Last week, out of the blue, I received an email from my Ph.D. advisor with a subject line: “a question about your thesis.” It’s been 15 years since I completed my thesis, so, intrigued, I opened the email…
Some background: If I do say so myself, after I defended my thesis I did a good job in publishing almost all the content in my dissertation in respectable scientific journals, even in the midst of moving to a new city where my husband had just received a faculty position but where I was academically unaffiliated. And, oh, yes, we had a 6-week-old baby, with whom I had decided to stay home. It took a lot of sweat and blood to get that thesis into publishable form. I’ll forever associate cutting and pasting bootstrap values onto phylogenies in Photoshop with a baby nursing on my arm. I’ll always remember burning the midnight oil (at all times of the day and night) in a struggle to meet the proof deadline my editor gave me on one of my papers. When I missed the deadline and sent in the proofs weeks late, I apologized, mentioning that I was having trouble balancing my work in the haze of taking care of my new baby. “My goodness, I wish you had told me!” the editor said. “I would have been happy to give you an extension, under the circumstances.” It really never occurred to me to ask.
I also labored over my remaining unpublished thesis chapter, recurrently concluding that it needed more thought and analysis before I could submit the finding I described for publication. In an ideal world I would have had a collaborator to complement my expertise with more statistical skills, as I was teaching myself how to do analyses that were outside the scope of the lab in which I had just finished my thesis. I gave it my all, discussed it with many, but didn’t resolve it to my satisfaction. The years passed, computer analysis programs evolved, my career picked up in a different direction and the task of publishing this finding ultimately languished.
… Back to the email I received last week from my advisor. In it she told me she had been asked to review a paper for a journal and upon reading the manuscript, she realized that it closely replicates my unpublished thesis chapter.
I must say that though many years have passed, and I have moved on to thinking about other things, I still feel somewhat possessive about this finding from my thesis work, which I spent much brainpower pondering. I understand and appreciate the idea of someone picking up my finding and running with it – science must go on. But yes, I’m wistful that it’s not my name on the byline of this paper; I’d like to be better acknowledged. Yes, I kick myself that I didn’t just submit it way back then. It could be mine, but it’s not. Yes, I’d like to have been included in the team that put this paper together. In fact, as it turns out, their study only includes analyses very, very similar to my own, and it draws similar conclusions; they didn’t develop the results any farther than I did.
Now, having shared these thoughts, let me say this: I’d far rather see my finding enter the literature, even if not under my name, than for it to remain only in my thesis. I feel this way especially since my advisor’s email sent me to reread my work, and I recall how interesting this finding is: it should be out there. I’m hopeful that finding this work a home in the literature will spur deeper thinking about this result down the road (perhaps from my advisor and myself); this potential makes me happier about the way this worked out.