Leadership is sharing the credit

There is an issue between students and professors that I've followed for a long time and been personally engaged in as a student, post-doc, professor and business leader. If a student/post-doc discovers something important using funding secured by the professor in an atmosphere provided by the professor, then how much credit should go to each?

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There is an issue between students and professors (and also between managers and scientists and engineers in business) that I've followed for a long time and been personally engaged in as a student, post-doc, professor and business leader. Here is a multiple choice question. Please circle the correct answer.
If a student/post-doc (scientist) discovers something important using funding secured by the professor (manager) in an atmosphere provided by the professor (manager), then how much credit should go to each?

a. The professor deserves the majority of the credit in all cases for creating the atmosphere and the facilities allowing the student to be successful. By definition, the student is a trainee.

b. The student deserves the majority of the credit because the student actually made the hands-on discovery. An opportunity came along, and the student recognized it.

c. If the student was following a hypothesis developed by the professor, then the student is an assistant, but not the principal. If the student's work did not involve any professorial suggestion, the reverse is true. In that case, the professor should advocate for the student.

d. A wise teacher always acknowledges the contribution of his/her student and they share the credit to help launch the career of the student, no matter what the circumstances.

e. None of the above.

These arguments are often nuanced by the relative ages and positions of the two parties.  For example, a professor five years older than the student, who has not achieved tenure, may react differently than a distinguished senior faculty member who has collected many awards over decades. But how?

Both parties can be reluctant to share new derivative ideas a few years later because the professor may envision that the student is a student (for life), and then subconsciously (even) move in a way that interferes with the new derivative ideas and may get (or even take) credit for those, as well. This can get messy because most ideas evolve from earlier ideas. Adding money to the mix can make it much worse. For example, these days, a start-up company may be involved, or there is a license agreement with an established company. Nearly all ideas fail commercially, but the thought that they might not presents visions of grandeur. I know, because I have these visions weekly. I've hit on one out of a hundred, just enough to maintain my faith.

There are a dozen or more cases involving Nobel prizes where the key student or postdoc, or even an inventive technician, was left out. There are particularly egregious examples in the history of neuroscience and antibiotics. Thus, the situation is not new and was itself discovered long, long ago.

Why am I bringing this contentious topic up anew? I do so because I see it developing in another form related to the encouragement for collaboration between faculty in focused and funded academic "centers" established to encourage multidisciplinary solutions. Few research faculty are truly "we" people, although there are a occasional outliers.

Some say leadership is not caring who gets the credit, while other suggest humility is overrated. The issue has been enhanced lately by the tendency of universities to issue press releases with abandon, something hardly done at all 20 years ago. Media channels are many now and news can spread quickly, out of proportion to its value. Quite often, the "name" gets credit, while the other participants are left out. This must be how Al Gore invented the Internet.

The university only knows Prof. Jones, but not her students. Jones should work harder to fix this.

Another reason the issue has come to the forefront is the increasing number of cases where there is a spousal relationship between the individuals. We all can recall Pierre and Marie Curie. I know personally that advances fairly attributed to my wife were quickly and erroneously assumed to have come from me. To "assume" anything without analysis is a bad habit.

I've also witnessed research groups in my own university where graduate students did not freely discuss ideas among themselves. One student worried the second would share the thought with the professor before there was time to do the experiment and establish credit. This is also common in business.

I believe it is helpful to debate uncomfortable topics, although my own mother recommended avoiding them because she believed people should always be nice to each other. They say 'time wounds all heels," and no doubt, it is only the rarest of new ideas or journal publications that survives the test of time. Five years is an eternity in science and engineering. Meanwhile, the correct answer to the quiz above is "It depends."

Let me pose another question to our readers. In prestigious journals such as Nature and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), there is now the expectation that the contributions of each author be revealed and that any potential conflicts of interest be exposed at the end of the paper. Here is a fictional example: "Plassard and Oshier were responsible for synthesizing obamamine while Gray carried out the X-Ray structure, Howell dosed the rats and Shoup processed samples for pharmacokinetics with mass spectrometry. Smith designed the study and wrote the manuscript. Howell declares a consulting contract with Waters Corp. and Smith owns stock in Eli Lilly." Should the journals of the American Chemical Society provide similar disclosures?

What do our readers think?

Pete Kissinger is Chairman Emeritus of BASi, CEO of Prosolia in Indianapolis and a professor of Chemistry at Purdue University.

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