Bad Chemistry


This case demonstrates how the vagueness and uncertainty of conventions on credit and ownership create subtle but complex problems in the practice of science, also illustrating the subtleties of the authority relationship between student and professor.


Tom Jones and Dan Michaels are both fourth-year Ph.D. students in the chemistry department at a major U.S. research university. They joined Charles Imhof's research group at the same time, and they will both graduate at approximately the same time next year. Over the years, the two students have come to view each other as rivals and competitors for Professor Imhof's favor. Michaels is a fairly quiet, reserved individual who hopes to teach some day at a small liberal arts college, while Jones has an aggressive, sometimes abrasive personality, holds Imhof as his ultimate role model, and hopes to be a professor in a top-ten rated academic chemistry research department. By their fourth year, their dislike for each other has become obvious to all of the other students in the group.

At a weekly meeting during which students in Imhof's synthetic chemistry subgroup summarize their research activities over the past week and their plans for he next week's experiments, Michaels describes an extension to his work. The new project is a fairly major departure from what he has been doing, but he says that he hopes to get to it soon. None of the meeting participants make any comments except Imhof, who casually remarks, "That would be really interesting if it worked."

Two months later, Michaels has made no further mention of his new idea as he has become bogged down in writing a paper and preparing for a chemical education conference. An incoming student, Dave Perry, arrives at the university and is assigned to Imhof's lab for summer research. Perry shares Jones' attitude and views on what it means to be a "real scientist," and the two hit it off almost immediately. Hoping that Perry will join the group on a permanent basis when new students choose their advisers in the fall of their first year, and reasoning that some quick results will not only encourage him to do so but also help to win Imhof's favor, Jones tells Perry of Michaels' idea. He advises Perry, "Go ahead and try it. He'll never get to it anyway -- he cares more about teaching than real work."

Michaels' idea proves to be a very good one. With some technical help from Jones, Perry succeeds in synthesizing and determining the structure of an unprecedented chemical compound. When he presents his data at the weekly group meeting, Imhof is visibly impressed and states, "Write that up with Tom ASAP."

Michaels correctly surmises that Jones has passed along his research idea to Perry behind his back. After the meeting, he goes to Imhof's office and complains that the idea for the experiment Perry has just reported was his. Michaels says that he thinks he should be given credit for the research. Further, he demands that disciplinary action be taken against Jones. He says, "Tom gave Dave Perry my idea! He is obviously trying to undermine my work here! Can't you see that?" Imhof retorts, "Tom and Dave understand what we're trying to accomplish here, and I appreciate their fervor for research! What do you care? Your priorities obviously lie in other areas. Next time, don't waste so much time on chemical education activities and maybe you won't get scooped!"

Discussion Questions

  1. How should Imhof respond to Dan Michaels' request for "disciplinary action"? What form(s) might such action take?
  2. Who should be the co-authors on the paper? In what order should they be listed, assuming that it is most beneficial to have one's name listed first?
  3. How do attitudes toward career goals affect this case?
  4. What could Imhof have done differently over the past four years (including recently) to make the present situation less troublesome?

Back to Top


Used with permission of Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. Case drawn from Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume Two, Brian Schrag, Ed., February 1998.

. . Bad Chemistry. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

Major tasks in managing research groups are building collegiality and fostering cooperation. Success in this effort requires ongoing attention and self-scrutiny, for research environments are affected at many points by competitive pressures that can become divisive. This case is valuable for presenting a form of competition that is frequently reported but seldom discussed. It describes a situation at a major research university in which two graduate students, progressing through the program at about the same time and pace, become competitors for the favor of the professor who heads their research group. At the juncture highlighted in the case, near the end of their training, their contrasting styles and rivalry have led to an open conflict.

Striving to emulate Dr. Imhof, the head of the research group, one of the students, Tom Jones, has developed an aggressive manner and ambitions for the kind of position held by Imhof. In contrast, the other student, Dan Michaels, is quiet, reserved and aims for a career teaching in a small liberal arts college. At a weekly meeting of the research group when students summarize their future plans, Michaels describes "a fairly major departure from what he has been doing but hopes to get to soon."

At such a moment, an attentive group head might notice that this usually reserved student has proposed a relatively bold idea. The group head has a duty to consider how to help this particular student move forward with an "interesting" idea that might (or might not) work. In an interview about one of his notably successful students, one senior scientist "describes his pedagogical approach as 'watching discreetly and carefully.'" (University of Chicago 1997, p. 19) It is part of Imhof's responsibilities to draw out his students' best work. A group leader's timely, encouraging response can make a difference to a graduate student's progress. From the casual remark that Imhof drops, it is evident that he is not mindful of this opportunity to offer thoughtful encouragement. That kind of thoughtlessness could allow (or even help) a damaging rivalry to grow over a period of years.

Apparently, neither Imhof nor Michaels brings up the proposal at subsequent weekly meetings. By returning to Michaels's idea, Imhof might have prompted Michaels to pursue it. In showing continuing interest, Imhof might have been more effective than on the earlier occasion.

