This case discusses the ethical use of ideas garnered in a graduate faculty seminar and also explores the potential conflicts that arise in an open discussion of ideas.


Every Friday afternoon, the faculty and graduate students in the Department of Paper Engineering meet in the conference room for a seminar, where a presentation and open discussion of new ideas take place. At one of these meetings, Bill Phillips, a graduate student, gave a presentation on his partially completed master's thesis. The topic was a new test method he was developing for measuring water penetration into a paper substrate. After the presentation, an open discussion evolved among the faculty and graduate students about the issues surrounding water penetration and the procedures involved in performing the test. Every time the discussion progressed toward additional benefits or future applications for this test method, Tom Ackley, another graduate student, politely steered the conversation in a different direction, focusing the discussion more on the technical design and proposed means for validating the method.

Ackley, a graduating doctoral student, had realized the great potential in expanding this test method from studying water interaction to actual ink interaction with paper. Upon graduation, he entered his new career as a product development engineer in the research facility for Trees-R-Us Paper Company. He wanted to make an immediate contribution to the company and decided to refine Phillips's test method according to the insights he had gained during the seminar. He had to make several refinements, but ultimately Ackley perfected the test method for use with inks instead of water. His company encourages publication of novel findings and new techniques. Ackley published the paper as sole author describing the new test method.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is Ackley's participation in seminar ethical or unethical?
  2. Was it appropriate for Ackley to utilize information discussed in seminar to develop his own method without consulting the originator of the idea?
  3. What would be the impact of Ackley's accepting a job as a professor at another academic institution, instead of entering industry?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 5, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2001.

. . Seminar. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

I will discuss this case independently of any legal considerations. That is, I will focus only on ethical issues that can be framed without specific regard for copyright, patent law and the like. The legal issues may be important, and they may have a bearing on some of the ethical issues. However, it seems to me that the case raises ethical issues worth addressing prior to engaging legal questions.

Why does the Department of Paper Engineering hold weekly seminars for faculty and graduate students? Presumably, this practice is intended for the mutual edification of faculty and students and to support of one another's research efforts: a "win-win" idea. This time it was Bill Phillips's turn to share his ideas with others and to benefit from their comments.

At first glance, there seems to be nothing unethical about Tom Ackley attending Bill Phillips's session. In fact, as a graduate student in the department, his attendance is probably expected. However, the manner in which he conducted himself at the meeting was contrary to the express purpose of the seminar meetings, viz., the open discussion of new ideas. It is perhaps understandable that Ackley would not want to share his ideas about ink interaction with paper at this time, as his work in this area was in an early phase. Actively discouraging discussion of the possible implications of Philips's work is another matter, however. Such behavior is contrary to the spirit of the seminar series. Had others realized what he was doing, they would have rightly objected. Not only was Ackley refusing to contribute to the discussion of Phillips's ideas, he was trying to prevent much of that discussion.

If Ackley had planned all along to discourage open discussion of Phillips's ideas, then he probably should not have attended the meeting. If Ackley formed his plan of action only after the meeting began, further reflection should have led him either to leave the meeting or keep silent. Positive interference was not justified from an ethical point of view, however personally advantageous Ackley might have thought it would be.

It is not entirely clear how far along Ackley was in his own research on ink interaction prior to the seminar. Nor is it clear to what extent Ackley has already been helped in his research by working with graduate students and faculty and by using university equipment. However, at some point in this story it seems obvious that Ackley is benefiting from the ideas (and perhaps equipment) of others. As a matter of fairness, and as an acknowledgment of the contributions of others, Ackley should let Phillips (and perhaps others) know of his interest in Phillips's work. Whether further considerations of fairness would suggest that Phillips's permission is required for Ackley to refine Phillips's test method depends on details that are not presented in this case. However, at the very least, Ackley should have been open with Phillips about the importance of his work for Ackley's ideas. Instead, Ackley chose to operate in secret.

Reciprocity is a form of fair play from an ethical point of view. Ackley falls far short of the mark at every level, beginning with his behavior in the seminar and continuing into his conduct in his employment at Trees-R-Us. In short, he has not been a good colleague in the Department of Paper Engineering.

An interesting question to consider is whether his employer would approve of Ackley's handling of this matter. That, of course, depends on what sorts of ethical values are embraced at Trees-R-Us, but it also depends on the sorts of risks his company is willing to take in order to get ahead. (Here legal considerations could easily come into play, particularly in regard to ownership of ideas.) Is it reasonable for Ackley to assume that his employer would approve of his tactics? Is Ackley the sort of engineer that Trees-R-Us wants to employ?

