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.

. . The Communism of Science. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

This case appears to be simple at first. Students' natural reaction is to identify with Michael and Mary because we have all had arduous and difficult work, which we have spent our youth tirelessly pursuing. The overbearing nature of Dr. Well's directions leave little room for argument and presents an open-and-shut case.

In order for scientists (and for Michael) to do work, it must be "owned," in a sense. In this sense, Dr. Well's suggestion that Michael turn over his work to Mary is unethical. The primary complication of his suggestion in Well's lab is that the individual investment in projects will decline, perhaps even to the point that post-docs and students leave the lab.

Mary is hamstrung by Well's suggestion. She needs to graduate, but she has also personally invested her efforts into other projects, and she realizes that the transfer of work is unfair to Michael. It is also extremely difficult to feel accountable for data one has not accumulated. This response further militates against Mary's - and our - acquiescence. No one in real life would like to be in such a predicament.

The case presents several ethical dilemmas. The first is the issue of fairness and data ownership. Who owns and is accountable for the data? Certainly those who do the experiments. However, the idea of the communism of science also comes into play. Data in a sense belong to everyone. Science by its nature seeks to provide the good of knowledge that can be shared by all. That is one of its grandest aspects. In the microcosm of the Well's lab, communal ownership of data provides a justification for the transfer of Michael's data to Mary. Both students are shown to be capable, industrious scientists. Neither will be harmed by the transfer of data, for if the need arises, data for publication can be similarly transferred to Michael. In this light, the transfer might be undertaken to help Mary.

Another issue that might be identified by some perceptive students is the real problem of doing controversial and difficult work. Michael, Mary and Dr. Well are all engaged in a controversial area in a field that refuses to accept an alteration in its entrenched opinions. If it were not for the intransigence in opinion about the work in Dr. Well's lab, it might be easily surmised the ethical difficulties before Michael, Mary and Dr. Well would not exist. That is one of the problems of doing cutting-edge science in the real world. The question that might be asked in the final analysis is, "Should Dr. Well, Michael and Mary pursue less difficult experiments and hypotheses?"

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.