Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Taken for Granted: Scarlet Letters

Credit: Kelly Krause, AAAS

For scientists hoping to establish research careers, nothing is more crucial than publishing in a respected peer-reviewed journal. So when his single-authored article "Survivin Mediates Cdk1 Activation via Cdc25B Early in Mitosis" went up on the Web site of the influential Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC)on 28 September 2010, with publication on paper slated for the December issue, former postdoc Pedro Cánovas thought he was on his way.

But the December JBC didn't carry his paper. If you seek it on the Web site, you'll find the 25 pages of text and figures. Across each one, in bright red capital letters an inch high, however, is the word WITHDRAWN.

Without control of the money that supports research, [postdocs] also lack the power to bring their ideas to the scientific public by deciding independently to submit papers for publication.

What happened to the paper and to Cánovas's high hopes? The journal's Web site provides no explanation. The evidence available to Science Careers indicates that problems with the science were not to blame for the journal's decision to withdraw the article. This isn't a story about scientific error or dishonesty, or about the role of the protein survivin in the internal processes of cells. Rather, it's a glimpse into the role of postdocs in the process of research production. With everyone from President Barack Obama on down stressing the importance of new ideas from young scientists, this episode raises questions that leaders of the scientific community might want to think about.

A license to publish?

You've probably never heard of this paper and maybe not of survivin either. You may, however, remember Pedro Cánovas. Science Careers introduced him in January 2009 under the pseudonym Otto B. Doing-Better and then again in March 2010. By that time he was involved in a lawsuit against his erstwhile employer, the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Medical School in Worcester, and his supervisor there, Dario Altieri, then professor and chair of cancer biology and now director of the Wistar Institute Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This column cannot adjudicate Cánovas's claims about Altieri's actions, judge anyone's motives, or evaluate the merit of research results. Our interest is only in what an event may tell about the position of postdocs, Ph.D. scientists who lack standing as independent researchers in the academic world. In this case, such a scientist, Cánovas, is seeking to inform the broader research community about findings on which he and his former supervisor apparently don't see eye to eye. The office of the general counsel of UMass (also speaking for Altieri) and JBC both declined requests to comment for this article.

The Ph.D. degree by definition indicates that a university -- in Cánovas's case, the University of London -- has certified the recipient capable of conducting professional research and making an original contribution to knowledge. This in no way certifies that everything that person says is correct. In decades past, however, it was in itself enough to qualify scientists to head their own labs. Before production of Ph.D.s outstripped the available faculty jobs, no one suggested that holders of doctorates needed additional "training" to do publishable research. Today, however, most scientists who take postdoctoral appointments in other people's labs lack the bureaucratic standing to seek independent research funding. Without control of the money that supports research, they also lack the power to bring their ideas to the scientific public by deciding independently to submit papers for publication.

Publish and perish

It was exactly to gain publications to advance his career and cancer research that Cánovas, a native of Spain, joined Altieri's lab as a postdoc on a temporary visa in 2004. Four years later, he was terminated on grounds of insufficient funding. Cánovas did not believe that was the true reason for his dismissal. He also stood to lose the employment-based visa that allowed him to be near his American-born son. He petitioned the university for redress. Unsatisfied with the results of that process, he filed a multicount suit.

Since his postdoc appointment ended, four preoccupations have dominated Cánovas's life: his son Diego, now 7; an extensive, and thus far unsuccessful, search for another research position; his legal action against UMass and Altieri, which he is pursuing pro se (as his own lawyer) because he cannot afford legal fees; and efforts to publish his scientific work. In 2008, a paper bearing both Cánovas's and Altieri's names was submitted to Nature Cell Biology. Although one of only 10% of submissions sent out for initial review, the paper ultimately was turned down.

Following that rejection, Altieri declined to collaborate further on publishing with Cánovas. At Cánovas's request, however, he sent a letter acknowledging Cánovas's right to publish the work on his own along with copies of the files of the work. In 2009, Cánovas submitted his paper to JBC, listing himself as sole author and his affiliation as "Department of Cancer Biology, University of Massachusetts, Medical School, Worcester, MA 01605." It was accepted and went online.

But there's more to publishing a journal article than getting it up in pixels. There are also publication fees, in this case amounting to more than $2000. The grant supporting the research ordinarily covers those, but Cánovas had none. Nor, after 2 years of unemployment, did he have the money to pay on his own. This meant that he had to apply to the journal for a fee waiver, which sometimes is granted when grant money is unavailable. But that meant explaining why the lab chief did not pay the fees.

The journal replied that it needed documentary proof of Cánovas's right to publish the article. Cánovas sent them Altieri's letter granting him the right to publish the research. The journal responded with a request that Cánovas list Altieri as an author. Cánovas wrote to the UMass attorney explaining the situation and requesting a prompt reply. On 25 December, the journal declared the paper withdrawn. In January, the attorney wrote back without providing Altieri's assent.

Cánovas's suit accuses Altieri, among other things, of improperly preventing him from publishing his work through censorship and prior restraint, charges the UMass attorney has vehemently denied. Judge John Lu of Worcester Superior Court agreed with the university on this in denying one of the many motions in the case. "Since Dr. Altieri does not exercise control over the scientific journals' publication decisions," the judge wrote, "Altieri's alleged unwillingness to collaborate with Mr. Cánovas on publishing his work" does not constitute censorship. Prior restraint, furthermore, by definition refers to actions of government entities, not of private individuals.

And, argues UMass in a document opposing one of Cánovas's motions, the former postdoc "has never been prohibited from publishing his manuscript; and, in fact, Dr. Altieri has given him full permission to do what he will with the manuscript." Cánovas "is therefore able to publish his article in any number of ways, either by private publication, in a newspaper, in pamphlets, or otherwise. The First Amendment does not require that his manuscript be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. On the contrary, such private publications are free to control what they publish, or whether they publish at all."

Tarnished goods

But publication in a peer-reviewed medical journal is the only kind that means anything to Cánovas. The science in the paper, he says, is good enough and significant enough to have gained acceptance by a highly respected journal and, he claims, helps to advance research on cancer.

"I understand the journal's thinking ... once they found out that this was by a postdoc associated with a university," says Michael Sullivan, professor emeritus of mathematics and computer science at Chicago State University in Illinois and a member of the council (board of directors) of the Text and Academic Authors Association. This national nonprofit membership association, open to graduate students, postdocs, faculty members, and others who write academic publications, offers services such as workshops on academic writing and publishing and publication grants that help scholars and researchers who lack sufficient grant funding pay publication costs.

"What [the journal is] probably questioning is the validity of who really owns the results in the paper," Sullivan continues. "Typically, if you're working with a professor, ... the results that are obtained are generally jointly published." But, he adds, "in this case, it's a little murky."

Despite the science having passed peer review, Sullivan says, the circumstances put a "tarnish on it. I think that's why the journal is saying [they'll] publish it if the guy who directed [the research] signs off on it." Another problem, Sullivan notes, is the claimed university affiliation in the absence of the faculty member's participation.

The validity of Cánovas's claims is a matter for the court to decide. Why JBC withdrew the paper can only be surmised. Whether the article does advance cancer research is moot, at least for now. But this much seems clear: The independent scientific reviewers at a reputable journal judged Cánovas's paper worthy of publication.

Would it have seen print had Cánovas been a faculty member with a grant of his own rather than an ex-postdoc without a job? How many other young scientists have ideas they cannot get into print because they lack the bureaucratic platform and financial means to do so? These questions may not have scientific answers, but they raise issues that people who would encourage new ideas from young scientists ought to be thinking about.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers