Few things strike dragon glass into my frozen white walker heart like hearing, “They are taking my data for their paper!” If you’ve been in science long enough, you’ve probably seen many perturbations of this. Postdocs stealing graduate student data to write training fellowships, graduate students mad that a rotation student’s project intersects too closely with their projects and faculty scrums over authorships and ownership.

I’ve seen these things up close and super ugly. Don’t believe me? In graduate school, I told the boss I had previously worked with about this idea I had that metabolic properties of populations of brain cells were making them resistant to disease (if you aren’t in biochemistry and cell biology – hang with me for a sentence or two, I’ll get to you!). I had dug up some old literature about a type of inborn error of metabolism that killed the same brain cells that died in Huntington’s disease. I thought I’d try use metabolite in cells and see if I could recapitulate and SAVE THE WORLD. My old boss was super intrigued, thought it was a great idea and then said, “I should try that!”

If you accidentally read that and think he meant he was encouraging me to pursue my awesome connection with my new thesis advisor, you’d be wrong. He heard my idea and said he wanted to do it by himself.  In his lab. And he did.


WHAT. IS. HAPPENING.?  After I died of shock, walked my corpse away, cried and screamed, I sheepishly went to my new adviser, who was pretty supportive. She took me into her office, looked deeply into my forlorn face and said, “Well, you’re an idiot for telling him. I guess you learned something today.” That was considered mentoring back in the day. Go figure.

This isn’t something hapless new students have to learn about. I’ve also watched far more senior investigators struggle with their their own painful lessons. Take the poor graduate student whose project sparked a nasty public feud between science powerhouses Jack Roberts and Kevin Strange. A science collaboration was born between them when one mentor brought an idea and another brought a technique. Their work gave birth to a big-boy fight of epic proportions involving any administrator and colleague who had the misfortune of not walking quickly enough down the hall.

Ten years after Strange published his Authorship: Just a Flip of the Coin manifesto on his experience, I still get twitchy when science folks can’t play in the sandbox together. Core to these disputes are deep concerns about ownership, appreciation and mentorship.

On the topic of ownership, I have some pretty clear Fighty Squirrel rules.

  1. You don’t own your project. In spite of the fact that almost every trainee drops the phrase ‘my project,’ in the very literal sense, it is not your project. I absolutely encourage trainees to have partnerships with me, but not ownership. I think I’d be a terrible mentor if my trainees owned their projects. More than likely, projects came to life over time and were written up in grants long before a trainee showed up to claim it as ‘theirs.’ Projects often take deeper dives into the science a group has been studying for years, if not decades. Very few labs allow students to ‘come learn our models then generate your own idea’ anymore. The vast majority of scientists simply can’t afford to do science that way. It’s too expensive and time consuming. Before his death, Ben Barres wrote an excellent entry about our need to help fellows transition into independent careers by carving out projects and techniques that they can work on without worrying about their former advisers’ labs competing with them. I support this. But I’m frankly not sure how easily this can be accomplished when you don’t have a large lab. (Comments sections are for winners who have ideas on this!)
  2. Posters don’t equal papers. This is a particularly tough pill to swallow. Trainees increasingly have opportunities to present data at forums, works in progress or even national meetings. With these opportunities comes first authorship on abstracts. This is tremendous. It does not, however, mean they are going to be first author on a paper that uses that data. Graduate students and postdocs generously share their own data, training and experience to make these opportunities happen for short term trainees. Even if you spent weeks or months generating a figure, don’t count on your data making you first author on a paper with a lot of other data and work behind it.
  3. If you don’t publish it, I will.  The funding agency that provided money for the experiments that you did deserves a product for their investment. More often than not, that product is a publication and a shared resource. If solid data is sitting around with no effort to put together a manuscript, as the head of the lab, you should know that I’m actively looking for ways to incorporate that set of data into other publications. I absolutely recommend reaching out to everyone who pitched in and offering them a chance to help edit and analyze data and still be an author.
  4. Know who you are putting in your sandbox. Just last month, I heard another tale of woe of an exceptionally talented assistant professor who had had to jostle with a well published senior PI who helped recruit him. Junior PI was so enamored by the interest his colleague showed, he put him on his first student’s thesis committee. Sadly, that interest turned toxic quickly when the senior PI started doing the exact same experiments the junior PI’s student had proposed in their thesis committee meeting.  I have heard perturbations of this story dozens of times. There is just a group of people who have some sort of internal feedback loop where everything they hear is their idea. I watched one of my favorite science buddies, ‘Evin Kess’* sit and stoically watch someone present his own ideas back to him a few months after he had presented them in the same forum. By the end of the interloper’s talk, I was in far more of a lather than Evin was. Asked why he wasn’t frothing, Evin smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘because I know I can do these things. He can’t.’ Turns out he was right.
  5. Speak fast and speak clearly on what you’re planning  or don’t speak at all. As a grad student, I balked loudly and immediately when my old boss declared his intent to test the hypothesis I was pursuing. In spite of my earlier recollection of dying, what really happened was I loudly and immediately said, ‘No! I want to do this for my thesis!” Even though my old adviser published with my idea, it would be easy to think it didn’t help that I was a squawking ball of betrayed fur. You’d be wrong. It helps to know you’re right. It absolutely doesn’t pay the bills, and you won’t be getting any prizes for honesty, but maybe, just maybe when you grow up some wackaloon will ask you to blog and you can share your life lesson.   How we used to settle authorship and project issues:
  6. Be open or be nuts. My old boss did his experiments his way and I did mine my way. Long story short, I published two papers doing things my way and even as a grad student, my work was hella more cited than his was. I also took my thesis mentor’s advice to heart and learned something. Bad people do bad things. Isolate them. Protect your young. Try like hell to warn the next Fighty Squirrel who you see coming.
  7. Don’t take silly people seriously. Evin’s freakish calm is worth noting. There are lots of upsetting things that happen in life. Getting into a lather about someone who couldn’t possibly compete with you may not be worth your time. Evin is cooler than I am, so I would caution it is certainly worth your time to talk to your chairman or other mentoring guru about your concerns.

