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Tooling Up: An Ethical Conundrum?

Are These Hardcore Ethics Violations -- Or Just Collegiality Problems?

Few things fan the flames of argument more than questioning someone's ethics. Yet sometimes questioning your own ethics can be a very good idea. Even though ethics may not seem that important on something like a job search, sometimes an ethics decision, if you botch it, can have very real consequences.

Recently, while moderating a lively discussion about changing the order of co-authors names on scientific publications--a discussion that took place on the AAAS Science Career Forum--I found out that even though something feels right, it may not be right.

Then, just a few days later, I was thrust personally into murky ethical waters ... on the receiving end. A major society called me about a grant-funded career workshop, and I was asked to participate as well as to help identify other trainers. After finding a great panelist for them, they decided to "uninvite" me but to keep the speaker I referred. The meeting organizer said that I was dropped from the program because they were seeking "women and minority speakers," and that, due to my race, I didn't qualify. This came after I had spent time assisting him under the seemingly intentional delusion that I was going to be a part of the program.

This was an ethics breach, right? It sure felt like it. Yet one of my mentors, a national teacher of ethics, says that this isn't really an ethical issue at all; he refers to this kind of poor judgment as a collegiality problem. Whatever the ethical scholars say, to me it seems like lousy ethics. Whether it's ethics or collegiality, decisions like this can have very real consequences, especially for people who are early in their careers and therefore vulnerable.

It seems that there are shades of ethical decisions we encounter in our day-to-day lives, and while you may be confident you're doing the right thing, your actions are likely to be interpreted differently by the people who are affected by them.

Decisions like this--big or small, obvious or subtle--can come back and snap at your heels later if you haven't thought through the consequences.

A Fiery Discussion about the Order of Names in a Publication

When drafting a resume or CV, some decisions require the writer to screen for ethical dimensions. One of these is your decision about the ordering of co-authors on your listed publications. When this came up recently on the AAAS Science Career Forum, I had no idea that it was such an emotional issue, or that it would be so strongly contested by people on both sides.

Even though there are papers where more than one scientist is considered to have equal weight--to "share" first author status, if you will--when published these names must go into a sequence in the journal, and that sequence is sometimes alphabetical. Sadly, this never works in the favor of Dr. Ziglar, while Dr. Abramson gets endless satisfaction out of the arrangement.

So how would you feel if you were a potential employer reading Dr. Ziglar's CV and you noticed that Ziglar was listed first on a paper that was published with Abramson in that spot? Did Ziglar violate some ethical principle in changing the order? After all, Ziglar and Abramson were equal contributors.

Changing the order of an author list seems, to most scientists, like a serious breach. Yet some people feel forced to do this because Human Resources people and busy managers often skim CVs to see how many first-author publications they contain. It's good to be creative, but decisions like these can have some very serious consequences.

"You just don't change the position of author's names on scientific papers. It has to be listed on your CV in the same order as it was shown in the published version," stated two ethics teachers, both very credible sources on the scholarly side of ethics.

I am not a scientist, so I don't live in that world. I admit that I empathize with all those Dr. Ziglar's of the world, stuck in second author (or worse) position when they had put out just as much effort as that author who shows up first. And what about all those junior authors--grad students and postdocs--who did all the important work but ended up being listed somewhere in the middle of the pack?

The nail in the coffin for this question came in the Forum discussion itself. A senior scientist and hiring manager at a large biotech company joined in to flatly state that he would toss any CV with altered publication names. For me, that was the end of the discussion. No one wants to have their CV discarded by a hiring manager. Regardless of your opinion on the ethics of a decision like that, changing the order of an author list is just too risky.

There's Another Solution to Most Ethical Quagmires

Job-seekers get into ethical hot-water when they don't see things the same way that their "audience" does. As an example, this hiring manager believes that each author buys into the rules of inclusion in a paper early on, and agrees -- even if implicitly -- to the ordering of authors. It is indeed tough luck if two authors of equal weight must be listed alphabetically, but there are ethical--and less risky--solutions.

One method of solving this problem on a CV came up in the online discussion. The suggestion was not to change the order, but to use that asterisk with a note saying "all authors have equal weight" or "authors 1 and 2 contributed equally to this publication." Another method I like is to include a separate section on the CV for "First Author Publications". In that section, the shared first-author paper is very hard to miss. There's a risk even with this approach, however, since some people will argue--and they have a point--that a first-author publication must be one where your name was listed first. Even though the goal is to determine who did the most work, or who made the most important intellectual contribution, in the end the ethically important thing is whose name is listed first. Go figure.

