Ombud’s Corner: due credit!

Patents, copyrights, trademarks… there are many ways to protect intellectual property and yet, despite these precautionary measures, it seems that colleagues sometimes still slip up: plots done by one person are used in another’s presentation without being appropriately credited, citations are wrongly assigned, references are inaccurate…


Plagiarism and misappropriation do not only happen in the worlds of art, music and literature. Often in our world, during the preparation phase of a scientific paper or even just in their daily work, scientists are required to share the work of many contributors and sometimes they do not keep track of who did what. No-one minds as long as this stays within the limits of teamwork, in which credits are distributed evenly and nobody’s contribution gets forgotten. Problems arise however, when one person’s work ends up being presented by another without the correct credit, or indeed when someone is held back from presenting work because it contributes to a result that someone else needs for promotion or other purposes.

Mary works on the first phase of a project during her fellowship before moving on to other responsibilities within the collaboration. The project is completed a few months later and to her surprise she learns that a senior colleague has presented the final results without any reference to her contribution, although her findings had been critical to the subsequent orientation of the work. When she raises the matter with the project leader, he brushes off her concerns, saying that it was crucial for the senior colleague’s CV to get an indefinite position, as he was a key player in the team. Mary feels that the work was critical for her own CV but does not dare to take the issue further as she too hopes for a future position on the team.

CERN’s Code of Conduct clearly states that we are expected to comply with the value of Integrity by “ensur[ing] that we credit others for their contribution”.

This guideline applies to all CERN contributors, but in case of doubt, it is surely the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure there is no misappropriation of credit in the work done by a team. Where fellows are concerned, there is an additional responsibility for the Organization to provide a learning experience that is correctly represented so as to assure the best possible career development opportunities for them in the future.

Ensuring that individuals are recognised for their contributions while at the same time promoting teamwork can sometimes be a challenge for supervisors whose main focus is on getting the work done, but there can be no doubt that this is a vital component in the longer-term motivation and productivity of their teams. Indeed, while the CERN Code of Conduct rightly protects intellectual property under its value of Integrity, this guideline also needs to be balanced with its value of Creativity, which invites contributors to “share with internal parties any information that could benefit them in their work.” In large collaborations involving many people, if individuals occasionally fall prey to blind spots regarding shared work, it is up to supervisors to ensure that there is absolutely no ambiguity as to where the lines of credit lie.

From fellows and students to senior scientists, we all contribute in our own ways to the success of our projects – so too do we all deserve appropriate recognition for the parts we play in this complex scientific endeavour. 

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by Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill