This case discusses issues of intellectual property, intellectual turf, the training of graduate students, communication and cooperation vs. competition in science, and the evaluation of scientific peers.
From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 1, 1997
edited by Brian Schrag
Eileen is a professor of Biology at ESU (Enormous State University). Her recent work on the genetic structure of plant populations has been exciting and fruitful; she can hardly find the time to follow up on all her ideas. ESU has an informal "brown bag" seminar series in which graduate students and professors present and critique data and ideas. Eileen has always been an enthusiastic participant in the brown bag series, and one year ago she presented a particularly stimulating and untested idea that had spun off from her main avenue of research. Steve, a new graduate student in the department, approached Eileen after her talk and expressed enthusiasm about her idea. Steve felt that he knew just the empirical system in with which to test Eileen's idea, and he offered to collaborate with her on the project and share authorship on any resulting papers. Eileen politely declined. Steve was not her grad student, and she wanted to save the idea for one of her own students to test. A year after the brown bag, Steve approached Eileen again. None of Eileen's students had pursued the idea, and Eileen had not had time to pursue it herself. Steve renewed his previous offer. Eileen again rejected this course of action. It was her idea, and she would pursue it in due time.
Back to Top
A few days later, Steve approached Eileen a third time. This time Steve announced that he was going to go ahead and test Eileen's idea, with or without her approval. Steve promised that he would give Eileen full credit for her role in the genesis of the idea. Eileen stated that she felt that Steve's actions would be inappropriate since it would deprive her of the right to be the first to publish her new idea. Eileen approached Steve's major professor, Bill, with her concerns about Steve's behavior. Bill stated that he knew what Steve was doing, and furthermore he sanctioned it. Bill and Steve felt that it was legitimate for Steve to pursue the idea, provided he properly credited Eileen as its creator. Eileen responded that her ability to develop and test the idea had been compromised and that Bill should prevent Steve from pursuing the project. Bill argued that after a year, the statute of limitations had run out. He asserted that the idea was public property from the moment Eileen gave her brown bag talk. Bill then offered an indictment of Eileen's behavior.
"Look, Eileen," said Bill. "Don't you remember how you used to tell us about that awful Professor Igneous you knew in grad school? You used to tell us how he would always claim to be working on all kinds of neat ideas, but in reality he was just trying to claim as much intellectual turf as possible. Igneous was taking advantage of the fact that most of us will avoid initiating a research project if we know someone else is already working on it; there's no sense in duplicating all that effort. You used to tell us how despicable you thought his behavior was, but now you are doing the same thing. You need to let someone pursue the idea who has time to do it now."
Eileen was outraged. "What I am doing is nothing like what Igneous used to do," she replied. "He never got around to doing anything with those projects. I, on the other hand, fully intend to follow up on the idea. What makes you think you get to decide at what point I have had enough time to pursue my own research?
Posted 11 years and 11 months ago
Karen MuskavitchIndiana University
This case raises some very interesting and pertinent issues for those working in the sciences -- issues of intellectual property, intellectual turf, the training of graduate students, communication and cooperation vs. competition in science, and the evaluation of our scientific peers. In general, there are neither rules nor explicit guidelines from professional societies or universities that address these issues. At best, there are norms and/or precedents that senior scientists picked up somewhere and that they may pass on to their junior colleagues. Yet questions like "How do I give others appropriate credit for information they have shared with me informally?" are central to the lives and careers of scientists, and deserve more careful consideration. That is what this case seeks to facilitate.
While there are many "right" answers to the questions posed, some of which will be better than others, there are also "wrong" answers. Before diving in and trying to solve Eileen and Steve's problems, it is important to consider the criteria by which we judge the ethical rectitude of people's actions.
First, I would submit, the proposed course of action must demonstrate respect for the people affected by it. By respect, I do not mean just civility, but rather the respect for persons described by Kant
In other words, the proposed course of action, if it is to show respect for others, must be one that we would be happy to see everyone follow, and it must not treat people as things. The course of action needs to be consistent with the obligations of the people involved toward each other. These people need to have a voice in designing the solution to the problem, and all must be able to choose for themselves what they will do.
Second, the possible consequences of the proposed action must be considered. What are the good things that might result? What are the bad things that could happen? How are the potential benefits and harms distributed among the people involved? An ethically sound course of action should result in more benefit than harm. More than that, it should minimize the possible harms or risks, and ensure that the benefits and harms are equitably distributed. A course of action that has the potential of five benefits and two harms is better than one that could result in ten benefits and seven harms. A proposed course of action that exposes a single person to all the potential harms person, while reserving the benefits to the other two people involved, is not as good as a plan that has all three share equally in the risks and benefits.
Those doing research involving human subjects may recognize the criteria presented here as those underlying all the human subjects regulations: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, 1978). These are some of the basic principles of ethics, and they provide excellent criteria by which to judge any action. Besides, if we use these three principles to guide our interactions with our human research subjects, shouldn't we expect a similar standard of conduct for our interactions with our colleagues?
This case presents a wonderful opportunity for the participants in the discussion to share their experiences, their knowledge of the norms in their disciplines and laboratories, and their ideas for how these situations should be handled. The experiences and norms will be quite varied, and will induce the participants to start evaluating the different conventions and to think of new solutions to the problem. At this point, the group can move on to evaluating the different potential courses of action suggested, and determining what should be done and why.
One additional comment: When discussing this case, someone will probably say, "Well, why doesn't Steve just join Eileen's lab? That would solve everything." However, this solution might not be feasible. Eileen may not have room for an additional student, or Steve may not be interested in plant population genetics. Perhaps Steve is interested in studying lizard species and has joined Bill's group because reptiles are the experimental animal of choice in Bill's lab.
Brainstorming possible solutions to the situation as it stands at the end of Part II, followed by an evaluation of the various ideas generated, would be a good way to close a discussion of this case. This approach will help the participants think both creatively and critically if they find themselves in a similar situation. If the group wants to go further, they could try some role playing and work out what the characters in this case might actually say to each other as they try to implement the course of action the group has decided is best. Coming up with an equitable solution is one skill, and implementing it is another. Both require practice.
From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 1, 1997 edited by Brian Schrag