Ethics in research question

wijsman at wijsman at
Mon Aug 16 00:56:22 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.

What is collaboration?  I argue that it means either a 2-way (or more-way)
exchange of data/materials/ideas, or joint publication, or both.  If
neither happens, then there is no collaboration.  I also would argue that
if the data/etc. exchange has not happened PRIOR to publication which
benefitted from this "collaboration", and if both parties are not on a
joint publication at this point, then I also don't think there is a true
collaboration.  (Actually, I think it is necessary to make the exchange
prior to submission of the manuscript, not the date of publication).

Standards of behavior in science (and I suppose any field) are set in part
by the actions of respected people in the field, as well as by their
responses to behaviors by others who are also in the field.  Therefore, IF
the students acted unethically, if the professor condones such behavior by
publishing the material or presenting it at a meeting, the professor's
behavior is just as, if not more, unethical than the students' behavior. 
If a lab head finds out that the students have used information in an
unethical manner, he or she is under no obligation to allow submit an
abstract on the results to a professional meeting, and he or she DOES have
an obligation (as an instructor) to teach the students what ethical
behavior should be.  To claim ignorance of the action is no excuse for the
behavior (presentation at meeting) which follows. 
> 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.

The question of whether or not the small lab is acting stupidly is
independent of whether the big lab is acting unethically, and has different
ramifications on science.  There is a certain amount of selection against
stupidity, but stupidity on the part of one lab or investigator does not
poison the field or impede science in a major way.  Widespread unethical
behavior (or fear thereof) may, and might very well explain why there isn't
a lot of discussion of research on the net.  I think in the above scenario,
the small lab is not acting as wisely as it might.  Given the reputation of
the big lab, the small lab should probably be more careful in (1)
presenting unpublished data, (2) establishing exactly what is to be
done by each lab in this "collaboration", and (3) agreeing to give up
critical unpublished data.  I see nothing wrong (in principle) with a
laboratory keeping an eye on results obtained by other groups & following
the most promising leads, as long as the information about the results is
obtained and used in an ethical fashion.

However, from the above description, I feel strongly that the big lab
practiced unethical behavior at the point the big lab's grad students
performed (and reported independently) the same experiment as was presented
to them by the small lab's professor.  It is one thing to use such
information in parallel or related experiments, but quite another one to
claim the same experiments as ones own. (Even in parallel there might be
eyebrows raised).   The professor propagated the unethical behavior through
allowing presentation at the meeting, and worse, failed in his/her
responsibility to train the next generation of scientists in ethical
behavior.  (Sort of like a parent who has found out that a child stole some
candy from a store; candy is still unopened, but parent says "oh well,
since you have it, you might as well eat it" - no lesson given in not
stealing - rather than requiring return of candy and/or a lecture or worse
at home on why stealing is forbidden).

Ellen Wijsman
Div of Medical Genetics, RG-25
and Dept of Biostatistics
University of Washington
Seattle, WA   98195
wijsman at

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