Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Credit Check

Lately I have observed some excellent examples of a phenomenon that has intrigued and disgusted me over the years. The phenomenon involves how students and others decide to acknowledge help from advisors, committee members, and assorted persons. It will shock no one that most people have a tendency to profusely thank famous people who said hi to them in the hall, giving less credit and thanks to lower ranked people who helped them with actual research activities, not to mention slaving away at editing their convoluted prose. Even though it is a cliche and perhaps just human nature, the phenomenon is still semi-interesting to think about. What is actually going on in people's brains when they make these Credit decisions?

I first encountered this years ago as an Assistant Professor, when I spent vast amounts of time I didn't really have to help a student whose committee I wasn't even on, but who needed my expertise for one part of a research project. I didn't even merit a thank you in the thesis defense or thesis, although the student used my interpretations and results I helped obtain. Another example years later as an Associate Professor: I routinely spent many days with various students in an analytical lab helping them get data they couldn't get themselves, showed them how to reduce the data, and gave them advice on interpretation and illustration. No mention of my help in their defenses or theses or papers using the data. Meanwhile, some of my senior colleagues were mentioned as inspirations and mentors even though all they did was suggest a paper to read.

A very recent example: I helped a student (whose committee I am on) with something he was incapable of doing himself. He had proved himself incapable again and again and was in a dire situation. Once I helped him, he said "Yeah, that's pretty much what I would have done myself." What was I expecting? I would not enjoy grovelling gratitude, but a sincere "Thanks, I couldn't have done that without your help and your time" would be quite nice. Maybe they think of me as a mom-type person -- like when you're a kid and you don't thank your mom every time she does your laundry? I guess the difference is that I feel I am giving them something valuable (my ideas, for example) that they don't have and, in some cases, will never have, themselves.

For years I thought it was an age-related issue, but it's still happening. My help is routinely requested, but then the results of my help just become part of the student's own work, not to be credited in any particular way, whereas the 'micro-help' some of my colleagues provide is treasured. I keep providing help because I get interested in a problem and want to investigate and I like working with and helping students, so I typically get something out of the activity.

I think this no-credit situation might be related to the phenomenon (mentioned in an earlier post) of my seeming to have *more time* than some other faculty just because I'm good at getting lots of things done. I really think I'm going to have to lose my nice, cheerful, and helpful persona.

This is just something to muse about. I am not sitting here bitterly counting up all the times I am overlooked and uncredited, and I do not want to turn into one of those people who constantly point out exactly where and when they should be cited and credited -- I've known a few of them and I think they are absurd. I am not oblivious either, though, and when I sit there in the auditorium watching my ideas and data incorporated without attribution into a presentation by a graduating student, I start to wonder: did they simply forget? not think my help was important? or what?


Anonymous said...

I have had that same thing happen over and over again. My "favorite" thing is when I am in a meeting and I suggest something which is ignored and 2 minutes later some guy will repeat what I said (sometimes they will even say "like X said a minute ago") and they get the credit!!!

I think it is partly the maternal thing, but I don't really understand why my help is considered less valuable--I never will...

Anonymous said...

It might be the fact you're efficient: I'm a mother of young children, and I whine loudly about not having enough time for everything and being tired (I _am_ tired).
All through my career I have always gotten ample acknowledgement, in words and writing.
Maybe I'm lucky, or maybe mathematicians are better at this.

FemaleCSGradStudent said...

The culture of my department is all about taking as much credit, even if it is undeserved. I've watched faculty present work (95% of which I did) AS THEIR OWN without any mention of my name. I can't say they are sexist pigs, because I've seen them do it to their male students as well.

I've watched graduate students do what you mention. I wonder if it's not just sexism, but some kind of confused understanding that to be successful in academia, you always have to appear brilliant, even if that means stealing.

Does anyone know of a "Ethics in Research" course? I wonder at my own department for not having one.

Anonymous said...

Really? I would definitely campaign for the appropriate credit (in a friendly way). This kind of thing makes me VERY, VERY resentful. Maybe that will wear off when I become more senior?

MV said...

Many students will realise the true value of teachers and guides only after some delay.But surely they will realise and acknowledge at some point of time.
-VM (

Ms.PhD said...

See my recent posts on the 'little birdie effect' and helping people, as they're quite relevant to this topic.

Personally, I'm quite flattered if people take my advice at all, and I get to see my ideas incorporated into their projects. I get a little joy out of that by itself.

But usually when that happens, they acknowledge my help, at least a little. I might get a passing mention in a thesis defense, but not necessarily an acknowledgment in the paper (I'm waiting to see on the most recent ones where the papers haven't been accepted yet). Does anybody notice - either way- other than me? I doubt it.

I agree that it's a Mom Effect- it's like doing the laundry. They don't want to do it themselves, and might not have- let's be honest here- if you hadn't done it for them. They'd be content to sit around in stinky clothes!

My advice: Be scarier! I've noticed that some students who've seen me on a bad day are more afraid of pissing me off, so they're more likely to make sure that I know that they know that I helped them.

Which is just fine by me. No sense in being TOO nice!

It's fine to be a big friendly pussycat. Just remind them, once in a while, that you have teeth.

re: Ethics courses, most universities with NIH funding have them, because NIH requires them for fellows and trainees on certain types of grants. They usually include at least one section on authorship and credit issues.

Tutkimusmatkailijatar said...

Dear Female Science Professor,

I am so grateful for the random events that led me to your blog a few days ago. I've been reading your posts during some idle moments, and as a female postdoc in science (who looks like a 16-year-old girl and is married to another scientist from the same field) I am relating to them totally. I am so happy to know that others are struggling with exactly the same confidence issues.

I also get asked for help a lot, but I guess even though I am quite nice to people, at some point they always realize that I am not the kind of person who they would like to make angry, so people are actually quite afraid of me sometimes. I expect a lot from myself and from other people. This way I also get my name in many papers, as I DO get the credit for my work. The only problem I am now struggling with, is that I don't know what topic science I want to pursue after my five years of postdoc. I dream of staying in science and doing something great, but I don't see it happening if I don't find a way to increase my creativity and find a topic that truly interests me and is also useful.

In any case, your blog is a huge inspiration to me. Thank you so much and greetings from Germany.

You don't need to publish this comment. I just wanted you to give you my support.