The Statute of Limitations


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.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 1

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.

Discussion Questions

  1. Should Eileen have accepted Steve's offer after it became clear that none of her own current students were interested in following up the idea? When is it acceptable to reject an offer of collaboration?
  2. What if Steve's proposed experiment would require seeking additional funding and would take three years to complete? What if Steve's experiment could be done with materials and equipment on hand and would require only a few weeks? Does the type of collaboration proposed make a difference in when it is acceptable to reject a collaboration? i.e., do the duration and extent of the proposed collaboration matter? Why do you think so?

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Part 2

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?

Discussion Questions

  1. Are there ethical implications of "sitting" on an idea that someone else is eager to pursue? Would it change matters if Eileen's idea had potentially important applications in human medicine or the conservation of endangered species?
  2. Bill argued that the idea was fair game after Eileen's brown bag seminar. Would it matter if Eileen had published the idea in a short theoretical note? What if she had delivered the idea in a formal seminar at a national meeting as work in progress? Does the setting in which Eileen presented the idea (an informal, in-house presentation) matter? Why or why not?
  3. Was Steve justified in pursuing the experiment on the basis that Eileen had had enough time to do the work herself? Should a statute of limitations apply to the ownership of research ideas?
  4. Is Eileen's behavior like Dr. Igneous' behavior? Why or why not? Suppose her brown bag presentation had been an interesting idea she had thought of on the drive to work that morning, and the idea was pretty rough and undeveloped. Suppose instead that she had carefully developed mathematical and graphical models to support her idea and had presented those in the brown bag talk. Is the amount of work Eileen may have done relevant to assessing whether Eileen is like Dr. Igneous? Why or why not?
  5. Suppose Eileen is delaying the pursuit of this idea until her current grant runs out because she does not have time to work on it until then. Suppose Eileen is teaching this term and intends to pursue it after she has finished. Do Eileen's reasons for delaying the work matter in assessing whether she is behaving like Dr. Igneous in this situation? Why or why not?
  6. Should Bill have tried to mediate the situation between Eileen and his student? Should Bill prevent Steve from doing the study once it became clear that Eileen did not want Steve involved in the project?
  7. Does Bill and Eileen's argument suggest a tension between the concept of ownership of ideas and the value of collaborative relationships? How do you feel this situation should be resolved? Should Steve pursue the idea? Why or why not?

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

. . The Statute of Limitations. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.


Part 1

Part 2


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:

Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. . . .

Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only. (Kant, 1785)

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.

Discussion Questions

Part 1

Question 1. Collaboration carries with it a tension. We usually see ourselves as selfless researchers exploring the world around us for the good of science and humanity; in that light, collaborations should be a good thing because they are frequently a more efficient use of resources. Yet, we judge each other based on personal achievement, individual inventiveness and insight. A member of a collaborative team is usually not as highly regarded as a solo researcher who has produced similar results and ideas solo. On the other hand, being a member of a collaboration is usually better for one's career than losing in a head-to-head competition between researchers to see who can publish first and so claim the discovery. Maybe it shouldn't work this way, but it often does.

The way that this question is written suggests that one may have an obligation to accept a proposed collaboration. That is an interesting idea that merits discussion. It is generally, although not universally, accepted among scientists that we have an obligation to make our discoveries known to others, usually through peer-reviewed publication. It is somewhat less generally accepted that once publication has occurred, one has an obligation to make available to other qualified scientists the unique research materials that were used in one's work such as biological strains (e.g. mice, plant seed stocks, tissue culture lines). Recently, the willingness to share unique research materials has been made a prerequisite for publication in a number of prestigious journals in the biological sciences. Collaboration, while usually viewed in a positive light, is not viewed as an obligation, and I'm not sure how one could argue that it is a general ethical duty of scientists toward each other.

However, the relationship between Eileen and Steve is special in some ways. She is a professor, a teacher, at a university, and he is a beginning graduate student in her department. Therefore, Eileen has greater obligation to help in Steve's training than that of a professor at another university or in a different department. In addition, at the brown bag lunch seminar, which Steve was probably required to attend as part of his training, Eileen exposed him to an idea that now seems to be coloring all his thoughts as he works to design a research project. She must take some responsibility for the consequences. Does that mean that Eileen must accept Steve's offer of collaboration? I don't think so, but it does suggest that she needs good reasons for refusing to collaborate.

