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Authorship, Animal Care, and a Firing

A Rutgers University cancer researcher tells ScienceInsider she was fired, not for how she handled lab mice, but for questioning the authorship of a paper submitted to Nature.

The researcher, Xiaoqi Xie, tells ScienceInsider she studied mice engineered to lack autophagy to find that, when they were given melanoma, their tumors grew more slowly and, based on this, proposed a new research direction.

Xie says Eileen White, in whose lab she worked, told her to hand over the project to a new postdoc. The postdoc repeated Xie's work and performed the experiments she proposed, according to Xie. The resulting paper, though, had the postdoc as the first author and Xie as the second, which Xie protested, ScienceInsider adds, noting that Xie was fired six months later.

Rutgers, however, said in her termination letter, that Xie was fired because she violated the institute's animal care protocols and missed meetings with her managers. Xie and her union representative dispute the animal care violations and other Rutgers researchers tell ScienceInsider that even if those violations occurred, they were not usually firing offenses. Xie, it adds, acknowledges missing a meeting.

This, Stanford University's Steven Goodman says, underscores how high-stake authorship decisions can be. "The firing aside, the reason that these issues are so fraught is that careers, particularly early ones, can be made or broken by these sorts of authorship decisions," he says.