Ownership of Knowledge and Graduate Education


This case raises issues about the responsibility of advisers to graduate students and post-docs, the responsibilities of those advised or mentored, research directors' management of power, ownership of ideas and grounds for recognition in the research group, and ease and frequency of communication.


Part 1

Susan Moss is a third-year graduate student in the laboratory of Dr. Jocelyn Abrams, a successful and energetic researcher in a competitive field. Abrams has three post-doctoral fellows working in her laboratory, whom she relies on to train and assist her four graduate students. The laboratory holds weekly research meetings where people report their finished data and work in progress. Abrams stresses that the reports must be concise and focused primarily on finished work. Two days before Moss must deliver a research report, she tries to develop a model that describes a set of data, but she has difficulty synthesizing the information on her own. Because Abrams is often too busy to meet with Moss, she makes an appointment with one of the post-doctoral fellows, Jim Reynolds. Reynolds is very eager and helpful. Within an hour, Moss and Reynolds have worked out a reasonable model, and Moss presents a successful report.

Two weeks after meeting with Reynolds, Moss is asked to review a portion of a grant proposal written by Reynolds and Abrams. As she is reading, she realizes that several of the proposed experiments are ones she had mentioned to Reynolds as the next steps in completing her thesis research. Moss tells Reynolds that the proposed experiments are directly related to her thesis, but he maintains that the ideas were his and that they will not interfere with Moss's project. Moss believes that the ideas were hers and that they are vital to her project, so she makes an appointment with Abrams. Abrams listens to Moss's side of the story, but she says that she does not want to get involved in personal conflicts between people in the lab and that Moss will have to work things out with Reynolds on her own.

Discussion Questions

  1. Does Abrams have a professional obligation to involve herself in the conflict between Reynolds and Moss?
  2. Should either Reynolds or Moss have sole rights to the ideas generated from their conversation, or do the ideas belong to the laboratory as a whole?
  3. What should Moss do to gain credit for her ideas? to determine whether she deserves credit for her ideas? to understand the perspectives of Abrams and Reynolds? Could or should she talk with someone else? If so, whom?
  4. When do research ideas become part of the experimental process? at the conceptualization of individual experiments? at the design of specific protocols? at the execution of experiments?

Part 2

After Moss confronts Reynolds about the proposal, Reynolds responds by saying, "Yes, I agree that you helped generate the ideas in the proposal and we would love for you to work on some of the experiments. If you complete them and include them in your thesis, then you have contributed to the research goals of the lab. It doesn't really matter who thinks of the experiments or who does the experiments, as long as they get done." Moss still feels that her ideas have been taken from her, and she reports this response to Abrams. Abrams replies, "I could have thought of those same ideas a year ago. Ideas are a dime a dozen; it's the execution of the experiments that receives credit, and this you can certainly do."

Discussion Questions

  1. How do Reynolds', Moss's and Abrams' perceptions of "ideas in the lab" differ? How do these different attitudes affect the dynamics of communication in the laboratory?
  2. What responsibilities do Moss, Reynolds and Abrams have to each other and to themselves to resolve this issue?
  3. How could each person have responded differently to avoid conflict?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 1, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 1997.

This case raises issues about the responsibility of advisers to graduate students and post-docs, the responsibilities of those advised or mentored, research directors' management of power, ownership of ideas and grounds for recognition in the research group, and ease and frequency of communication. All of these issues have ethical dimensions. For example, communication is a practical necessity, but provision of regular channels of communication adequate to forestall damaging misunderstandings is an ethical requirement. Personal traits and personal relationships among members of the research group enter into the conduct of research. For that reason, the research environment should foster traits that facilitate cooperation and provide a milieu that prevents personal relationships from generating jealousy and suspicion.

The behavior of each of the three people in this scene raises questions. Susan's uncertainties about her research report due in two days lead her to consult a post-doc. Why does this consultation occur so close to the due date? Has Susan been active about getting feedback on her work? Has she been too easily discouraged from keeping Dr. Abrams tuned into her progress and problems? Has she made it a point to find out what's going on in the lab (e.g., with regard to proposal writing) and what kind of effort and success gain recognition? She should have exercised some initiative to find out what work is valued and rewarded in the lab.

