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Lab Labor: Who Deserves Credit For My Research Paper?

Dear Bintel Brief,

I am a recent college graduate, and have spent the past year working in a research laboratory on a paper that is just about to be published. When I saw the final draft this week, I was shocked to notice that the paper said it was co-written by myself and another young women who works in the lab — although the other girl has barely been involved in the project. I’m angry, but also afraid to mention this to my supervisor for fear of looking petty. After all, it doesn’t actively hurt me to share the space. What do you think?

Lab Lady

Steve Almond Responds:

Dear Lab Lady,

I’m no expert on research labs (though I am always happy to consume their test narcotics!). But this sounds like what we in the amateur advice-giving racket would call a “fishy situation.” If your colleague truly has been “barely involved with the project” why would she be made a co-author? And without your consultation? That’s crazy talk. And it’s not petty to ask what’s going on — it strikes me as common sense. But a little bit of advice on how to approach this from someone who does a lot of complaining: lead with your confusion. Don’t say: “What the hell is going on here?” Say: “I’m a little confused. Perhaps you can help me understand how paper’s are credited here.”

In the perfect world, the person who researches and writes a paper should receive full credit. But my educated guess is that most labs don’t always operate by these rules. As I understand it, senior researchers often get partial credit on papers. It’s a form of tribute, the research equivalent of sharecropping, I guess. That said, it strikes me as an infuriating and potentially disastrous practice. I mean, what if your paper becomes instrumental in the development of a vaccine? Would you want someone else receiving credit for your labor? Conversely, if the paper is eventually debunked and ruins your reputation — I’m sure it won’t be! — does this colleague have her good name tarnished?

The most important thing in any work situation is that you not suppress your feelings. I’m not suggesting that you need to over-share with your colleagues. But by your own accounting, this is making you angry. It’s important for you to talk with your supervisor, so you can figure out what’s going on and decide if it’s something you can live with, or if you should start thinking about your other options. Consider it research.

Steve Almond is the author the story collections “My Life in Heavy Metal” and “The Evil B.B. Chow,” the novel “Which Brings Me to You” (with Julianna Baggott), and the non-fiction books “Candyfreak” and “(Not That You Asked).” His most recent book, “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life,” came out in Spring 2010. He is also, crazily, self-publishing books. “This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey,” is composed of 30 very brief stories, and 30 very brief essays on the psychology and practice of writing. “Letters from People Who Hate Me” is just plum crazy. Both are available at readings. In 2011, Lookout Press will publish his story collection, “God Bless America.”

If you have a question for the Bintel Brief, email bintelbrief@forward.com. Selected letters will be published anonymously. New installments of the Bintel Brief, featuring Steve Almond, will be published Mondays at <www.forward.com>.

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