The Chance Meeting


This case discusses a possible conflict of interest between mentor and student and the dissemination of information within academia.


Lisa Jones is a graduate student in the lab of Dr. John Smith at State University, where she studies the pathology of SMEL virus, a highly pathogenic virus that has experienced a recent resurgence due to the appearance of drug-resistant strains. Lisa has set out to examine a hypothesis posed by a competing lab headed by Dr. Shirley Frank. In vitro experiments by members of Dr. Frank's lab have suggested that SMEL protease is able to cleave SMEL protein X. It has been suggested that this reaction occurs in vivo and is essential for activating SMEL protein X, which promotes viral DNA replication. Lisa plans to isolate SMEL protein X early in the viral life cycle with the hope of capturing the uncleaved SMEL protein X. Unfortunately, utilizing SMEL strain A, Lisa has been unable to purify SMEL protein X. Upon switching to strain B, Lisa has generated preliminary data that suggest that she has succeeded in isolating a larger, perhaps uncleaved, form of SMEL protein X.

Soon after Lisa conducted these preliminary experiments, a viral conference was held at a nearby university. Prior to the conference, Dr. Smith told the lab that many competitors would be attending and instructed them to say nothing about results generated by the lab. At the poster session, Lisa ran into Steve Jones, an old friend she hasn't seen since high school. Steve is a graduate student in Dr. Frank's group and was a participant in the lab's in vitro experiments with SMEL protease and protein X. Lisa became nervous when she discovered Steve's objectives were similar to her own. But she realized that he was implementing a slightly different technique and utilizing strain A. So far, all Steve's attempts have failed.

Lisa apprehensively approached Dr. Smith and informed him that Steve's plans were not identical to hers and asked whether she should mention her experience with strain A to her old friend. Dr. Smith emphatically answered, "No!" Lisa, feeling that any action contradictory to Dr. Smith's instruction would jeopardize her relationship with her mentor, decided not to mention her results to Steve.

Discussion Questions

  1. What should Lisa tell Steve?
  2. Should Dr. Smith instruct his lab not to share information? Why or why not?
  3. Should Lisa fear retribution from Dr. Smith if she tells Steve? Is retribution a common occurrence in today's research environment? What alternatives exist for students who experience retribution?
  4. Is the practice of withholding information in today's highly competitive research environment necessary or is it self-destructive and contradictory to the advancement of knowledge? What are the consequences of withholding information? 

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 3, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 1999.

At the outset it is important to bear in mind a distinction between ideals we might believe research scientists should strive for and the actual context in which they currently conduct their research. I do not know what the overall importance the SMEL virus in this case study might have for public health, safety and welfare. From the standpoint of ideal scientific research, the greater its import for public health, safety and welfare, the stronger the argument for widespread cooperative research and the weaker the argument for keeping research findings secret.

"The Chance Meeting" describes two competitive research labs, both of which are at least partly staffed by graduate students under the supervision of senior researchers. In fact, the two labs are described as "Dr. John Smith's" and "Dr. Shirley Frank's," suggesting research settings in which proprietary claims are made in regard to research results. One might wish for a less competitive, less proprietary research setting, but that is an ideal rather than the reality of this case. My commentary will focus on the ethical problems inherent in the competitive research setting described.

Dr. Smith has set the tone for the viral conference to be held at a nearby university; since many "competitors" will be attending, nothing is to be said about the results generated in his lab. This rule seems severe even in a competitive setting. After all, this is a conference, where, presumably, some information is to be shared. Furthermore, Smith's lab has already learned some results from Frank's lab (i.e., that SMEL protease may be able to cleave protein X). Nevertheless, Smith has instructed everyone to say nothing about their lab results.

What could be said in defense of Dr. Smith's stance? One possibility is that the lab results are not well developed or secure enough to be shared. Another is that, as head of the lab, Dr. Smith believes that he should report all lab results. His rule might be an attempt to control the information coming from his lab. Finally, it is relevant to consider the sources of the funding for Dr. Smith's lab. He may have special responsibilities to the funding agencies, especially if they are private agencies.

However, Smith's basic attitude could be simply competitive and proprietary, quite apart from any special obligations to funding agencies.. As head of the lab, Smith may feel a responsibility to keep the lab "afloat" - even more, to be "Number 1." Presumably, considerable money, time and work have been invested in the lab's research. "We cannot afford to be too charitable," Smith might urge. "Others should not be allowed free access to what we've discovered through hard work." Of course, other participants at the conference might reason similarly, raising the question of why a conference is being held at all. Denial of free access is not the same as complete denial of access. Still, Dr. Smith may be insisting on reciprocal exchanges of information, and, as head of the lab, he may have been telling researchers in his lab that they should not be sharing lab results without first obtaining his approval.

