Ethics in research question

Mon Aug 16 00:51:11 EST 1993

Michael Halloway writes:

> 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.

Is the fact that he's handsome and available supposed to increase the
the magnitude of the crime? ;-)
> 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.

I would say that what the big lab did here is the moral equivalent
of plagerism. The fact that no joint publication is offered and no
reprimand is given to the students which stole the data would indi-
cate to me that the big lab can't be trusted.

At the very least the large lab's director should have immediately
altered the board to give priority to the small lab. The large labs
paper should also have given priority to the small lab.
> 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 along with  preliminary, unpublished, transcriptional control assay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.
Again very suspicious behaviour.

> 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?

As I said before this is unethical behaviour. Small lab may have been
a bit too over trusting but to say they deserved what they got is
blaming the victim.

> What, if anything, should the grad student do or say?

He should probably try to stall them and come up with some excuse
not to reveal the data and rush to publish his results. Although
its sad that he would have to resort to such tactics, but it would
probably be a matter of survival in his case. After all finishing
your thesis without any original results can hurt your career.

He should also try very hard to convince his supervisor to break off
the colaboration with the big lab.

> How do  situations like this effect the free flow of information
>between  labs?

Extreemly negatively. The free flow of information must be based on
trust. If that trust is gone the flow information becomes greatly

> Does this, for instance, explain why so little substantive
> discussion of personal research takes place over netnews?

It might be. Although netnews would seem to be a perfact way to
establish priority since all the articles are archived and their
time of transmition is recorded.

> All  hypothetical of course.  I'd never be so stupid as to get
mixed up  in something like this.
I certainly hope so:)
Stephen A. Pluhar
SPLUHAR at CROP.UOGUELPH.CA           Dept. Crop Science  U. of Guelph
Phone: 519-824-4120 Ext. 4865      Guelph, Ontario, Canada. N1G 2W1

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