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Insubordination in the Lab

David Pittman

In two recent cases, post-docs have published data without their principal investigator’s consent. Can this be prevented from happening again?

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Jiasheng Diao was a post-doc at the Purdue University, working in the lab of X-ray crystallographer Miriam Hasson on structure of the protein butyrate kinase before moving on to other labs at Purdue. In 2006, Hasson passed away. Three years later, that protein structure data finally made its way into a paper in the Journal of Bacteriology that listed Diao and Hasson as co-authors (1).

Jiashend Diao published this protein structure in the Journal of Bacteriology without his PI's consent. Source: Journal of Bacteriology

The only problem was that it was published without the consent of Purdue biochemist and Hasson's husband David Sanders, who had rights to the data as Hasson's collaborator on the project.* As a result, the journal has now retracted the paper at Sanders’ request, according to the blog Retraction Watch (2). As it turns out, this is the second retraction in this case; the journal Proteins has retracted another 2009 paper submitted by Diao that used Hasson’s data without permission (3). In addition, Diao tried to publish a paper in the Journal of Molecular Biology, but Sanders caught on and contacted the journal before the paper was published.

For commentary on the retractions, publication standards, and the postdoc/PI relationship, read our follow-up Q&A with David Sanders from Purdue University.

But the situation at Purdue is not unique. For example, former Baylor College of Medicine post-doc Hui Chai has also published papers in The Anatomical Record and Biological & Pharmaceutical Bulletin using data that was obtained during her time in the lab of Changyi Chen without his permission (4-5). In the end, those papers were retracted.

Both recent cases involving post-docs who publish data without consent of the principal investigator highlight a growing trend of insubordination in the lab. Ferric Fang, editor in chief of the journal Infection and Immunity and professor of laboratory medicine and microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, has seen his fair share of papers retracted because of similar authorship disputes.

“The issue of data ownership is complex,” said Fang. “Post-docs may understandably feel that data they obtained in experiments belong to them.”

But work sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as in the case of Diao, belongs to the institution where the work was conducted. Diao didn’t have the right to publish the work without Sanders’ consent, since the university put him in control of his deceased wife’s data, noted Fang.

In the end, the question is how can these situations be prevented in the future. For starters, schools could provide better instruction to trainees on data ownership. Researchers can establish collegial relationships with trainees to allow resolution of authorship concerns before manuscripts are submitted. Further, journals can provide explicit instructions regarding authorship rights.

“This is an instructive, though unfortunate, case,” said Fang. “Science nearly always involves a collaborative effort, and a report of scientific findings should have the endorsement of all team members involved.”


  1. Diao, J., and M. S. Hasson. 2009. Crystal structure of butyrate kinase 2 from thermotoga maritima, a member of the ASKHA superfamily of phosphotransferases. Journal of Bacteriology 191(8):2521-2529.
  2. Diao, J., and M. S. Hasson. 2012. Crystal structure of butyrate kinase 2 from thermotoga maritima, a member of the ASKHA superfamily of phosphotransferases. Journal of Bacteriology 194(11):3033.
  3. J. Diao, Y.D. Ma, and M.S. Hasson. 2012. Retraction: Open and closed conformations reveal induced fit movements in butyrate kinase 2 activation. Proteins 80(6):1712.
  4. 2012. Retraction. Anat Rec 295(5):715.
  5. Chai, H., Q. Wang, L. Huang, T. Xie, and Y. Fu. 2008. Ginsenoside rb1 inhibits tumor necrosis factor-alpha-induced vascular cell adhesion molecule-1 expression in human endothelial cells. Biological & pharmaceutical bulletin 31(11):2050-2056.


*UPDATE: Following the publication of this story, David Sanders contacted BioTechniques to clarify that he was not awarded the rights to Hasson's data after her death but rather always had the rights to her data as her lab partner.

Keywords:  research misconduct