Who Controls Where Information Will Be Published?


This case discusses the question of how should student-mentor conflicts be resolved and who has ownership rights to publication within this relationship?


Part 1 -- Introduction

Mark Crowfoot, a graduate student, is beginning his master's project in Major University's program in biological taxonomy. Mark is excited about the project. His major adviser, Dr. Shin Lee, is highly respected in his field and prominently involved in the creation of an important national plant database on the web. In spite of his enthusiasm, Mark feels lost the first month of his graduate study. Lee is temporarily preoccupied and doesn't have time to orient Mark to the department. However, Mark is finally able to figure out most things on his own or by asking other students. It doesn't occur to him, however, to ask about official departmental policies concerning research or rules governing publishing, and he receives no official orientation from the department or university.

Discussion Questions

1. Does the department or adviser have an obligation to discuss publication policies with incoming students? Should the department provide a formal orientation? Failing that, does the student have the responsibility to find out?

2. Is Lee's conduct appropriate? Should he have provided information or asked another person to orient Mark to the program?

Part 2 -- Conflict

Mark is in a somewhat different position than many of the other students. He is not just a graduate student, but also a staff member. His salary comes from a part-time position in the museum, under Lee's direction. He has many duties that do not pertain to his research, and so his thesis project proceeds slowly. It takes six years for him to complete his research, a taxonomic key and guide to the fungi and lichens of the Southeastern United States. He collects, keys, catalogues and permanently stores more than 2,000 specimens in the university's natural resources museum.

Lee takes a particular interest in Mark's project and spends many hours with him in the field, training him for his museum position, and guiding his research. Mark becomes an authority in the subject. When his thesis is finally finished, Lee feels that Mark should publish his work. He also wants to make Mark's dissertation available for immediate feedback from the scientific community by posting it on the now well-established national web database.

Mark is shocked. He had always planned to publish a book for both the scientific and lay communities. He feels publication of a book would be an asset to his career, further identify him in his field, and perhaps generate some income as well. He does not want to publish it on the internet, for fear that no-cost access to the information would reduce the significance of his book. He does not believe his professor has the right to tell him how the information will be made available.

Discussion Questions

3. Who should decide where to publish Mark's dissertation?

4. When Mark becomes aware of the conflict, what should he do? Should he ask advice from another professor within the department? Should he try to find out how others have handled similar situations?

Part 3 -- Results

Mark maintains that the decision about publication is his alone to make, and a long battle with Lee ensues. Their relationship, once cordial, becomes severely strained. Although Mark wins in the end, and the material is not posted on the internet, he ends by permanently alienating his adviser, and possibly damaging his career.

Discussion Questions

5. What is the appropriate venue for disseminating research information?

6. How might Mark have handled this situation better? Did he win the battle only to lose the war?


Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 4, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2000.

. . Who Controls Where Information Will Be Published?. Online Ethics Center. DOI:. https://onlineethics.org/cases/graduate-research-ethics-cases-and-commentaries-volume-4-2000/who-controls-where-information.

This brief case features a relationship between a graduate student and his major adviser that becomes very close and then turns sour. The case usefully illustrates one way in which an adviser/student relationship can go off the track. Evidently, over the course of a prolonged relationship, an adviser can fail to establish a persuasive policy about publishing in his field and can leave a student in confusion or disagreement about the best outlet for the student's work. And after benefiting from an adviser's guidance over a sustained period, a graduate student can find it necessary to challenge the adviser's guidance about publishing.

The account offers only one or two hints concerning the roots of the misunderstanding that eventually leads to the rupture between this adviser and this student. During the crucial first month of graduate study, the adviser is very busy and neither finds time to orient the student nor to see to it that the student receives a proper orientation from someone else in the department. This lapse may be one root of the misunderstanding that arises much later. Apparently, neither the university nor the department has a program or mechanism in place that assures each student appropriate orientation to graduate study.

Graduate students should arrive at the outset prepared to ask questions, but they should not be made responsible for orienting themselves. The graduate school environment can be intimidating, and students may not yet have enough information to know what questions to ask. In the first month, policies governing research and publishing need not be laid out in detail, but students should be introduced to conventions associated with research, recognition, and publishing in print and online. Policies and procedures should be in place, and students should get a sense that they operate within a framework of conventions that provide guidelines.

