Conduct Unbecoming

Published on: Author: Colin Thorpe

We have published a body of work on a small sulfhydryl oxidase – reasonably fundamental stuff I thought.  We found new substrates, new enzymatic activities, explored enzymatic mechanisms and, with colleagues, solved crystal structures.  So I was disconcerted that a speaker at a recent conference never mentioned any of our contributions in his talk on this same enzyme (I was there, and we have other witnesses!).   There was no acknowledgment in the introduction, nothing in the middle and nothing at the end.

So what is a conferee to do?  Should I have complained in the question-and-answer period and sounded like a whiner?  Should I raise this with the speaker privately and listen to his excuses? Should I send an aggrieved letter?  I did none of these things – maybe the speaker meant to credit our work but nerves overwhelmed him.  Or maybe he just forgot.  Give the fellow the benefit of the doubt.

My annoyance was rekindled recently when I read one of his papers and found that our contributions to the same enzyme were again essentially unacknowledged – an uninformed reader would conclude that the whole intellectual framework of the paper originated with the authors.  Yet many of the central ideas had been clearly identified years earlier.  Now we don’t need witnesses – the literature is our record!

This sort of behavior is, at best, ungracious.  What does he lose by citing the literature appropriately and by acknowledging in talks that others have played a role in the development of the field?  A failure to cite relevant work is also unethical – to quote from the Ethical Guidelines for Publication from the ACS:

“... An author is obligated to perform a literature search to find, and then cite, the original publications that describe closely related work….”

“Colin, just get over it – these things happen all the time” …. I was given this sage advice more than 20 years ago (for a different case entirely!).  The very next day my “turn-the-other–cheek” colleague heard his own work characterized with insufficient deference.  This time it was personal, and he went ballistic!

Maybe that’s what I should do next time!

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