Learn By Doing and the Ethics of Publishing with Students

by Guest Blogger on March 4, 2015

beselGuest post by Richard Besel,  Associate Professor in Communication Studies

California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) has for years adopted “Learn by Doing” as a motto. For many, these three words are an integral part of the institution’s unique approach to pedagogy. The phrase is so important to the community that on February 15, 2015, Cal Poly began accepting nominations for its first Learn by Doing Scholar Award. With an emphasis on publication (completed and in-progress), the recent award announcement has prompted me to reflect on my own experiences in this Learn by Doing (LBD) environment. More specifically, I do not wish to simply celebrate the success stories of Learn by Doing; instead, I wish to tackle a few concerns related to the ethics of publishing with students and how researchers may better anticipate and navigate some of the potential dilemmas.14250698742_fa0c82662d_o

I wish to note at the outset that I am not going to address student LBD work that has been published without a faculty co-author. Instead, I wish to focus on the potential problems that may arise when students and faculty mentors/advisors publish together. I also acknowledge that Learn by Doing is not limited to publishing activities (students may encounter several LBD opportunities in courses that have nothing to do with publication); nonetheless, this is an area where ethical questions may arise: Who gets the credit for the research and how does one determine a fair author order in the byline? What is a fair workload distribution and how is that decided?

In terms of research credit and author order on the publication byline, one of the first items that should be considered is who developed the primary research idea or argument. Of course, this is not the only consideration. Co-authors should also determine who conceptualized the research design. For example, while at Cal Poly I had the opportunity to gather several narratives (limited life histories) from students about their experiences related to global climate change. The primary research ideas and design began with my interest in this topic. Two students later joined the research effort as part of a Learn by Doing activity in one of my classes, Environmental Communication. The two students coded the narratives for perceptions of climate change risks, causes, and solutions, among other items. They were also invited to write the initial draft of the results. In this instance, the students were not involved in the project from the beginning, but offered important contributions to a section of the work and learned about content analysis and writing by actually participating in the creation of an academic article.

While determining who developed the primary research idea and who conceptualized the research design must be considered, so too must the issue of fair workload distribution. In the example above, not only did I generate the primary research idea and design, but I also did most of the writing and editing. Thus, being listed as first author with the students listed second and third is ethically defensible. However, what if these first three considerations are less one-sided? What if the faculty member generates the idea, both a student and faculty member co-create the design, and the student gathers most of the data? This last scenario is one that I encountered with a student working on her senior project. A social science experiment, I proposed the idea of examining the potential effects of four key names for climate change (“climate change,” “global warming,” “climate crisis,” and “climate disruption”) on various perceptions and attitudes related to the issue. Although the idea was mine, the student and I worked collaboratively on the design and she shouldered the task of gathering the data that we analyzed together. My initial role in the writing process was to edit and make suggestions. It was not until after her senior project was completed that I became more involved (ushering the text through the publication process, for example). In this instance, we agreed that the first author position belonged to her because of the distribution of workload.

Finally, there are instances where faculty must acknowledge when they should remove themselves as co-authors. If one does not help generate the primary research idea, does not contribute to the conceptualization of the research design, and does not gather the data or analyze it, but simply edits the student’s work or offers suggestions, then one must not be listed as a co-author on resulting publications. Faculty must approach student research in a LBD environment with student interests in mind. For those who wish to find additional information about best practices in publication ethics, Blackwell Publishing and the American Psychological Association websites are good places to start.

Does any of the material found above or on the websites resonate with your experiences? If so, please feel free to leave a comment or question below.

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