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How to Read a Scientific Article - Authorship


July 14, 2016

Text: Chapter 4, from Scientific Integrity : Text and Cases in Responsible Conduct of Research by Macrina, Francis L.

Page 35-38, On Being A Scientist

Assignment – Case studies due 21 July 2016 by 9am

This is where you will spend the bulk of your time initially, just learning to read scientific articles. Two goals for this session is to make it easier to read the papers that you will encounter in your lab and to understand the authorship process.

These articles tend to be densely-packed to give the most information in the most concise format.  To unpack the paper, the infographic below gives a great summary on how to approach this type of text.


Starting from the top of the article – When reading paper, you will notice the first author listed.  This person has either conceived the idea or has done the most research that is contained in the paper.  The last author is typically the Principal Investigator under which the project was completed.

When I read articles, I read the introduction/background to figure out the problem. Next I look at the figures and figure legends to see the data and make my own conclusions about the results.  Last I read the discussion section to see if my own conclusion match the article and get an overall summary of the project and any outstanding questions that the authors have.

Make sure to get the definitions of terms that you are unfamiliar with.  Keeping a notebook with a definition of these terms will help with reading articles and understanding lab presentations.  If a paper is too complex, you can get familiar with background by looking at a review.  Reviews are articles that summarize the history of a theme, concept, or technique and highlight current uses.  Reviews are often written in plain language and can be used to provide more background information.


Authorship and the Peer Review process

So how does the article get vetted by the scientific community? What problems can arise when or before publishing?  This week’s reading emphasizes and hopefully demystifies what it takes to create these articles and the rigorous process needed to publish.  Since publications are essential for establishing a scientific career in academia, there are political and ethical implications with proclaiming authorship.  Below are some case studies that was presented in the Scientific Integrity text.  Please give your response to the cases in the discussion form at the bottom of the page.

Case Studies

Dr. Colleen May is a participating neurologist in a clinical trial to assess the efficacy and toxicity of a new anticonvulsant medication. For the duration of the 2-­ year study, each neurologist is to meet with each of his or her patients for an average of 30 minutes each month. In Dr. May’s case, this amounts to an average of 20 hours per month. During each visit, the physicians administer a variety of specialized tests, requiring judgments dependent on their experience and training in neurology. At the completion of the study, the results are to be unblinded and analyzed by the project leaders. It is anticipated that at least two publications will be prepared for the New England Journal of Medicine . Dr. May has just learned that she will be listed in the acknowledgments but not as a coauthor of the manuscript. Dr. May argues that she has provided nearly 500 hours of her expert time, far more than needed to complete a publishable study in her experimental laboratory. Does Dr. May have a case for authorship? Why or why not?

Fred Taylor— a ­ professor at Western State University (WSU)—­ collected data on forest conditions and dynamics over a three-­ state area in the western United States. The project required in-­ the-­ field data gathering as well as telemetric data recording. All of the data were gathered and used to create a large computer database under a contract funded by the three states to WSU. Dr. Taylor was the principal investigator of the project, and he and his trainees and technicians collected all of the data over a 5-­ year period. The resultant large data set was analyzed, and Dr. Taylor and his group wrote and published several peer-­ reviewed papers on their findings. Dr. Taylor recently retired and moved to another state. The data set was archived on a WSU server. Dr. Taylor was granted emeritus faculty status upon his retirement; however, he continued teaching in environmental science at Southwest University as an adjunct faculty member and continued to stay active in his field by reading the literature. A year into his retirement, Dr. Taylor reads a paper just published by a WSU junior faculty member and her predoctoral trainee that has used a new modeling program to analyze parts of the large data set that he and his group built. The paper reports novel and valuable insights into forest climatology that were not possible with previously existing analytic algorithms. Although Dr. Taylor was unaware of the new algorithm, he is furious that he was not advised that the paper was being published, let alone being left off the authors’ byline or not even mentioned in the “Acknowledgments” section. The three-­ state contract to WSU is mentioned in the acknowledgments as having supported the creation of the large data set, but the name of the principal investigator— Dr. ­ Taylor— ­ w as not listed. Dr. Taylor writes to the WSU vice president for research demanding that his name be listed as an author by requesting that the journal publish a “correction” to the paper. He also threatens to file an allegation of plagiarism against the authors because their use of the data set without his knowledge represented an act of academic theft, or plagiarism. Comment on the implications of authorship, data sharing, and data ownership that impinge on this situation. What advice for action would you give to the vice president? Does Dr. Taylor’s threatened plagiarism allegation have any merit? Why or why not? Are the junior faculty member and her trainee at fault for anything they did or didn’t do?

Cases from Macrina, Francis L.. Scientific Integrity : Text and Cases in Responsible Conduct of Research (4). Washington, US: ASM Press, 2014. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 14 July 2016.
Copyright © 2014. ASM Press. All rights reserved.


Please state your answers to the above two cases below in the discussion section.