Even if Trees-R-Us benefits in this particular case, can Ackley be relied on to be a reliable employee? Trees-R-Us encourages the publication of novel findings and new techniques. Can Ackley be expected to treat Trees-R-Us any differently than he has treated his colleagues in the Department of Paper Engineering? How will Ackley treat Trees-R-Us when he is looking for another job? Long-range doubts about Ackley could easily outweigh the short-term gains from his ink penetration work. Quite apart from legal worries about Ackley's conduct, I conclude that his attitude and behavior leave much to be desired from an ethical point of view, whether from the perspective of Bill Phillips, the Department of Paper Engineering or even Trees-R-Us.

Author: Michael S. Pritchard, Western Michigan University.

This case examines some ethical issues that arise from the open exchange and development of ideas that is essential for the continued advancement of science and engineering. Many departments host a seminar series as a method of broadening the knowledge base of their graduate students through exposing and discussing the work of other graduate students, post-docs and the faculty. These discussions encourage questioning and examination of the topics to improve the quality of the work of the presenter, as well as providing a forum for graduate students to gain confidence in questioning the work of others. However, a problem is associated with maintaining control of the ideas disseminated during seminar. Any idea presented can be taken and utilized for one's own gain without recognizing or acknowledging the originator.

In reading this case, one may be tempted to focus on the utilization of knowledge gained in a seminar session to promote one's career in industry, automatically assuming that Ackley has obtained his understanding in an ethical manner. In reality, the ethical question of Ackley's actions should initially center more on his acquisition of the information than how he ultimately used it.

A few inferences about Ackley are required to evaluate whether he is acting ethically. First, Ackley's apparent understanding of Phillips's work and ability to participate actively in the seminar seems to indicate that the two graduate students, Ackley and Phillips, are probably working on different projects within the same field of study, possibly having the same adviser. Unlike a graduate student whose main focus is elsewhere, Ackley understands the importance of this work and has a working knowledge from which to formulate more in-depth questions.

One hint of impropriety stems from the fact that Ackley has already accepted employment at Trees-R-Us Paper Company. That means that he may have an idea of the type of projects he will be working on and his new company's expectations regarding publishing and production of work. Ackley's exposure to the ideas and insights from Phillips's presentation will give him an unfair advantage over the university for developing and patenting ideas extending from this work. This advantage stems from the dedication of time and resources Ackley will have available at a research lab over the university system, which relies on graduate students to perform most of the research over an extended time period.

The combination of Ackley's knowledge of the subject and his impending employment at a research lab performing related work indicates that his attendance at the seminar is unethical. Ackley should have excused himself from the presentation, citing potential conflict of interest. The department also should have been aware of the conflict and requested that he leave, or not attend, this particular seminar. Ackley's attendance is not unethical, however, if he alerts the department to the potential conflict of interest and the department still allows him to attend. Another option may have been to have Ackley sign a nondisclosure agreement before attending the seminar.

With the assumption that Ackley has obtained the knowledge in an ethical manner, the issue turns to his use of the knowledge. The question is whether the knowledge he gained at seminar is truly being shared for the further education of all, or does hypocrisy exist in the form that no one is supposed to actually use the information gleaned from these meetings? Most departments traditionally tout seminar as an opportunity to further one's knowledge; therefore, it is not an ethical violation for Ackley to develop the new test method at his new job.

Phillips's water-based test method was a starting point, and many modifications would be required for Ackley to establish the new test method. Ackley should be praised for his achievement as a scientist in developing the new test method. Any public or company publications should cite Phillips's master's thesis as the original idea from which Ackley generated his new test method, but unless Phillips or Phillips's adviser have consulted on the development of Ackley's method, neither deserves to be recognized as a co-author of Ackley's paper. Ackley's selection of this work, however, may be questionable, since Phillips's adviser probably would want to expand Phillips's work in this area. This possibility raises a quandary for any graduate student: How much of the different ideas and experiences they have been exposed to is free game for them to utilize and develop when they enter the workforce?

If Ackley had accepted an academic post at university, instead of entering the industrial sector, that would change everything. Ackley's academic position at a competing university should limit his use of the ideas and knowledge he was exposed to as a graduate student. It is debatable as to what ideas he may utilize to start his own research program, but clearly the use of Phillips's thesis work would be an unethical infringement upon a colleague's work at another university.

Seminar serves as a vital tool to expose graduate students to a variety of ideas in areas in their fields. Ethical questions will always arise as students graduate and take their knowledge to industrial research jobs or other academic institutions. The ethical use of the knowledge gained from seminar, as well as other graduate experiences, will always have to be determined on a case by case basis, since there is a fine line between impinging on another's idea and having original insights utilizing others' ideas.