That said, there are serious questions about Abrams' management of the lab, about whether she has worked to establish clear policies and adequate opportunities for communication. Graduate students should have a better sense about whether having the idea for the experiments is less consequential than carrying them out. In view of the collaboration between Jim and Susan to work out the model and their conflict about the idea for subsequent experiments, it does not seem that ideas are "a dime a dozen" in this lab. Abrams' remark that she could have had the idea a year ago is unnecessarily hurtful. Where recognition and credit are at stake, Abrams should have clear enough ground rules so that she can be justifiably confident that the post-docs and graduate students can resolve their disagreements. Otherwise, she is at fault for not stepping in. Perhaps she has a duty in any case to remind them of the relevant ground rules.

The post-doc seems to have accepted his go-between role and worked out his own accommodation between his interests and those of the graduate student. This area is predictably sensitive, given both the post-doc's and the graduate student's need for recognition. It is not clear that Jim has reasonably accommodated Susan's interests, and it is even less clear that Abrams was justified in leaving it up to him to do so. Again, the verdict is different if clear ground rules are in place and Lisa has been passive about learning them. Her intense schedule notwithstanding, Abrams should see to it that grad students and post-docs have regular opportunities to get feedback on work in progress that is not ready to be presented as focused, finished work.

Ownership of ideas is a tricky concept; patents and copyrights protect only material embodiments of ideas. There are good reasons for this policy, as we can see from the disagreement between Jim and Susan about who had the idea first. There is a natural proprietary attachment to ideas, but it is difficult to make out who was first with an idea, especially in view of the dependence of one person's ideas on the ideas of others. It might be useful to shift from emphasis on ownership to credit and the basis for credit.

Author: Vivian Weil, Illinois Institute of Technology.

This case raises three primary ethical issues: 1) ownership of ideas in the scientific process; 2) understanding professional obligations toward others and oneself; and 3) power differentials between these roles that can easily be exploited. What exacerbates the ethical concerns in this case is the lack of clear communication among those involved.

In Part 1, several incidents of miscommunication or lack of communication led to each person's perceptions. Moss feels that her ideas are not receiving proper credit, that Reynolds is taking advantage of her and that Abrams is not willing to champion her cause. These feelings arise from expectations that Moss may have had before entering the laboratory. She believes that her ideas should receive personal credit and that her research mentor should protect her when conflicts arise in the lab. Abrams' mentoring style cannot accommodate Moss's wishes. However, even if Abrams' mentoring style were made explicit to Moss, unexpected situations may arise in one's career. Continued communication between Moss and Abrams seems to be lacking. Both Moss and Abrams should strive to improve communication to resolve conflicts.

Reynolds is trying to write research grants, which is of paramount importance to a post-doc. He included Moss by asking her to read the proposal, which may have been his way of respecting Moss's ideas. His responsibility to Moss is somewhat ambiguous because although he is including her, she believes that she deserves more credit The issue here is whether Reynolds is taking credit for Moss's idea, and that is not clear from the case study. It could be argued that Reynolds is the most ethical of the three because he is trying to keep the laboratory funded, he appreciated Moss's ideas enough to include them in a grant proposal, and he suggested that Moss stay involved with the project. But that ignores Moss's concerns that she is being exploited by Reynolds. Abrams is a busy researcher in a competitive field. Professors with active research programs have many demands on their time. Resolving conflicts between people in the lab may not be a high priority, especially since graduate students and post-doctoral fellows are expected to behave like responsible adults. The real issue, then, is how to create policies in the laboratory to prevent unreasonable expectations, and, when new situations arise that cause conflict, to resolve these issues. One alternative is to discuss the situation with someone outside the lab. That could lend a fresh analysis of the situation and perhaps a swift resolution of the problem. Another, more feasible, option is to have regular, individual conversations between the lab director and the employees to try to avoid confrontations.

The ownership of ideas in scientific research is an ambiguous ethical issue. The scientific community is debating whether conceptualization of an experiment constitutes work that should receive credit and, in some cases, authorship. In Part 2 of the case, both Reynolds and Abrams agree that ideas are cheap, but results are priceless. Moss feels that she deserves credit for her ideas and first shot at the bench work. Reynolds and Abrams agree that she can do the experiments, but they refuse to credit her ideas. In this particular case, Moss will get credit if she completes the experiments. If she does not do the experiments, however, will she still be acknowledged? Or more importantly, should she be acknowledged? Because the ideas belong to the laboratory, someone else may do the experiments before Moss has a chance. Unless Abrams and Reynolds agree to let Moss have the first attempt, Moss may again feel exploited. At that point, the issues of power differentials would have to be addressed.