuckbags are so fucking predictable.

John V said...

CPP

My remark "taking it personally may not be warranted" does not equate to your quote "telling FSP not to take it personally".

I've had numerous people try to explain my own work to me, some misattributing it, and if I took offense every time, my life would be more exciting than it has to be.

Now I'm curious whether FSP's promised follow-up reveals heretofore hidden misogynistic clues that would reveal me as naïve or not.

Kitty said...

FSP asked about confronting him. I would not have confronted him, but I would certainly have corrected him along the lines suggested in many other posts. I probably also would have buried him in a blizzard of details about the work -- how we did it, when we did it, other results we have, ideas that first lead to that work, etc., to make it abundantly clear that we and not OGMoS were the driving force behind the work.

Anonymous said...

Mansplaining, for the win!

John V said...

Not mansplaining.

CPP used splainer rather than mansplainer, IMO, because of the latter's definition:

delighting in condescending, inaccurate explanations delivered with rock solid confidence of rightness and that certainty that of course he is right; he is the man in this conversation
http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Mansplain

and the fact that CCP is a guy, too, and one could view him as the more condescending and rock solid in confidence.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe that not correcting him is an option!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Comrade PhysioProf, for reminding us that this really is the internet by being the lame-brained troll dropping the f bomb and insulting everyone else on the comment page. To think I came here looking for further thoughtful discussion. Go back to your blog's 4 readers if you want people who think overly-politicized, crass musings are worthwhile.

word verification=nexpl (next please?)

Drugmonkey said...

I agree with the first comment. Do not be so quick to let OGMOS off the hook. What he says when you or your peeps are around is one thing. But what does he allow to go uncontested when his BSD buddies are talking?


This is a broader problem. Lest we pat ourselves on the back too much, let us recognize that all of us have been guilty of shorthanding "the work of the Jones lab" at times instead of painstakingly mentioning each first author. the roots are here...

yolio said...

I definitely would have corrected him. The only question is how! If I had any faith at all in his intelligence/decency, then I would have opted for making it a teachable moment---i.e. say something to make him feel awkward and that sticks in his memory. If the guy truly is hopeless, then it really doesn't matter what you do, and I would probably just say whatever made me feel good. If the guy is going to insist on treating you like you don't exist by default, then you don't really have that much to lose.

Anonymous said...

This is frighteningly common and a common assumption - that if some GM is remotely associated with any research He must be the driving force and instigator.

I had someone tell me about how Great Man and Someone Else - they forget who but it doesn't matter - had this great new result. I was the "Someone Else" and was in the process of taking the person to dinner, in my car.

I also had a GM ask me if I knew of the really hot new discovery in a sub-field, since they heard I was taking some interest in this sub-field. Went on to tell me about a paper that I was the first author on.
To make things worse, that GM was in my department and on the P&T committee.

Alex said...

What would I have done? I would have said "Yes, OGMOS* has been a wonderful collaborator on these ideas that my student has been developing. Would you like to come to the lab and see the apparatus she developed, and some interesting new data?"

As to speculations on why he did it: So many people in the comments are trying to figure out whether it's a blind spot based on status, a blind spot based on gender, a blind spot based on who he knows, or whatever. The bottom line is that he is following a line of work closely enough to be impressed and feel like gushing about it, but he can't be bothered to actually figure out who is doing the work. In a profession where reputation and credit are everything, that is just not acceptable. So what if we establish that he isn't sexist, just clueless?

For what little it's worth, though, I suspect that this is at least as much about fame as it is about gender. I work in a subfield where the biggest idea was worked out by a somewhat lesser-known person in 2005 (who also brings more quantitative rigor to the work), but the four groups that simultaneously did it in 2006 (with admittedly more useful implementations) get all the attention because most of them are in more prestigious places. Two of those four people are female, for whatever it's worth. However, finding out that a woman in a super-prestigious place gets more recognition than a man in a less prestigious place does not really establish that the gender playing field is level.

*OGMOS sounds very much like a Greek name.

neurowoman said...

This kind of thing has happened to me, and I don't think twice about simply saying, "Oh, no, that's my work you're thinking of, we're also collaborating with OGMoS on some other aspect" and continuing on into the science. My feeling is that it's simply easier to remember names you're familiar with, I do it too all the time (don't remember the first author, focus on the last author; or even a middle author whom I know personally); it's unfortunate that this sort of thing perpetuates the old boy system, and leaves the younger folks struggling to make a name. What's worse is that he's actually talked to you about it before, and still doesn't remember you (gr). The flip side is that having OGMoS's name on the papers may help it through review... Gotta take the good with the bad I suppose.

