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by Joan Schwartz, Ph.D., NINDS

    Joan Schwartz
"Soon enough the roles will be reversed: The colleague being evaluated will become the evaluator...."

One of the postdoctoral training goals enumerated by NIH Deputy Director for Intramural Research Michael Gottesman in a recent Catalyst column (November-December 1997, p. 2) was the cultivation of negotiating skills.

He suggested that mentors should teach their postdocs how to work through bureaucratic channels, "how to convince others of the importance of their needs, and how to avoid antagonizing the very people who are pivotal in helping secure the desired items." Although the column refers to negotiation for a postdoc's research resources, these same negotiating skills are essential throughout a research career in nearly all aspects of one's functions as a scientist.

One of the most critical areas calling for excellent negotiating skills is also one of the major areas of dispute among colleagues--getting credit for contributions, be it authorship on a paper or an acknowledgment when a collaborator presents a talk or seminar. These are important issues, and everyone needs to learn how to discuss them frankly but diplomatically when they arise. I would like to explore this topic through four fictitious, but close-to-real-life, examples, presenting alternative diplomatic approaches that are more likely to have a positive outcome than an undiplomatic response.

In Scenario One, Dr. Jones, a postdoctoral fellow, sees a manuscript written by his lab chief that contains a table of Jones' data, but does not have him listed as a coauthor. Jones is furious--after all, one of the major goals of being a fellow is to demonstrate scientific proficiency, and publications are probably the most important evidence of this.

Jones marches into his lab chief's office and in an accusing voice says, "You did not list me as a coauthor on this paper even though you used my data." His lab chief is immediately put on the defensive and attempts to justify his actions, but is also angry at being put on the spot. The situation has already become combustible and is heading toward intractability.

But what if, instead, Dr. Jones uses his best diplomatic skills and makes an appointment to see his lab chief after, one hopes, he has had time to cool down. At the meeting, Jones starts out by saying, "I saw this manuscript and thought that I might deserve authorship, since some of my data appear to be an important part of the paper. I am starting to look for jobs, so every publication helps. Could we discuss how authorship is decided upon and whether my name could be added as a coauthor?"

With this approach, Jones has presented several strong arguments for his inclusion as an author and has done so in an open atmosphere that allows his lab chief to discuss his rationale for deciding authorship. It gives the lab chief a way to agree gracefully to make Jones a coauthor. Both of them are satisfied with the result, and the discussion has clarified the rules of authorship in that laboratory.


The same approach applies in Scenario Two, in which another fellow, Dr. Wong, hears a talk by her branch chief at a national meeting. The branch chief presents some of Wong's data, but does not acknowledge Wong's contribution either during the talk or with an acknowledgment or collaborators slide at the end. If Wong storms up to her branch chief after the talk, demanding that she acknowledge her in her next talk, Wong will create a public spectacle and undoubtedly antagonize her branch chief.

The better negotiating strategy would be sitting down with the branch chief on their return from the meeting. Wong would point out how important it is to be acknowledged for her contributions, especially in a public talk at which a future employer or a former mentor (who could be writing a letter of recommendation) might be part of the audience. This approach makes the same point in a much more diplomatic way that is far more likely to achieve the desired result.

Another positive suggestion Wong could make to her lab chief would be to include the names of collaborators and fellows on data slides, and in discussion of the research as it is presented, in addition to slides at the beginning as well as the end of a talk. This approach avoids omission of the contributors on a final acknowledgment slide should the speaker inadvertently run out of time.

Scenario Three is more difficult and involves tenure-track investigators at NIH. For the most part, these early-career scientists are recruited into specific laboratories or branches where they interact with more senior scientists, but, if they are to achieve tenure, must establish themselves as independent investigators. What should Dr. Stone do if her lab chief presents collaborative results, thereby stealing her thunder before she herself has had a chance to discuss the data publicly or publish them?

Dr. Stone needs public recognition of her results if she is to make tenure, but she also needs her chief's support to reach that milestone. She needs to demonstrate independence, yet collaborations are a way to enhance her scientific productivity. The senior investigators within her lab are Stone's most obvious potential collaborators, given that they selected her to join their lab based, at least in part, on how Stone's scientific interests fit with the lab's mission. This is clearly another delicate situation in need of thoughtful discussion and negotiation.

In Stone's case, advice or mediation by a third party, such as mentors from outside the lab or the institute, might be helpful. Anyone who mediates probably needs to be a neutral and relatively senior person. NIAID recently made arrangements for tenure-track investigators to select mentors from a pool of senior investigators in that institute. This seems like a useful approach. Interinstitute interest groups could also serve as a contact point for finding an outside perspective.

