Sherry's Secret


This case questions the ethics of a mentor using the work of a doctoral student's work as his own.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 1

Sherry is a doctoral student in the lab of Dr. Buddy Norman. Her dissertation research is near completion when Norman asks her to begin writing a paper for publication. When she shows him what she has written, he asks for a copy of her disk, which includes her unfinished manuscript and data. "How much longer will it take you to complete the experiments and write your conclusions?" he asks. "About two to three months," she replies.

A couple of months later, Sherry arrives early in Norman's office for a progress meeting and sees a manuscript acceptance notice on his desk. Peeking at the slip of paper, she sees that it refers to her work. She is shocked, since her research is incomplete. She decides not to say anything, thinking that Dr. Norman will bring it up. He doesn't.

Later that night, Sherry looks for the manuscript on Norman's desk. She finds a completed document describing the experiment that she is working on, with positive results and a suspicious looking graph. She decides to confront her professor on the apparent fabrication of data. Although the results reported in the graph are consistent with what she has found and expects to find, they dishonestly report results that she does not have.

Sherry confronts Norman the next day. She demands that the paper be recalled. He replies that the paper has already been accepted and is probably in press by now. He tells her that she is listed as first author and that submitting a retraction at this point would look very bad, affecting her career as well as his.

Norman goes on to say that the lab has been waiting for a breakthrough for a long time. The grant that pays the salaries of the technicians and other students is up for renewal soon. (Sherry has independent funding.) He explains that he is confident that her research will pan out. All he did was extrapolate a line and write the conclusions, submitting the article a little early. Without this publication, there is almost no chance for his grant to be renewed, and the lab would have to be shut down.

Discussion Questions

1. Should Sherry attempt to recall the paper? Or should she say nothing and hope that her research backs up Norman's "predictions"? What is the ethical thing for her to do?

2. If Sherry decides to retract the paper, would you classify her action as "whistle-blowing"? What effect could that have on her career as a fledgling scientist?

3. What ethical issues are raised by Norman's actions? The fabrication of data aside, is it within his rights to complete Sherry's manuscript and submit it?

A possible conclusion would be for Sherry to contact the editor of the journal, stating that she has found an error in her figure. She could ask that the journal postpone publishing the paper until the problem is resolved. This option might allow Sherry to avoid ruining Norman's career -- and her own.

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Part 2

Sherry decides that "whistle-blowing" could sink her and the whole lab, and that the livelihood of her co-workers is more important than a few data points that may prove to be correct after all. She urgently works to finish her research. If Norman's extrapolations are sound, she will say nothing. If they are incorrect, she is in big trouble, as her data won't be reproducible. However, she feels that enough time will pass between publication and graduation for her to advance on to her post-doc before any questions could arise over the validity of the paper's conclusions. She will just keep quiet for now and hope for the best.

Discussion Questions

4. What are the ethical stumbling blocks in Sherry's reasoning?

5. How would you approach a solution based on the facts?

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Part 3

With a sigh of relief, Sherry sits back and looks at the graph she has constructed from her finished data. It is almost identical to the figure in the journal in front of her, open to her article. Norman's grant has been renewed, and she is making plans for defending and moving to Indiana for her post-doc.

Kirchoff, a former student visiting from Russia, walks in and peers over her shoulder. "Why are you comparing data?" he asks. When he takes a closer look, he notices that the author is Sherry, and his face clouds. "Oh. Very bad. Very bad." Sherry sees his look of recognition.

After questioning Kirchoff, she learns that Norman had fabricated data of other students, who felt powerless to stop him. Sherry contacts those others, who confirm Kirchoff's claim.

Discussion Questions

6. What should Sherry do now, in light of this new information?

7. If Sherry reports Norman, do you think she should also be accused of misconduct? Why or why not?

8. What are Sherry's obligations to the new students in the lab?


Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 2, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 1998.

Professor Norman's behavior is bad science and bad mentoring for a number of reasons. I will separate the steps in his behavior and try to explain why his actions are wrong.

The first act we can distinguish is the act of sending off a paper based on a student's work without informing the student or obtaining her agreement. Even if Sherry had completed the experiments, it would be a breach of trust for Norman to submit her paper without telling her what he is about to do. Just as he should not let any papers go out under his own name unless he has reviewed them, the student, Sherry, entitled to review her papers. Sherry is denied the opportunity to act responsibly with respect to her own work. Norman is at fault both for denying her this opportunity and for failing as a mentor to instill in Sherry a sense of responsibility for her work.

Norman's second improper act is to fabricate data. Fabrication of data is perhaps the most serious breach of research ethics. The foundations of science rest on the accuracy of research results and reporting. Science is a collective activity in which scientists build on one another's work; the whole enterprise depends heavily on the reliability and trustworthiness of each scientist's work. Imagine what would happen to science if scientists could never be certain of the truth of results reported in scientific journals!

Still, let us give Dr. Norman the benefit of the doubt We might suppose that Norman is so knowledgeable in his field that he could accurately predict the results of Sherry's experiments before they are completed. Even if that were true, it still seems that Norman is taking a short cut and that he does not recognize the whole point of doing science. The point is to verify predictions and thereby move them from hypotheses to evidence. For Norman to bypass this step in doing science is not only to do bad science, it is, in an important sense, to cease to do science at all.