Here's another practical solution that's likely to be a bit less controversial, even if it's also a bit less effective. Just list the authors in the proper order, but list the most important authors in boldface, with a note of explanation at the top of the list.

There are lots of other ethical booby-traps surrounding the topic of scientific publications. It is always unethical to claim primary credit for work that was done by someone else; yet many lab-heads do this all the time. That's not subtle; yet some scientists violate this principle regularly. And they can't claim ignorance, because many science journals spell out their policies quite precisely. I'm not sure whether this is a matter of ethics or collegiality, but when it happens, it feels a bit worse than a "collegiality problem" to the person who actually did the work. When you know someone else claimed credit for your work it can be awfully tempting to claim it back by changing the order of the author list. Don't do it.

Job-Seeking Situations and Ethical Considerations

Read over these job-seeking decisions and see how you feel about the two different paths that were available:

Situation-A busy lab has several postdocs looking for employment at the same time. One of them comes back and tells about a great interview she had at XYZ Biotech. She is excited about the employer and says that she's expecting to hear from them within the next couple of weeks. When they do contact her, she's hoping it will be to make an offer.

You go back to your desk and review that company on the Web. Sure enough, the company is on your target list, though you haven't approached them yet. You start looking at the open positions on their Web site and notice that you're a perfect fit for one of their scientist jobs...probably the one your fellow postdoc just interviewed for.

Decision A: You mail your CV to Human Resources the same day. After all, job competition is "dog eat dog" and you had already had this one on your target list.

Decision B: You hold off for two weeks until your colleague gets feedback from her interview.

Analysis: While it is true that the job search involves a great deal of canine cannibalism, by potentially sabotaging your colleague's offer you risk being accused of poor collegiality. Decision A, by the strictest application of ethics, is not actually unethical (say my sources) because you didn't gain any proprietary information from the other postdoc. If she had mentioned a particular hiring manager by name and you wrote that person, you'd have been crossing the line of ethics as well as being a bad colleague. But whatever ... I'd still rather be working with people who choose Decision B.

Situation-You are working up your CV while trying to figure out how to avoid discussing a 9-month period that you took off for a backpacking trip through Thailand. Though it was a lot of fun at the time, a few years later that period of your life--or, rather, the "resume hole" that it caused--is starting to feel like a "skeleton in the closet".

Showing precise date information will inevitably lead to questions about these missing months. A friend points out that some people leave off the month and the day on their CV so that no one is likely to notice.

Decision A: You opt to go this route, calculating that if anyone asks you for the exact dates of employment you can always talk about how much maturity you gained in your overseas encounters.

Decision B: You put the exact dates on the document and prepare to talk about the reasons for your 9-month gap whenever it comes up in interviews.

Analysis: Yes, there is some chance that no one will ask for clarification on dates, but hiding things from prospective employers generally leads to bad outcomes. It is just plain wrong to cover up any gap, skeleton or not. As one of my ethics advisors told me, "The consequences of hiding the gap are likely to be far worse than acknowledging it."

In Conclusion-Lies, Exaggerations and Subtle Distortions

Today's headlines tell of lies and exaggerations on resumes and job applications. Recruiting-industry magazines talk about new services being launched to help headhunters ferret out those who would try to defraud them and about legal services that protect recruiting firms from the lawsuits that follow when referred candidates have lied about their backgrounds. The ethics of job seeking seem to be fraying at the edges.

While it is unlikely that many readers of Science's Next Wave dummy up work experience and phony degrees for their CVs, it is possible that, as you progress in your job search, you will be tempted to cross the line of what others consider an ethical standard. You may get caught up in a much more subtle issue--what my ethics advisors describe as a "collegiality issue." Unethical--or uncollegial--decisions can often be seen as necessary strategic moves in something akin to a game of chess.

Chess moves, however, aren't dangerous to your career. Respecting ethics needs to be something you do for its own sake, because you think it's right or wrong, regardless of the consequences. That, after all, is what ethics are all about. Yet your ethical decisions do have consequences, and sometimes those consequences can alter the course of your career.