In his aggressive way, Jones takes advantage of Michaels's failure to follow up on Imhof's casual positive response. Apparently without a word to either Imhof or Michaels, Jones encourages an incoming graduate student, Dave Perry, to pursue Michaels's idea and helps him succeed with it. While Jones shows initiative that is valuable in science, his proceeding without clearance from Michaels and Imhof is not ethically defensible. Michaels has some claim to a proposal he made public, and Jones and Perry should not have gone ahead without acknowledging his claim.

Imhof focuses only on the successful outcome of the experiments and the prospect of a publication. He fails to consider appropriate procedures and seems to have forgotten that Michaels had originally proposed the research. It is his responsibility to see that operative procedures are in place to cover exchange of ideas so that students behave with respect toward one another. Admittedly, Michaels failed to do what he said he planned to do, but that does not justify Jones's taking over his proposal without a word to Michaels or Imhof. By failing to notice how it came about that Perry and Jones pursued Michaels's proposal, Imhof encourages divisive competition within the research group. There is evidence to show that in research groups that strongly emphasize competition within the group, trust is undermined and suspicions of misconduct arise. (Anderson, Louis and Earle 1994) Such carelessness obviously interferes with building cooperation and collegiality.

For Michaels, Imhof's satisfaction with Jones is an intolerable instance of Imhof's favoritism. He goes to Imhof's office, asserts that he alone should get credit for the research and demands disciplinary action against Jones. Imhof's insensitive and rude reply reflects his bias toward aggressive pursuit of research, his lack of appropriate concern about procedures in the research group and his disdain for careers in science that emphasize teaching. It is difficult to imagine a positive outcome from this blow-up.

Although Michaels's distress is understandable, the responses he looks for are unrealistic and unjustifiable. Since he did not carry out the research he proposed, he cannot claim sole credit for synthesizing and determining the structure of the chemical compound. However, for originally putting the idea forward he is entitled to credit, at least an acknowledgment in the published paper. It is not clear that Jones violated any rule or policy of the research group so there seems to be no basis for punishment. However, Jones's acting behind Michaels's back is ethically objectionable, and ground rules should have been in place that prohibited that action. Imhof should not have viewed Jones's action as an acceptable approach to investigation.

In his distress, Michaels errs in thinking that punishment is an appropriate response to Jones's action and a suitable approach to establishing standards in a research group. It would be justifiable to expect that Jones and Perry should be required to acknowledge that the idea for the research came from Michaels. A responsibly managed research group will have clearly explained policies about exchange of ideas and should monitor compliance. Unfortunately, Imhof seems so accepting of unrestrained competition that there is not much reason for optimism about responsible management of this research group.

Imhof's personal bias (apparently) favoring Jones and his bias against teaching and alternate careers in science are ethically objectionable. He is, of course, entitled to his preferences among students and may not be able to control the "chemistry" of his relationships with students. But he should be alert to the dangers of playing favorites and the obligation to treat students fairly according to explicit, accepted policies.

At a time when academic positions such as Imhof's are exceedingly scarce, he has an even greater obligation not to denigrate alternative careers in science that make a positive contribution to society. He is apparently unaware of the fact that liberal arts colleges produce a disproportionately large share of science graduate students. Presumably, that is because these colleges provide students the kind of close association with a watchful scientist unavailable to undergraduates in large research universities. In Imhof's research group, such an association is unavailable to graduate students as well.

Finally, this case raises the question of what options there are for graduate students in such situations. At a much earlier point, Michaels might have considered whether Imhof's group was a good fit for him. In a large university, there may be alternatives. Having opted to remain, he should have searched out other, more compatible senior people for research and career advice, taking initiative and not remaining passive. At this point, Michaels might turn for advice to such a person in his department or in an appropriate administrative office. In a large research university, there should be an administrator who is available for help with problematic situations of this kind.

In the end, perhaps, among the clearest lesson from this case is the need for research heads to give explicit attention to formulating and justifying ground rules for their groups and to keep a watchful eye on students' progress within those frameworks.


  • Anderson, M.; Louis, K. S.; and Earle, J. "Disciplinary and Departmental Effects on Observations of Faculty and Graduate Student Misconduct." Chronicle of Higher Education 65 (No. 3, 1994): 338.
  • "John Grunsfeld: Developing Independence." A Vision of Excellence: The University of Chicago Annual Report 1996-97, p. 19.

Author: Vivian Weil, Illinois Institute of Technology.

Disciplinary Action

Criteria for Authorship

Favoritism and Prejudice Regarding Career Goals

Faculty Members' Responsibilities

This case is intended to foster discussion of some important ethical (and procedural) issues that affect the workings of a graduate research group. As such, it is intended primarily for use in discussions with graduate students or post-docs and their supervisors/professors. The main issues it attempts to present include disciplinary action within a research group, criteria for authorship, favoritism and prejudices regarding career goals, and finally, faculty members' responsibilities to state clear expectations and to foster collegiality among the members of their working groups.