Anonymous said...

Totally would have corrected him, and tried hard not to smile until he left my office. What a jerk/nincompoop.

-another FSP

Becca said...

"I'm delighted that those RESULTS are transforming the way *you* think about X. Tell me, how could I politely remind you of the work my student has done generating the data on X to transform the way *you* think about the PEOPLE in the field?"

Bluntness FTW

a physicist said...

GMOS: "Do you know about OGMOS, who has done cool work on X? Let me tell you all about it."

Me: "Oh, you mean the work of Julia Student? That was her PhD project in my group. When we were starting that project, we realized it would be useful to collaborate with OGMOS, who provided some peripheral help. Yeah, Julia Science did some very cool work, she was one of my best students, and her results have gotten my group a lot of great publicity."

This has never happened to me, but could happen at some point. Right now my lab has two projects where we're collaborating with more famous, older scientists. When starting both of these collaborations, it crossed my mind that the credit might be assigned to my more senior collaborators. I'm at a stage in my career where that's OK, and I just want to see cool science get done, and collaborating with them will enable it. I did think about it before initiating the collaborations, though.

@anon 5:33: Loved "Julia Science", I borrowed the name for my dialogue.

@imogen: thanks for pointing out the Rebecca Solnit article, I hadn't read it before.

Sally said...

I have been there...

Jacob said...

I'm horrible with names (major problem at times) but remember someone's science very well.

As such, I'd say start with polite correction without too much sarcasm "I'm quite familiar with that work, as it was done here by my student ____." Perhaps adding: "With whom you spoke at ____."

But really, any response would depend pretty heavily on GMoS's attitude/tone when discussing the work and then his response to a polite correction.

Anonymous said...

When I was a postdoc,
I was introduced to a tenured (male) professor in my field at a meeting. Immediately, he said: "Oh, you use obscure technique X. You will be excited to read this great paper I just reviewed introducing technique X." I was/am the first author of this paper, which was in-press, but not published at the time. Granted it was the first time I was introduced to this fellow, but the introduction came with my full name and university affiliation. I was so invisible to him that he inadvertently de-anonymized his review of our manuscript.

What did I do? I looked at him calmly, smiled and said "I am so glad that you liked the paper and are excited about technique X. I found it very challenging to write the manuscript and am happy that my hard work paid off." After he retrieved his jaw from the floor, I explained that I was the first author on the manuscript and had developed technique X in collaboration with my postdoc advisor, who was a buddy of his. We then continued our conversation about technique X. I am no longer invisible to this male scientist. Mission accomplished.

Anonymous said...

I would have corrected him firmly and politely. If too soft, he would just 'forget' again.

In conversations and publcications, a paper is refered to by one author.
Advisors can have a positive role in breaking this trend, by refering to at least the first and last author of a paper.
Having said that, I am guilty of associating one name to a paper, either the first or last, whoever is most famous.

iris said...

first - that sucks. (even if plain ignorance the reason for the dude's behavior, he is responsible for it and thus a douche - especially because he didnt even notice he was talking to an (the) author on the paper).

what would i have done?

in facetiously polite voice, dripping with sarcasm told him that that was work done by a star grad student from my lab; and then i would pose a question - while i'm flattered that he would confuse my work with OFD's, was there any particular reason why he assumed that he was the driving force in the work?

..and then take some comfort in seeing the douche squirm it out.

ugh.

Ms.PhD said...

This has happened to me over and over, but it's usually my male advisors, coworkers or collaborators who get credit for my work.

So I can totally identify with this post. I do think it's at least partly sexism, although I know plenty of people who take credit for everyone else's work, regardless of gender.

I always correct them, partly out of instinct and partly because of this myth that women can't get ahead because we don't self-promote enough.

It has happened both with my thesis work and my postdoctoral work. And of course, we only know about it when it happens to our faces. Lord only knows how often it happens when we're not around!

This tendency to stand up and say "Actually, that was me" has earned me a reputation for being "paranoid", "defensive" and "Bitchy".