Mark's unusual position as a part-time staff member in the museum under his major adviser's direction may provide a second clue to the misunderstanding that develops. In two different roles under the direction of the same adviser, Mark gains certain benefits but also experiences certain disadvantages. One is the prolongation of his thesis research. About others we cannot be certain, but exaggerated dependence on the adviser, blurred or clouded expectations about performance in the different roles, and excessive reliance on informal arrangements are likely.

It might seem that Mark has adequate time and exposure to learn the ropes about publishing in his field. However, his job duties may obscure that issue so that he does not pay it enough attention. It might seem that Dr. Lee has ample opportunity to brief Mark well in advance about publication arrangements for the completed work. However, in simultaneously supervising him in two different roles, he may lose track of some essential elements of supervision relating to one or the other. Because Mark's expected product is suitable for inclusion in the online national plant database Lee was prominent in creating, Lee must raise the issue of inclusion early on.

It may be that Lee has become so accustomed to directing Mark that he is unable to step back and consider how to negotiate publication. Perhaps, having become an authority in his area, Mark feels somehow entitled to set his own terms, forgetting how important Lee's direction has been to his attaining this status. We can only speculate. A case so scanty in details does not allow inferences. However, Lee is open to ethical criticism for not providing for Mark's orientation to graduate study at the outset and for not guarding sufficiently against the pitfalls of Mark's combining graduate study with a staff position.

In the course of his research, Mark should have shared with Lee his own ambitions regarding publication. Together, they should have thoroughly addressed the impact that inclusion in the database might have on the publication of a book. We do not know if Mark has good evidence for thinking that publication in the database will doom his chances for success with a book. It is unfortunate that he frames his problem with Lee in terms of rights. Deciding about publication in the context of graduate study is not a matter of inherent rights, but of conventions, procedures, expectations they generate, and respect for persons. Advisers commonly play an important role in helping graduate students to publish their research. In an open research environment where there are reasonable, explicit understandings about publication, there should be no purchase for questions about who controls where information will be published.

Author: Vivian Weil, Illinois Institute of Technology.

On the surface, this case appears to focus on a problem involving data presentation. However, if we look more closely, we can see that the disagreement between a major professor and his graduate student over how the master's project information will be shared with the general community stems from a more basic problem: poor communication.

This case addresses fundamental aspects of a student-mentor relationship. What is the mentor's academic responsibility to the student, and what is the student's role in this breakdown in communication?

It is not uncommon for large universities such as the one described in this case to be immense bureaucracies, filled with mounds of paperwork, extremely busy and overscheduled faculty, and students who find themselves thrown into a system fundamentally different from their undergraduate education. The questions posed after Part 1 direct the reader to consider the department's and faculty's obligations for new graduate student orientation. Additional questions concerning the student's role in this information exchange are equally important. After all, this is the student's education. Moreover, faculty generally view graduate students as highly responsible and self-motivated adults. However, the student may not ask the appropriate questions to garner information if he cannot anticipate the problem. In other words, an inexperienced individual such as a new master's student may not have the background to foresee potential difficulties.

It appears that the department and Dr. Lee should routinely provide written materials outlining departmental mores to all new incoming students. Perhaps the materials could also emphasize general expectations for both parties and the importance of a continuous dialogue between mentor and student.

In Part 2, we find that the graduate student spends an inordinate amount of time on his master's thesis. When he finally finishes, he faces a disagreement with his mentor over the publication format of his research. There are several considerations here. 1) Who has the right to determine publication format; who has ownership of data? 2) How should the conflict be handled? Should a third party be brought in to mediate? 3) Does the department have a responsibility to assure that a graduate student makes timely progress and does an appropriate amount of work for his project?

Again, it seems that the department and faculty committee should address questions of ownership and appropriate size of projects at the onset of the student's research. It would also seem reasonable for the department to provide a system for the mediation of student/mentor conflicts.

Part 3 finds the student retaining ownership of his research, but damaging his relationship with his mentor. Changes in how information is presented with the advent of the internet pose new questions. Standard methods of citation, publication, and so on, are in the process of being established. However, questions of ownership and conflict resolution methods could be addressed prior to the formation of a dispute. If a conflict develops in spite of such preventive measures, it may be necessary to bring in a third party to mediate. With the help of mediation, a win-win solution might be found that would satisfy both parties. By refusing to reconsider his position, the student in this case may have lost his best avenue for professional advice and recommendations.

In other words, he won the battle only to lose the war.