Disciplinary Action

The first question is intended simply to begin a discussion as much as to raise the issue of disciplinary action. Most (if not all) students in research groups have encountered situations in which an explicit or implied rule has been violated or some other perceived "wrong" has been committed. In these situations, the immediate authority is obviously the professor in charge of the research group. What can a research adviser do in a case like this one? The leader of a discussion might ask the participants for two extremes in level of response appropriate for Imhof. The most severe extreme will probably involve something along the lines of kicking Jones out of his research group, or even expulsion from the university. While this action might be appropriate for some infractions (fabrication of data, sabotage, etc.), it would seem to be quite severe for this case. The other extreme would, of course, have Imhof taking no action at all.

It is made clear in the story that Jones is the person Michaels wants to see punished. An interesting question that may come up in discussion concerns Perry's level of wrongdoing. He may seem less guilty than Jones, if only because he is the "new guy" and might not understand the norms of group research. However, he has contributed in a very real way to the situation that has angered Michaels.

Criteria for Authorship

This topic is frequently discussed in research ethics and is not intended to be the centerpiece of discussion in this case. However, it is an issue that will face almost every participant in scientific research at some time and as such is an appropriate lead-in to other points in this case study.

Criteria for authorship, at least within the scientific community, are not spelled out by any universal governing body such as the American Chemical Society. Questions that are often considered when determining authorship include, but are not limited to, who actually writes the manuscript, who performs the experiments and who conceives the idea or makes significant intellectual contributions toward its fruition.

In the present case, Michaels originally conceived the idea in question. Therein lies his claim to authorship and the basis for his complaint against Jones. During discussion of the case, Michaels' request for authorship will be addressed. Since Michaels has not yet performed any actual experiments related to his idea, it is unlikely that all participants in the discussion will entirely agree with his position. However, most will probably feel that he has some right to credit for his idea. How much credit is really the question. Again here, asking participants in the discussion to propose two extremes in the amount of credit Michaels should receive might be helpful to the discussion. The extremes would range from sole authorship of the paper to no credit at all. Between these extremes, a consensus might be found; such a consensus may involve including Michaels as a co-author or mentioning him in the acknowledgments section of the paper.

A slightly more subtle point that stems from this discussion concerns the ways in which credit for intellectual contributions to group projects might be rewarded, other than by co-authorship on a paper. One possibility is the all-important letter of recommendation a professor writes for a student or post-doc at the completion of his or her time in the group. In this case, Imhof clearly does not think a lot of Michaels as a researcher. Thus, this avenue for receiving credit is not likely to be available to him. The reasons this situation has come about relate directly to the fundamental issues this case study is intended to address.

Back to Top

Favoritism and Prejudice Regarding Career Goals

The problem of favoritism by professors who head research groups, either real or imagined, is common enough that most graduate students will be exposed to it, either personally or by hearing someone else complain about it. Favoritism can occur for many reasons, and it is usually quite destructive to the group atmosphere. This case spotlights one common source of favoritism in the academic research setting.

Students choose to attend graduate school with various career goals in mind. These goals can include industrial employment, employment as a professor at an academic institution emphasizing research, or professorship at a (usually smaller) teaching-centered college or university. It is unfortunately common for professors at graduate institutions, who have achieved their stature in large part by dogged pursuit of research results, to think less of graduate students who wish to gain a Ph.D. under their direction but ultimately seek careers that emphasize teaching rather than research.

The third discussion question is intended to begin a discussion on this topic. Clearly, Imhof regards teaching as much less important than research, as seen in his response to Michaels at the end of the narrative. Michaels will end up angry, probably bitter, and without his name on a paper describing his idea in large part because of Imhof's attitude and, apparently, the fact that he allows his personal attitudes to affect his treatment of his students.

This part of the discussion is intended to move toward a professor's ethical responsibility to treat all the members of his or her group without prejudice, and the basic right held by members of a research group to be treated fairly and equally as long as they follow group rules and behave in a collegial fashion.

Back to Top

Faculty Members' Responsibilities

The final discussion question regarding what Professor Imhof could have done differently is intended to bring the discussion around to the main point of this case study; that is, the responsibilities of professors who head research groups. One likely response to the question will involve Imhof's failure to foster cooperation and collegiality among members of the group. The animosity between Jones and Michaels is clear in the story. This level of animosity poisons the work environment. Suggestions as to ways Imhof could have avoided this situation might include holding closed-door meetings with the "warring factions," conflict mediation and the like. Collegiality is expected within the scientific community. Major professors in science are ethically responsible for educating student under their direction in such basic principles. It is a vital part of the training to which graduate students are entitled.

The question might arise of whether Professor Imhof was even aware of the animosity. That is a good question, and in fact points to another common problem in research groups: ignorance on the part of a major professor regarding relations and personal difficulties between members of his or her research group. When the new student, Perry, is effectively assigned to a project not by Imhof but rather by another student, Jones, that suggests that Imhof is not adequately involved in the day-to-day functioning of his group.

It is hoped that the discussion will also consider the topic of rules and standards within a research group. One way to lead the discussion in this direction might be to ask the questions, "How will the students in the group know which names should go on the paper?" and "Why is there a conflict here?" If Imhof were to set forth clear guidelines for authorship, the answer to the first part of this question would be clear.

Back to Top