Consider Scenario Four, not quite as common as the others, but frequent enough to require discussion. A fellow, Dr. Braun, has completed what he considers a significant piece of work, written a manuscript, and handed it over to his section chief, Dr. Metski, who will be the last author on the paper. Metski adds a figure containing data generated by a previous fellow in the lab whom she feels was instrumental in starting the project. She inserts the fellow's name as middle author, and submits the paper to The Journal of Biological Chemistry.

The paper comes bouncing back, not accepted, with suggestions by both reviewers for additional control experiments and a question about the figure added by Metski. Meanwhile Dr. Braun is busy looking for jobs. He doesn't have time to do the suggested controls, which he feels are not necessary, and urgently needs to have the paper on his CV as something more than "In Prep." Furthermore, Braun believes that the data in the extra figure not only are irrelevant, but actually distract from the significance of the paper--hence the reviewers' questions. Braun insists that the other fellow's contributions do not merit authorship.

What then? Consider this unacceptable approach: Braun tells his section chief that he wants to go ahead and submit the manuscript to The Journal of Chemical Biology. He proceeds to do so without further discussion and after removing the figure and the other fellow's name. The paper is accepted and published, thereby justifying Braun's actions in his mind. However, Braun has not told section chief Metski what he did, and she only learns about it when a colleague mentions seeing the paper in the library.

This approach leaves the section chief furious, for several reasons. First, the senior author is responsible for the quality of the research--quality that has been diminished by not including controls deemed essential by the first set of independent reviewers. Second, guidelines at NIH require that all authors approve each submitted version of a manuscript and that the senior author sign off on papers before they are submitted. Third, the senior author has the ultimate responsibility for determining authorship, although The NIH Guidelines for the Conduct of Research state that all authors should come to agreement on authorship.

All of these issues are discussed in The Guidelines, a copy of which every scientist at NIH should possess, read, and understand.

I hope no one reading this column will feel that what Dr. Braun did was the correct way to proceed. But what should a fellow do who feels that his or her work is being delayed because the supervisor "just doesn't have time to work on the manuscript," or wants the fellow to do more experiments than the fellow feels are necessary, or wants to add another scientist's name and data to the paper?

Again, this is a situation that calls for negotiating skills. The fellow should sit down with the supervisor and talk. He or she should discuss why the experiments are not needed or propose another way of getting them done--perhaps by a new fellow in the lab who may be continuing the project or might benefit by learning the techniques involved.

The fellow and mentor should discuss the relevance of data added to a paper, and whether the addition warrants authorship.

An important key to effective negotiation is being ready to compromise, as long as the scientific excellence and the integrity of the work will not be affected.

In the end, it will be more beneficial to the fellow to have another publication, even if it does contain some extra data and an additional author. It also helps a fellow to remain in the good graces of his or her supervisor.

In sum, good negotiating skills are essential for preserving relationships that will be important for career development. Supervisors and colleagues will continue to provide recommendations and evaluations, whether written or oral, throughout a scientist's career. These may or may not be requested by the scientist being evaluated. If a scientist has cultivated good will through diplomacy and good negotiating skills, his or her colleagues will be to be able to say, "Dr. Jones (or Wong or Braun) is a superb scientist, intelligent, insightful, AND a pleasure to work with--willing to go an extra mile when that will promote the science."

Soon enough, the roles will be reversed: The colleague being evaluated will become the evaluator. The newly tenured scientist will be welcoming a new tenure-track collaborator. And former postdocs will be applying their hard-earned negotiating skills in dealing with their own postdoctoral fellows.

Alternative Dispute Resolution Forum, April 30

Did you know that there is an NIH Center for Cooperative Resolution and that it is founded on principles of alternative dispute resolution?

You can learn about both on April 30th--all day--at a conference sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Called the "Alternative Dispute Resolution Forum: Achieving Desired Results," the meeting will be held on campus at the Natcher Building.

The general sessions will introduce the concepts of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and their utilization to improve work relationships in HHS agencies. Morning and afternoon breakout sessions will allow participants to select smaller, focused programs for the ADR-naive and -experienced. The breakout sessions will include presentations on: the basic concepts of ADR, the role of agency ombudsmen, the application of ADR in resolving workplace disputes, how ADR may be utilized to improve labor relations, the role of attorneys in ADR, and the practice of negotiated rulemaking in HHS.

There's no charge, but pre-registration is recommended. Call 443-6790/TDD 443-6990 for a registration form.

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