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In Their Own Words: NIH Researchers Recall the Early Years of AIDS
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Harden: We have talked about management styles, but I also want to talk about philosophy and ethics. How does a young investigator pick up the unwritten rules of science in biomedicine? For instance, what decides the pecking order and who gets credit in the authorship of a paper? Is there a clear sense of how this should be arranged or is this a murky area as well?

Gallo: Credit for a laboratory scientific group is, of course, a murky area. There is no rule book. You go by your previous experience, by the mentors that you have had and worked with, and by common sense. I do not think that it is usually a terrible problem. If it were, we would be spending all of our time on such problems, because if you think of the countless papers that are published and the number of scientists today, how often do you hear of a real problem about authorship of a paper? Actually, I should note that you hear about it every time you write a paper. But it only rarely becomes a big issue. Every time you write a paper there is always a little juggling among postdoctoral fellows. Sometimes a technician feels that he or she should be an author on a paper. Then there is the question of the order of the names, who should be first and who should be last. Sometimes it is complicated, but there is no rule book.

I will tell you the rules that we follow in my laboratory. They are not exactly rules; they can easily be broken with discretion. Generally speaking, I have followed a policy that I learned elsewhere at NIH. There is more of a need for the postdoctoral fellows to have publications and not be overwhelmed by every technician in the laboratory. So I have said that before technicians can be listed as authors they have to show some evidence that they have gone beyond the call of duty, such as in their hours of work, or that they have contributed substantively to some new technique, or that they actually know enough to present the paper and have participated in it deeply. In that way a technician can be a co-author of a paper, and, in this laboratory, very frequently is.

Parenthetically, I will tell you that I have often been told by our Associate Scientific Director that I have had more technicians go on to medical school and graduate school than any other laboratory at NCI and maybe even at NIH, percentage-wise. We have a great many who do this. So, something is being done right or wrong. I do not know which it is. Either we are driving them out of the laboratory to make them want to become bigger shots, or we are encouraging them to be interested in medical science.

Many technicians in this laboratory publish because they fulfill one of those three criteria. We just ask them for one. That is my general rule that I tell people when they come in.

After that, I always consider that the person who has done the most primary work, the actual labor–whether a Ph.D., an M.D., a postdoctoral fellow, or the senior investigator–should be the first author on a paper. The last author should be the person who has given the most direction. If it is not at all clear, it is often the laboratory chief. But not always. Sometimes, when it is not clear, a section head is the last author, even though I am involved–I may be in the middle of the authors of a paper– but my involvement was not very great. In time you tend to withdraw from some of those things because you do not need it, and what do you care if you are listed in the middle of the authors of a paper anymore?

So, the leader, the person giving the guidance, the judgment, the criticism, the direction, the head of a section, the head of a unit, or the head of a laboratory is often the last author, but not necessarily. The first author is he or she who has done the most work and who is identified most with the project.

Occasionally authorship becomes a problem. Rarely has there been a shouting match or a real fight, but there have been people who have made significant complaints. Not so long ago a young Ph.D. person was not listed on a paper that she thought she should have been on. A more senior person in this laboratory, the head of a unit, had removed her name from a paper involving gene therapy. This was a big problem. The person came to me. I was right in the middle of the dispute. I was not even associated with the paper, but I had to make extensive inquiries, to find out what happened. The matter is still not settled. Occasionally it can get to that level.

But I can give you other happier examples that are almost funny, one about a paper on which I am the first author and one on which I am the last author.

We discovered a virus from gibbon apes called gibbon ape leukemia virus, a strain that causes T-cell leukemia. Now, Dr. [Thomas] Kawakami in California had found the first virus that caused chronic human myeloid leukemia. We did an immense amount of work with this gibbon ape leukemia virus for one publication. That is, the animal was autopsied, the organs were looked at, and the virus was sought for in every tissue, to find what were the targets–I do not want to bore you–but everything that could possibly be done for one very long paper was done. The paper was for a journal called Virology. Everybody did a little of the work. No one could decide who would be the first author. So I volunteered. That was one example where I leapt forward.

Another case, the discovery of HTLV-II, the second human retrovirus, is the opposite of that. The story goes back to 1981. It was in the spring, in Venice, that I heard a talk by [Dr.] David Golde, who was at UCLA [University of California Los Angeles]. He had a new cell line, a CD4+ T-cell line, which is a mature T-cell line, and it was immortalized. By then, I already had HTLV-I, and from animals I had had some experience with mature T cells. Any cell line that was immortal always had a retrovirus. Golde was using this cell line, and, in fact, his laboratory had had some substantial commercial success with it through a company, Genetics Institute, in Massachusetts, in that it was producing large amounts of lymphokines. At that time, in 1981, it was a hot topic to be able to produce them.