By his initial actions (submitting the paper without telling the student and fabricating data), Norman traps the student in a no-win situation. Whatever Sherry does after she discovers what he has done, she jeopardizes her career. If she makes waves about what Norman has done, she might be considered a whistle-blower or trouble-maker. Even if she isn't perceived as a trouble-maker, she jeopardizes her relationship with Norman, who has a good deal of power over her career. On the other hand, if she does nothing, she runs the risk of the published article being a false representation of her research; that is, she runs the risk of becoming a co-conspirator in fabrication.

Given that Norman has trapped her in a no-win situation, I sympathize with Sherry's decision to wait until the results of her experiments are in. Of course, the risk remains that if the results do not confirm what the professor fabricated, she will be in deeper trouble. She will have knowingly let his fabrication go, and she will have to take more disruptive action to correct his wrong.

Once Sherry completes her research and finds that her results conform to Norman's fabrication, some of the pressure is relieved. At least her published results will not be false. Still, the process has been bad and it was just a matter of luck that she isn't going to publish false results. Sherry ought to do something. As the case goes, she discovers that Norman has done the same sort of thing with other students. However, that seems irrelevant since the one incident is enough to justify action.

What should Sherry do? It might be a good idea for Sherry to wait until she has defended and moved to her post-doc. Then she should contact an appropriate person back at the institution where she worked with Norman. He will still be in a position to damage her career, but she can attempt to have her concerns addressed while remaining anonymous.

I should add here that one option that Sherry had throughout the case was to go to someone with authority, report her concerns, get advice, and try to remain anonymous. I was reluctant to propose this solution because it is often difficult to remain anonymous, and often there is no clearly appropriate person to report to. Nevertheless, it is generally a good idea to keep someone informed as to your actions, even if you ask them not to act.

Author: Deborah G. Johnson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Questions 1-3

Questions 4-5

Questions 6-8

Sherry confronts a number of dilemmas in this case study. She faces the choice of doing what she thinks is right from her viewpoint and that of her co-workers. She also makes a few ethically questionable moves. This case study is designed to present a person to whom most people can relate, someone who sometimes thinks of herself first, not an unrealistically virtuous person. I want to introduce some so-called gray areas for discussion using a few issues that have come up in my own graduate career as well as some that I considered thought-provoking.

At the end of each section, conclusions can be drawn that will end the story, and I intended the reader to be able to do this, as indicated by the possible conclusion paragraph after the first set of questions. As the story continues, additional ethical issues arise. When the story ends, there is a wide avenue for discussion of what Sherry did and what she should or should not have done. The reader has a broad spectrum of issues for an animated class discussion.

Questions 1-3

The question here is whether Norman has been dishonest in his dealings with Sherry's work. Since Norman is also listed as an author, he should be able to revise work if he wishes. But did he really fabricate the data? Could he have been revising her work? It is a possibility that he did the experiment himself and got the correct conclusions. What Sherry should have done is to ask him in the beginning about the manuscript, or ask to help edit it.

If Sherry decides that Norman is falsifying data, should she tell anyone? The truth is that she probably would be blacklisted in her field, or at least make some serious enemies. She could be saying good-bye to any chance for success. Is it really worth all that?

All of these issues aside, Sherry should never have looked at papers on Norman's desk. Her action is a clear invasion of privacy.

Questions 4-5

Part 2 attempts to display a gray area for discussion. It brings up the question of responsibility or accountability for a publication. Sherry's decision not to "blow the whistle" this time is solely based on her self-interest, not on any sense of loyalty to anyone else in the lab. Is this decision any more or less justifiable than her earlier decisions, which took into account the fate of her co-workers?

Questions 6-8

In Part 3, I want the reader to think of what Sherry should do after discovering that others have shared her experience with Norman. Obviously, none of them have reported Norman, even though they knew what he was doing, and had discussed his actions among themselves. Should Sherry now sacrifice her career to prevent his jeopardizing the newer students? Her predecessors never warned her. Should she too turn a blind eye? After all, she is about to leave, and no one would ever know what happened.

Should Sherry also be accused of misconduct? She knew of an unethical situation (or one she thought was unethical) and did nothing about it. My point here is for the discussion participants to find out their own institutions' policy on reporting unethical behavior. At some institutions, she would be held accountable; at others, not. Most institutions have no set policy for ownership of data and reporting misconduct because it is impossible to know the minute details and circumstances of every case. Misconduct is handled on a case-by-case basis, although each institution may have a highly structured procedure for handling such cases.

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  • Beabout, G. R., and Wenneman, D. J. Applied Professional Ethics: A Developmental Approach for Use with Case Studies. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, Inc., 1994. National Academy of Sciences,
  • National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine. Responsible Science: Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process, Volume 1. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1994.
  • Sigma Xi., Honor in Science. Research Triangle Park, N.C.: The Scientific Research Society, Inc., 1994, pp. 29-32.