To Lisa's credit, she did go to Dr. Smith to ask if she could share their tentative findings about strain B with her old high school friend. Why did he refuse? It could be that, so far, only "preliminary data" have issued from Lisa's work; such results should not be released prematurely, Dr. Smith might have thought. It could be that Dr. Smith did not see Lisa's sharing as a reciprocal exchange. Admittedly, Steve Jones had told her enough about his somewhat similar research that she realized he was using strain A (without success) rather than strain B. However, that was not useful information, since Lisa already knew that strain A was not successful. Dr. Smith might ask, "What's the mutual gain here? None. So why should we help another lab move ahead in this competitive environment? Would they do that for us?"

Lisa might still think that Dr. Smith is being unreasonable. But her only apparent motive for suggesting strain B to Steve Jones is that Lisa and Steve were old friends in high school, although they haven't seen each other since. Giving an old friend from high school a break might seem like a good thing to do, but Lisa's action may well harm her lab (if it falls behind competitively) as well as damaging her relationships of trust with Dr. Smith and other members of the lab. She has not claimed that this information should be shared for the overall good of society (advancing our common store of knowledge in fighting disease, e.g.). It seems more a matter of pleasing an old friend. If Lisa wants to share information with Steve in order to support higher scientific ideals, then she should advance this argument to Dr. Smith and her lab associates. However, that does not seem to be her driving concern. I conclude that she made a wise, and morally defensible, decision in refusing to share her results with Steve.

A further question is whether fear of retribution (from Dr. Smith) is a good reason for Lisa not to share her results with Steve. It probably is a realistic fear. If Lisa is motivated only by fear of retribution, that suggests a failure to see the morally valid reasons for not sharing her results with Steve.

If fear of retribution is the main reason Lisa and her colleagues do not share their lab results with others, that suggests that the lab atmosphere is not what it should be. Perhaps Dr. Smith should have open discussions of how their findings should be handled and why. Graduate students should be invited to discuss Dr. Smith's views - even to challenge them if they seem too restrictive for scientific research. But it is in such discussions rather than in individual situations outside the lab (such as meeting an old high school friend) that challenges should be made. Meanwhile, Lisa should not take matters into her own hands and tell her old friend the "secrets" of her research.

Author: Michael Pritchard, Western Michigan University.

Questions 1-3

The objective of this case study is to invoke discourse on two issues: 1) a possible conflict of interest between mentor and student and 2) the dissemination of information within academia.

Common reasons for attending a research conference are to learn what the competition is focusing on and to assess the progress of their research. This valuable information is used to avoid being "scooped" and to gain technical knowledge that can provide a "leg-up" on the competitors. What Dr. Smith has done is not too unfamiliar to a graduate student attending his or her first conference and something seemingly taken for granted by more senior students and, unfortunately, researchers.

But by what authority does Dr. Smith act? Often, such actions are taken under the pretense that they are in the student's best interest (i.e., so Lisa won't be "scooped" and can publish). It is very easy for a mentor to become increasingly occupied with the success of the lab, as judged by size and amount of funding. This focus can easily lead to the belief that the success of the lab justifies actions that are believed to better chances of success. In other words, the end (i.e., promotion for Dr. Smith and publications for Lisa) justifies the means (i.e., instructing a student to compromise her relationship with a friend and to withhold knowledge from the scientific community).

But doesn't the position of a mentor entail fostering personal growth and the teaching of students? Does this responsibility include teaching students that publishing supersedes friendships and the sharing of information with peers? The situation is further complicated by the fact that this information involves Lisa's thesis project, and Dr. Smith has a significant influence over when and if she will complete her degree. In most cases, a successful graduate career is based on the number of published articles. The bibliography, along with a letter of recommendation from the mentor, will greatly influence a graduate student's career. Should a person's thesis be based on published data? If the student is "scooped," should that damage the student's ability to graduate? Is Dr. Smith acting in Lisa's best interest, or is he thinking about his ability to get future funding? How much influence should a mentor have on when and if a student should graduate?

Steve is Lisa's peer, and collaborations are often based on previous relationships. Is it possible that by withholding information, Lisa is jeopardizing her future potential to set up fruitful collaborations?

Question 4

The quest for research funding has created a highly competitive environment where advantages are sought and adamantly held. In addition, because of the duration of most grants, many scientists plan no further than three to five years ahead, thus masking the long-term consequences for the scientific community of withholding information. These actions serve to impede the overall advancement of science. In addition to generating data, the ability to conceal possible advantages is now a determinants of success, and this situation jeopardizes the advancement of knowledge as a whole. Taken together, these issues are possible conflicts of interest.

Isn't Dr. Smith's responsibility to his student and the scientific community greater than that to his lab? Dr. Smith assumes that his actions offer no ill effects but simply are part of today's cutthroat research environment. In truth, his actions serve to propagate unhealthy practices that only hinder scientific progress.