By Tara Hoke
A complaint is forwarded to the editor of an ASCE technical journal about a paper recently published in the journal. The complainant states that the paper’s author, a civil engineering professor at a large state university, had served as her faculty adviser during completion of the complainant’s Ph.D. thesis. The complainant alleges that she had made substantial contributions to both the research and the writing of the published paper; in fact, she claims, some sections of the professor’s paper had been lifted directly from the complainant’s thesis, though the former neither cited her thesis as a source nor named her as a co-author.
As support for her allegations, the complainant provides a copious amount of documentation, including a copy of her Ph.D. thesis, highlighted in the areas of alleged overlap; email correspondence between her and the professor during her time as a graduate student; and an electronic submission record from a paper she had unsuccessfully sought to publish some months prior to the professor’s own submission.
When contacted by the ASCE journal’s editor, the author of the published paper heatedly denies any impropriety in his actions. While acknowledging he was the complainant’s thesis adviser, he claims that the similarities between the student’s thesis and his own paper result simply from both works making some degree of usage of the same data set — data that were developed by the professor’s research team under a private research grant and owned by the university.
The professor acknowledges that the complainant had conducted some of the tests reported in his paper but claims she had merely implemented his instructions in doing so, and he insists that his former student had contributed to neither the conception and analysis of his research nor the drafting of his paper. He points out that his paper had listed the complainant in its acknowledgments section for her assistance during the testing phase, and he states that this was appropriate recognition for the extent of her involvement.
While the journal editor is not entirely persuaded by the professor’s explanation for the overlapping content, he also does not feel the complainant has conclusive evidence of her contribution to the professor’s work. ASCE’s standard procedure in such cases is to report the matter to the primary author’s university, recognizing that the institute has both greater access to electronic records and other documentation of the research and a vested interest in ensuring the integrity of research efforts published in its name. Accordingly, the journal editor refers the case to the university for resolution of the authorship dispute.
Unfortunately, the university’s research integrity office is slow to respond, and as months go by, the editor can offer little information in response to the complainant’s frequent inquiries. Growing impatient with the perceived lack of action by the journal, the complainant decides to seek an audience with ASCE’s Committee on Professional Conduct. However, the author of the disputed paper is not an ASCE member, so the complainant instead files an ethics complaint against the journal editor.
The student claims that the editor is intentionally hindering her efforts to receive proper credit for her research. Citing information obtained from ASCE’s website, she notes that the journal editor and the professor travel in the same professional circles, including past service on the same technical committee and a shared panel presentation at a recent conference. She contends that this connection is evidence of the editor’s conflict of interest and that his aim is to protect his colleague from exposure of his wrongdoing.
What ethical guidance does the ASCE Code of Ethics offer about the individuals involved in this case?
While most of today’s code defines the ways engineers provide benefits to others, at least one ethical principle reflects the benefits engineers reserve for themselves: namely, the right of due recognition for their professional achievements. And although few would dispute the value of proper credit to all practitioners — paving the way for greater job opportunities and more attractiveness to clients — perhaps nowhere is credit quite so critical as in academia, where job security and advancement are often highly dependent upon one’s authorship and citation credentials. It is perhaps small wonder, then, that academic credentials are often guarded with intensity and vigilance and accordingly that most ethics complaints related to proper credit arise from scholarly works.
At the time this case was reviewed by the CPC, guideline 5e of the ASCE Code of Ethics read: “Engineers shall give proper credit for engineering work to those to whom credit is due and shall recognize the proprietary interests of others. Whenever possible, they shall name the person or persons who may be responsible for designs, inventions, writings or other accomplishments.”
The matter would have been straightforward for the CPC if the complaint had been against the author; in that case, the CPC would simply have investigated whether or not the acknowledgment given was sufficient credit. But since the complaint was against the editor, a more difficult choice had to be considered — namely, whether the editor violated an ethical obligation by failing to ensure that the author had not violated his obligation to provide proper credit.
In the previous code, the guideline on proper credit was a subset of Canon 5’s dictate against unfair competition, recognizing that, in most cases, a person who fails to provide proper credit receives an unearned commercial or professional advantage from the omission. But since the CPC could find no obvious competitive advantage to the editor in the disputed authorship, it focused instead on the complainant’s allegation that the lack of progress stemmed from a desire to cover up a professional colleague’s wrongdoing — raising questions of the editor’s compliance with his Canon 4 obligation to “avoid conflicts of interest” in performance of professional duties.
When questioned by the CPC, the editor expressed great offense at the idea that his independent judgment had been compromised. He noted that, with few academics and even fewer active volunteers in his niche area of specialization, it was all but inevitable that he would have had some degree of interaction with the professor. But he denied any level of connection that might even come close to creating a financial, personal, or other conflict of interest.
The CPC ultimately agreed with the editor, finding that the editor had performed his volunteer service in good faith on behalf of the Society and with no evidence of an improper motive. The CPC informed the complainant that it was closing the case and advised her to continue to seek resolution through the author’s university. Ultimately, however, the complainant was unsuccessful in that endeavor as well; the university’s research integrity office supported the professor’s version of the case and declined to endorse any change in the paper’s authorship or citations.
When in 2018, a task committee was formed to review the ASCE Code of Ethics, the committee was quick to take issue with the “proper credit” provision. While agreeing with the moral precept behind the provision, the committee felt the existing language was lacking in several instances. The committee felt that requiring credit when due invited engineers to make subjective judgments about whether credit was warranted, and the focus on “proprietary interests” raised questions about attribution in the absence of ownership, such as between employer and employee. Finally, it felt the requirement to name others “whenever possible” created a loophole for engineers to avoid giving credit to others.
When in October 2020 the ASCE Board of Direction approved a revised Code of Ethics, the new code offered a more concise and explicit obligation in sections Va and b: “Engineers only take credit for professional work they have personally completed; (and) provide attribution for the work of others.”
Of course, the ethical principle to provide proper credit affects not only engineers but also clients and employers, downstream users, and the public at large, enabling them to make informed decisions about the merits of the engineers entrusted with their professional needs. As such, it can be said that even this so-called ethical “benefit reserved for engineers” springs from a philosophy of service to others.
Tara Hoke is ASCE’s general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.
This article first appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Civil Engineering as “Attribution Is a Matter of Service.”