Ethics of Technical Publishing: Trust Yourself

by Jay Delm

You're finally ready to publish the results from a two-year research project you've done mostly alone. Your peers wouldn't show a "peep" of interest when you started the project. No advice was available when you wrote the proposal, designed the experiments, gathered the data and interpreted it. Now that your draft manuscript is about done, certain peers want to review it for you, and help you correct it. They offer suggestions, and are willing to take it over from there. Two peers, bully types, tell management behind your back that you were doing their suggestions all along; thus, most of the project belongs to them. Another tells them you owe them past favors. Still another tells them that the rewriting of your draft needs their specific business skills.

Additionally, your boss has a friend who wants a publication on his/her resume. Indirectly, your boss tells you to make this friend a co-author, or serious consequences will follow, like a poor evaluation and no chance for promotion. Furthermore, upper management isn't happy with the greedy behavior of your peers, and blames you for it. You should have made deals with them early. You had tried to do that, but they shied away from a thoroughly written proposal that might be rejected. To make matters worse, upper management now indicates that you won't make it to retirement if you don't falsify the authorships on your proposed publication. What do you do?

Several choices are listed below.

Positive Choices Negative Choices
Follow your best instincts Cave in to the requests
Seek qualified help Complain loudly to everyone
Use common sense Get mad at someone
Stay focused Abuse yourself in some way
Move ahead in confidence Seek a deal to save yourself
Buy extra toilet paper Give up

For this situation, the positive choices are the best ones. To finish your proposed manuscript under the above conditions will be haphazard at best. Still, you can do it. You owe it to yourself to try, even if your writing skills aren't strong. Free help is available, e.g., experienced reviewers, mentors, writers, and editors. You need not plagiarize yourself for any reason, no matter how plausible or good-for-business things are made to sound by those trying to con and rob you.

A researcher needs grit and self-trust to do this kind of work in the first place. After all, you planned the project yourself. You wrote the detailed proposal. You searched the literature, designed the experiments and tested them, gathered the data and documented it, and interpreted all of the results. Now, all you need to do is publish the final report and make certain recommendations. Letting someone other than a ghostwriter or a reviewer do it for you will be self-defeating. An unethical deal here will corrupt you, the project, and your employer. You must finish the job in a straightforward accountable manner.

Things you can do to succeed.

Respect others. Respect the needs of others while doing this work, even if their actions seem immature and inappropriate. Be sensitive and supportive, but don't go beyond that point. Bullies can be deceptive and manipulative in controlling what you do.

Avoid unethical situations. Avoid situations that censure your sense of right or wrong, or have ethical or legal implications. Inform your peers and managers that you will not enter into unethical conditions.

Have unusual requests put in writing. Have seemingly unethical requests put in writing. Most such requests will end there. If not, get a professional opinion from an experienced writer, attorney, or someone you trust, before continuing.

Speak up. Remind your superiors that the scientific community will notice anything unethical in your publication. Such behavior is more obvious than they may think. It can cause budget cuts, discredit, and lawsuits for them. If they insist that you falsify an authorship or credit, then remove your name from the publication. Let them be responsible for their own falsifications.

Grin and bear it. To a degree, being put to the test goes with this kind of work. You must be able to bear relative amounts game playing and harassment, e.g., exclusion, loss of status, goat getting, deliberate interference, micro-managing, gossip, and being shown your place.

Change jobs. If the pressures become unbearable, find an employer who maintains a high standard of professionalism in this kind of work. Bullies want you to think you're trapped and helpless. You can't do anything about it.

Avoid the following.

Flighty partnerships. Even if you had made an early deal with one of your so-called after-the-fact antagonists, you would have found out soon that he/she wasn't interested after all. That person will shirk the work, or suddenly retreat from the deal with polite regrets and thank-you-anyways. That leaves you with a partially botched project, and looking foolish. Whose fault is that?

Blame or cover-up. Certain leaders are masters at blaming others by implication. If you were to falsify an authorship for the so-called reasons of business-like cooperativeness, mutual sharing, and friendship, you could find yourself accepting the blame for major things you don't know about. Whose fault is that?

Harassment. Letting bullies take the credit for your work will not satisfy them. They also want you intellectually demeaned publicly. They want everyone to see who has the force to do it to you. You can't do anything about it. However, you can do something. Finish your work yourself.

Conclusion. Real success comes from doing your own work accurately, and by making appropriate deals with those who will help you finish it. Trust yourself with the entirety of your project. Write your own reports and manuscripts.


Viewpoint. The ethics for technical publication are subject to opinion, preference, situation, and viewpoint. For example, certain projects are done better by a team approach, and are set up that way from the start. Others are done best with one researcher only. Also, certain researchers prefer doing only the technical work, while letting others report the results.

Collaboration. Collaborations can be productive, effective, and a credit to you and your employer. However, they are easier said than done. Finding a collaborator who will buy into a project early can be difficult. Creditable collaborators are usually busy. Therefore, prove yourself by completing your project as effectively as you can by yourself. A worthwhile collaboration can come later as result of having good data you can share with another professional.

Suggested reading and references:

**Jay Delm troubleshoots laboratory analytical methods, and publishes in technical bulletins and journals. You can reach Jay by email.

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