Question 2. This question presents some possible reasons that Eileen might have for refusing and asks us to evaluate them. If we agree that Eileen does not have an absolute obligation to collaborate with Steve, then the questions are how strong is Eileen's obligation, and are her reasons for refusing sufficient to counter that obligation? Neither issue is easy to evaluate, but I would submit that if the cost of the collaboration to Eileen is high in terms of effort, time and money, it is more difficult to assert that Eileen should collaborate with Steve. Of course, the conflict between Steve's right to follow up on his plan for an experiment and have a good thesis project vs. Eileen's right to receive credit for originating her idea and control its public presentation still remains, but it should be possible to come up with a compromise that respects both of these claims. Determining whether they should participate in a proposed compromise plan is a question of the costs to each and their equitable distribution.

Discussion Questions

Part 2

Question 1. The ethical implications of "sitting on" an idea would be most fruitfully explored by looking at the expected consequences of continued "sitting" relative to letting another pursue the idea. The question points out that there may be potential harms or benefits to others besides the principals in the scenario, and that these should be considered as well. In the overall discussion, however, it is important to keep the principles of justice and individual rights in mind so that one does not just concentrate on ethical calculus.

Question 2. The means by which Eileen communicated her idea does make a difference because it bears on the issue of her right to receive credit for the idea. If it were a large, public forum, many in the field would know the idea was hers, and she would receive appropriate credit within that scientific community. That would be particularly true if there were some written record of her presentation of the idea in a technical note or poster abstract. Publication makes an idea available to all to pursue as they wish. Most researchers these days understand that anything presented in any form at a meeting may be pursued by anyone who learns of it.

In this case, the context for Eileen's presentation was an informal, in-house seminar. That makes the question much more difficult because keeping such for as open and free-wheeling as possible is beneficial to everyone; to achieve that goal, the participants must feel safe to share ideas that are not yet formally claimed as their own.

Question 3. I have never heard of a formal declaration of a "statute of limitations," but arriving at an understanding of this concept would be beneficial to all. In the past, I have usually heard this concept invoked by advisers who feel that their former students are talking too long to write up their research for publication. It is difficult to determine how long is "long enough," and I doubt that a single, interested colleague like Bill can do it fairly. It would require a group familiar with the experimental systems involved. In this case, one year may be far too short if Eileen gets only one growing season per year for her experimental plant and plans her experiments one to two seasons ahead.

Question 4. Eileen's actions differ from those of Dr. Igneous in at least one important way: She is being honest about her development of her idea and work to test it. She is not trying to mislead others, and she has already made an investment in the development of the idea. Dr. Igneous may not have generated any original ideas, but just claimed to be doing experiments in a number of areas to minimize the competition. The amount of work Eileen has already invested in the development and refinement of her ideal does matter because if she does not receive credit for originating this idea, the work already invested will represent a loss to her; a cost or harm to her as possible result of Steve's course of action. The amount of work she has done on the idea is also an indication of her determination to follow through with the testing and not just sit on the idea as Dr. Igneous did.

Question 5. Eileen's case for refusing Steve's offer to collaborate is strengthened if she has a clearly identifiable reason for her delay and if that delay has an identifiable end point. An example might be a heavy teaching load this year but a free semester in the next year.

Regardless, the situation for Steve is still not good, and some sort of creative solution would be best for all involved. Steve appears to be a grad student who has been captured by an idea. It is as if Eileen's model explains the observations he and others have made on his experimental population, and thinking about it has changed his view of all future investigations he has planned. He cannot ignore it. The idea has become part of the way in which he thinks about his research. Steve is not saying that Eileen should not get credit for the idea, but rather that he needs to be allowed to follow where consideration of it is taking him.

Question 6. Bill's role in this case is one that deserves some consideration. He is Eileen's departmental colleague and possibly friend, but he is presenting Eileen with what amounts to an ultimatum and then justifying his actions with the Dr. Igneous story. He is a very important player in this scenario, and it would be useful to explore what his obligations to the other people are, and what alternative courses of action he might have taken. Steve does need an advocate, and Bill is the logical person to fill this role, but Bill's course of action will not result in the best possible consequences for any of those involved.

Question 7. Bill and Eileen's argument certainly does indicate a tension between personal ownership and collaboration, between competition and cooperation, between individual recognition and the good of science. This is a very real tension in science and one we all try to balance. Collaborations are generally perceived as a good thing, but some may question the individual abilities of those who always work in collaboration with others. Collaboration with a more senior researcher can also result in the shadow effect; most assume that the major ideas and impetus for the work originated with the senior partner. Students need to be aware of the reality of these tensions, and of the need to work toward changing the culture of science so as to decrease them.

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.


  • Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785). Quoted in James Rachels. The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.
  • National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. The Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research. 1978.

Author: Karen Muskavitch, Indiana University.