But I got up in Venice and I said, “Look, every HTLV-I transformed T-cell line that I have in the lab, and we can do that every day, produces lymphokines, a high amount of this or that. That is not so interesting to me. But I bet that you have a human retrovirus in your cell line and, since it causes a different disease than the HTLV-I disease, it is probably a new one.” So, in fact, I predicted HTLV-II.

We could not get any of that material for a long time. I believe the people at UCLA had made some commitments in their arrangements with the Genetics Institute, but eventually David [Golde] was able to send me just the supernatant, but not the cell line. It is very hard to isolate virus from supernatant alone if it is HTLV because it does not infect. These are viruses that produce only when two cells are brought together. We spent a lot of time, energy, and effort, and eventually were able to isolate virus from the supernatant, and it was HTLV-II.

Now this was another instance where six people contributed substantively to a body of work and no one could decide who would be first author on the paper. This time I did not volunteer. But there was one man, whom I thought had been short-changed on a paper not long before and had taken it in stride, so I said, "He deserves a reward.” He became the first author of that paper, a man with an Indian name, [Dr. V.] Kalyanaraman. He did not do any more than any other Tom, Dick, or Harry for that paper intellectually or work-wise, but that is how the decision that he be the first author was made. When nobody came forward as the obvious first author, I, as a laboratory chief, was able to make that suggestion. Everybody agreed to it and thought it was proper and fair.

Most of the time, I think, things work out with respect to authorship, but occasionally they do not work out so easily. But it can be a real dilemma as to who should get the credit. There have been at least two famous cases of complaints by postdoctoral fellows that have led to major awards. Those cases were people complaining that when they were in so-and-so's laboratory, they did the work. It can be argued that whoever was in that slot in that laboratory would have done the work and, if it was not that particular person, it would have been another postdoctoral fellow. The laboratory head, who is leading ongoing research in a certain direction, is, of course, going to get the bulk of the credit and should do so. But if a person came in who was more senior–or even junior–and not only had the idea, but it was also not in the laboratory chief's line of research, and he or she resisted giving credit, what then? There are cases like that, which people talk about, but it is hard to know what the truth is. In such a situation, the younger person, or the visiting person, has a much stronger case, if their claim is true. This can happen. But generally speaking, if it is your laboratory, and somebody comes into that laboratory and is doing research exactly in the direction of the research you are heading, that person should get credit and probably be first author on a paper about the research. But, clearly, if sooner or later there is an award, it is the laboratory head that gets the award.

There are strange and difficult aspects even in this situation. Let us take the famous story of streptomycin. I read the book this past year. It is a very interesting case because both the people involved were good people. Clearly the author likes [Dr. Selman] Waksman very much, he likes all scientists, because everybody is doing well, but I can think of what a mean reporter might have done with that story. Just read that book again and think of what some reporters would do with that story.

Let us take Albert Schatz–I think I pronounced his name right–this young man who comes to Waksman's laboratory with sugar plums, visions, in his head. Waksman is already well established as a scientist, if not yet as a great scientist. It is Waksman's idea to set up a program to go into the soil and pull out these microbes that release products that have antibacterial effects. He is already in this line of research. That is what his laboratory does.

The graduate student comes and does some work on such material and is frustrated and depressed because his father figure, whom he loved, got all the money and all the credit. When you look at the situation closely, the man had a point. Waksman let him work totally independently, according to the book, and, if I remember correctly, the student was the only one who was exposing himself to the pathogenic strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. He was working day and night, so much so that somebody found him unconscious in the snow one day.

If you put all those things together and the student is the one who actually isolated streptomycin, it would have been nice if the Nobel Committee could have found a way to give him at least a footnote. It would have been nice if Rutgers could have made him part of the patent.

Schatz corrected this with a lawsuit. That was the sad part of the story because both men apparently liked and respected each other very much. Waksman was shocked about why “Schatz doesn't have respect for me anymore," or why he “has done this to me.” “How could he possibly do that, whose career I helped make and whom I recommended and so on.” It is possible to identify with either side in this case very easily.

These matters can be murky and complex. I guess your conscience has to be your guide. But the fault is not always with the senior man or woman; sometimes it is over-possessiveness on the part of the younger scientist, thinking that because he or she put things together, he or she did everything. They forget all the contributions that the person above them, let us, for instance, talk about a section head, did for the postdoctoral fellow. These include getting the support, although not loving to do so, doing the grants, setting up the laboratory, setting up the ideas that went into a certain pattern, helping to criticize the results, reviewing the paper, and helping to get it published. All these are things that the person doing some–some, not most–of the work is forgetting, or that they want to forget. There are always two sides to it, but it is a complex matter and there is no way you can write a rule book for it.

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