The Communism of Science


Discussion of who owns data, fairness in a lab and doing controversial and difficult work.


Michael has been a graduate student in a PhD program in molecular genetics for six years. He has labored on his thesis, working 16 hours a day for most of that time. His experiments have been arduous. The topic is controversial, is as most of the work in this laboratory, with Michael's work at the center of the controversy. Unfortunately, because the topic is difficult and contentious and because journal editors' opinions are entrenched, students' work is seldom published. A requirement for completion of the PhD in this program is the acceptance for publication of one paper before graduating.

Mary, an even more senior student in Michael's laboratory, has yet to have a paper accepted for publication. Mary has also worked diligently, and is frequently reminded by members of her graduate committee and the department chair that she has yet to publish. The adviser for the laboratory, Dr. Well, is well regarded by the faculty for his thoroughness and amiability. He is bright and has worked very hard to push the envelope in the field. He has several students less senior than Mary and Michael and several post-docs. Dr. Well is concerned for everyone in the laboratory, but especially for Mary, who has most advanced the state of the science but who has yet to publish. There is no tradition of students passing work - or the communism of science - in his laboratory, and he does not want to start now.

Dr. Well is also under pressure for Mary to graduate, and he feels that she should receive Michael's work to use for her thesis. Dr. Well strongly suggests to Michael that he should give Mary his own experimental results and manuscript drafts for her to complete and publish and to use as her thesis.

Discussion Questions

  1. What should Michael do?
  2. Is Dr. Well's suggestion unethical? In what way?
  3. If Michael turns over his data and drafts to Mary, what are the possible negative consequences to Michael, Mary, Dr. Well and those working in Dr. Well's laboratory? What if he does not?
  4. What should Mary do if she receives Michael's data and manuscript drafts?
  5. Should departmental policy be amended to allow Mary to graduate without publication? Are there negative consequences for changing departmental policy?
  6. If students were aware that their data might be transferred to more senior students and post-docs, would that affect your assessment of the fairness of Dr. Well's suggestion?
  7. If Michael turns over the data and drafts, who is accountable for the data if it is published?

Used with permission of Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. Case drawn from Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume Three, Brian Schrag, Ed., February 1999.

There is no doubt that Dr. Well's actions are inappropriate and potentially damaging to both Mary and Michael, as well as the health of the entire laboratory. Some may admire what Dr. Well is doing -- using his clout to steal Michael's work and give it to Mary. Robin Hood may have been admired by some, but he was still an outlaw.

More important are the actions of Michael and Mary. Given the obvious age of both of these people (six years in the lab), I would presume some level of maturity. They should, as a team, speak to Dr. Well and explain to him that his plans are not acceptable to either of them. If Dr. Well is as caring as he is made out to be, he will understand his mistake and apologize.

One last comment: It is interesting that Dr. Well is concerned with the welfare of a female graduate student and is about to cause damage to the prospects of a male graduate student by helping the female. One way to think through this problem is to reverse the roles. Would Dr. Well (or some other laboratory director) be more or less likely to help Mary if she were male, and if Michael were female? I think gross sexism is implied in the entire scenario.

Author: P. Aarne Vesilind, Duke University.