Can't wait to read what happened when you jumped off the cliff. I note that I actually thought you were going to say this guy didn't know who you were, as in a previous post where a Great Man had read all your papers but didn't realize you were a woman.

Anonymous said...

Everyone here would have really been so brave? No one would have clammed up out of anxiety?

Methinks it's a lot easier to be a hero in the anonymous comments section of a blog.

steph said...

FSP is so popular lately! 46 comments already!!!

I am always amazed by the plethora of crazy stories you have. Darn, I'd like to think that the stereotypes about scientists are totally wrong, but then they keep doing things like this. Could be just spaciness? But having to watch must have been bizarre yet amusing.

I am curious if you've ever watched that Big Band Theory show? My family keeps telling me to watch it and even bought me the DVD's for Xmas, but I'm afraid it is going to be too silly. Any intelligent and witty FSP commentary on it would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks for you blog!!! I'm sure we all appreciate your sharing of these musing and stories.

DrDoyenne said...

I can almost guarantee that if you confronted and embarrassed GMoS, that he would remember you from then on...and not in a good way.

Correction followed immediately by gushing enthusiasm for your student's (and your lab's) work (along with a reprint offer) would correct him and at the same time divert attention from his faux pas.

Then telling a very specific and memorable story about the work (how student cleverly built some apparatus that you are still using in your lab) would likely stick in his mind. He later might not remember your names, but he would remember you and student and your roles in this research.

That's what you really want to accomplish--correcting a mistake (and its perpetuation by GMoS) and making yourself more memorable (in a good way).

a physicist said...

@anon 3:21 pm: Maybe I'm brave because I already have tenure and I'm male. But really, what's the need for bravery? My assumption would be that the famous scientist wouldn't mind being corrected, if it was done politely. He might be a bit embarrassed, but ought to handle that gracefully.

The thrust of a lot of the comments is to respond to the famous person with enthusiasm: "Oh yeah, that great work on X! It was done by my awesome student! I want to talk with you all about it and now we can have an even more fun discussion because you know that I can answer questions you have about it!"

But yeah, I'll admit it's easier to pull that off in my secure position.

mOOm said...

Everyone here would have really been so brave? No one would have clammed up out of anxiety? Methinks it's a lot easier to be a hero in the anonymous comments section of a blog.

I've always been very aggressive at staking claim to my own work, alerting people to plagiarizing it, and making clear what my contribution is (when I get cited for saying the opposite). I'm the kind of person who sends my papers to people who didn't cite them when they should of. Of course, I don't say that, I write: "I saw you article on X and thought you may be interested in my paper on the topic". And I was the same when I was an undergrad and I submitted a paper for a class and was told I never submitted but then found it on the desk of another professor with comments written on it that he might find this interesting (I got 95% for the course after that incident and eventually published the paper as my first article in 1990).

So yes I'd do the same here.

Anonymous said...

Probably just habit. My adviser is one of those GMoS who's always dropping (first) names and will remember that some research is done by 'some student' of a friend of his, but not the student's name. He explains it away by saying he's terrible with names.

Anonymous said...

I do hope that you said something to give Former Grad Student the credit, as she's probably in a stage in her career where she could use it and it might be harder for her politically to make the correction.

Eager for the resolution of the cliff hanger!

Alex said...

I'm afraid that FSP will resolve this cliffhanger like the writers on Lost did, and present us with a universe where she took action and a universe where the incident never even happened in the first place.

Anonymous said...

I very commonly mis-attribute a work to a GMoS or a GWoS due to remembering only the famous name on the seminal paper, not the up-and-coming star whose name is less familiar to me. In some cases I attribute a work to a generic national group (e.g., 'Dutch researchers') because I don't remember which particular group/university was involved. I suppose I have a rotten memory, but it isn't intended as a slight.

Anonymous said...

I am outraged. I would not let it slide. How many other times is your (female) student being passed over due to having her work being attributed to other (male)colleagues? Since you are - or were - her PhD advisor, you should stand up for her. good luck!

Anonymous said...

Almost precisely the same thing happened to me, except that it cost me my first go at promotion to full profesor -- since the comment was repeated in a letter "in support" of my promotion, and then underscored by my chair (friend of BMOS). All of the "hard math" was attributed to my male co-author (who hadn't a clue how it all worked - a synthetic organic chemist).

I'd push back hard.

Anonymous said...

That may be a real life example of the matthew effect http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_effect