Ethics in research question

Michael Holloway mhollowa at nyx.cs.du.edu
Sun Aug 15 04:45:39 EST 1993


I'd like to have a wide range of feedback on a question of ethics in 
research and researcher collegiality.  Hypothetically, you 
understand.  Let's say, hypothetically, that there's this lab at 
Rockefeller that has hoards of grad students and postdocs - and a 
reputation for screwing people they collaborate with.  Rumor of this 
has already reached a hypothetical small lab with but one highly 
industrious, bright, intelligent, handsome (and available) grad 
student.  

The grad student's advisor is highly honored by a request to give a 
talk to this Rockefeller group and collaborate with them on various 
projects.  The advisor goes and presents the grad student's 
preliminary data.  At the next professional meeting it is revealed 
that they took an interest in the same project immediately after 
that and present a poster with the same results (same gene, same 
methods as presented in the advisor's talk).  The head of the lab 
explains to the advisor that his students did it all behind his back 
and there really isn't any problem anyway since they're 
collaborators, etc.  No mention made of joint publication.  Both 
labs publish separate papers.

Several months later, the grad student gets a call from a student at 
the Rockefeller group asking for sequence data that was mentioned 
along with  preliminary, unpublished, transcriptional control assay 
and gel shift data presented on his poster at the meeting.  The 
small lab grad recklessly stated that the sequence would be 
available in a short time after the meeting.  The Rockefeller grad 
is somewhat insulted when the small lab grad declines to give up the 
sequence data but the suggestion is made that something be worked 
out with the advisor.  After continued discussion the Rockefeller 
grad settles for a report of transcription factor binding site 
matches within the area of interest.  He assures the small lab that 
he only needs it to wrap up a minor point in his already completed 
thesis and no further work is going to be done by anyone in the lab 
concerning questions of transcriptional control in that region.

Surprise, several months later the head of the Rockefeller lab calls 
to say that they've recently done some gel shifts in that region too 
and they'd like the sequence data so that they can ascribe binding 
to possible sites.

In short, the big lab, with a reputation for a one way flow of 
information from unfortunate collaborators, waits for the small lab 
to show them that something will produce possibly useful results, 
and then runs off and does the same thing with the very probable 
result of scooping the small lab.  The question is: is this 
unethical, simply unprofessional, or just business as usual in the 
big fish pond and shear stupidity on the part of the small lab?  
What, if anything, should the grad student do or say?  How do 
situations like this effect the free flow of information between 
labs?  Does this, for instance, explain why so little substantive 
discussion of personal research takes place over netnews?  All 
hypothetical of course.  I'd never be so stupid as to get mixed up 
in something like this.



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