My most heartfelt advice from this and many other dustups is communicate early and often, but don’t change who you are and how you communicate about what excites you. Avoid the bums, but if you stop talking about science you’re passionate about, you won’t be a person you like. Moreover, if some wackaloon is pathetic enough to steal your ideas, let them have them. You’ll get new ones. Promise.

*Since Evin Kess didn’t publish a manifesto on his experience (yet), I’m not using his real name.

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This is all good advice, but in neither my own transition from postdoc to PI, nor in any of the folks that have trained with us, has this been an issue. It’s true that you have to work on what the PI has money for, more or less, but you’re certainly going to have your own ideas about it (or you should if you’re going to eventually be independent), and you carry those with you as you move up in career stages…

I like people who agree with me, James! Let’s be BFF?

I’ve seen issues arise in neuroscience where HHMI and high power PIs won’t let post docs work in the same disease the studied in their fellowship.  😮

This is great advice! I am currently on a K grant and early on my mentor and I have published well together. I am planning on submitting an R01 in about a year so obviously I will need to have my own project. Just a few questions:
1. Is it customary to have your mentor on your first R01 for some effort. I can’t imagine doing this alone for a first R01 so feel I still need the training wheels. 
2. Also I am trying to branch out and do some work with my co-mentor who is part of my K committee. I am worried if I do indep work with my co-mentor, my main mentor will feel left out/offended/mad but I know if I include him he will try to dominate the project since he is more senior then my co-mentor.

Hi Dr Guilliman,

Thanks for writing. I’m happy to hear that things are going so well with your K-award. Publishing well is a great predictor of success in getting your R01 application!

I’m going to throw your question out to our Twitter followers as well (my handle is @mclneuro), but it has been my experience that R01s are really thought to be more independent and do not include your former mentor. I don’t actually recall seeing former mentors on successful new R01s.  While it may seem like an artificial time to separate from your mentor (especially if you remain at the same institution), it would probably address some of the concerns you also mention about their influence on your collaborations. 

Most mentors welcome the opportunity to have trainees pull in additional collaborators – it means you are growing in new directions independent of your PI. I think if they ARE upset, that’s a bad sign. Moreover, your concern that your old mentor might ‘dominate’ your project is also a bit worrisome. PIs should be backing off, not butting in as you develop. 

Maybe your mentor is seeing something you aren’t about the project/new collaboration. Is the new collaborator funded and do they have sufficient expertise to do the projects you want to? Has the new collaborator had other new PIs they have worked with who haven’t been able to publish and acquire more funding? You should ask these questions frankly. Sometimes senior mentors are able to see gaps that excited young investigators are missing. 

That being said, it’s also possible they are just poking into an area where they aren’t needed and being overly protective. One way to do this is to have a mentoring committee where you have multiple senior PIs who aren’t afraid to call your old boss out on behavior that might be self serving.

I am a fan of having a mentoring committee for all stages of your career. Think of them as your personal cheer squad. 

Good luck and let us know how things go!! Fighty

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