The Extended Project


This case discusses issues of responsibility and obligation of students in a project, specifically field studies which can be difficult and plagued with unexpected complications, the need to anticipate problems that might arise, both in experimental design, interpersonal relationships, and how they might be resolved.


Itty Bitty University's (IBU) revered ecology professor Dr. Gray Maple would like very much to complete his 40-year old pet research project, a case study that demonstrates the effect of different amounts of sunlight on the kind and number and of new plants that germinate and grow. The amount of sunlight is generally restricted (but not perfectly controlled) in forests, plantations, arboretums, etc., by the uniform spacing of shade-casting trees. In a well-stocked stand, little light reaches the ground. However, in a heavily cut stand, new germinants can be in direct sunlight for most of the day. In some cases, low-growing undesired plants are further controlled by the careful application of appropriate herbicides.

Over the years, Maple has had a number of graduate students characterize the site in terms of what grows well, where and when. Together, the theses chart successional development by describing changes in species composition and growth rates. The theses describe in detail the orientation of plots on the ground and the care taken to minimize edge effects. Treatment areas are large enough to allow each measurement area (plot) to be centered within an individual "buffer" zone. Buffers are treated with the plots to ensure that that quantity and quality of shade cast on the edges of the measurement plot is similar to that in the center.

The issue

Maple secures funds for incoming graduate student Jane and a crew of undergraduate assistants (Rudy and Anastasia) to complete the final set of field measurements. Maple offers to walk around the test site with Jane to flag the corners of the measurement area. He confides that this practice has helped his previous students get their bearings and saved them valuable time. Jane is worried that the now frail man will be injured walking across the difficult terrain to the study site, and she proposes a counter-offer: Let the crew use their novice orienteering skills for a day or two. Jane promises she will accept the original offer if they encounter difficulties or if they cannot complete the job in a reasonable amount of time.

After examining the area, Jane and Rudy recognize they are not up to the task of finding the points using a simple hand compass. Anastasia brilliantly suggests they scale from the map, accurately measure from the clearly visible property corners and grid markers, and check these figures against those described in the most recent thesis. As they find and flag the corner markers with brightly colored long-lasting industrial ribbon, they realize that what they see on the ground doesn't match what is depicted on the map. They cannot discern a pattern to the distances and directions between plot corners. It dawns on them that the same plot corners may not have been used each time. If the plots are inconsistent, then these results may have biased subsequent study designs and suggested commercial applications.

Jane and the crew seek the advice of Dr. Iris Ilex, one of Maple's former students. When they ask about the walk-around, they learn Ilex had flagged each corner as Maple pointed to it. She had trusted the published design description, and had no reason to suspect the distances and bearings might not be as described. Ilex also expressed surprise that the study is still active; she remembered Maple's "pilot study" as a short-term trial to see how these treatments could be applied on a larger scale.

The resolution

Jane meets with Maple to discuss her reluctance to continue with the project. After much deliberation, they opt to ask a surveyor to measure and mark corners for smaller uniform plots that are unquestionably within the treatment and buffer area. Further, the surveyor should determine the largest and smallest possible plot areas on the basis of existing markers, so that Maple can evaluate the amount of error. Jane's evaluation of the site will be limited to conditions 40 years post-treatment; Maple's assessment will include Jane's results and discuss the statistical error over time (which, he is convinced, will be insignificant), and will stress the value of this site for teaching and demonstration.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the interests and obligations of the collective undergraduate crew, Jane, Maple and Ilex?
  2. What are their legitimate expectations and rights?
  3. Who bears responsibility for maintaining the site?
  4. Is there an obligation to alert anyone else?
  5. What is Maple's obligation to the journals and conferences where he presented this work?
  6. What are Ilex's obligations to the scientific community regarding the methods Maple employed? Should her response be influenced by the possibility that her own reputation may be sullied?
  7. What responsibility do Jane and Ilex bear if the use of the surveyor does not help?
  8. Science, including ecological studies, relies on building on previous work. If one scientist puts shoddy results into the pool, what is the effect on other scientists and graduate students?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 6, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2002.

This case describes a tricky situation that is resolved well, but could have gone very wrong. The positive resolution was possible because all parties acted in a mature manner, communicated openly and respectfully with each other, and accepted responsibility as their obligations dictated.

Field studies -- especially long-term studies -- can be difficult and plagued with unexpected complications. Discussion of this case could help all those concerned with such studies to anticipate problems that might arise, both in experimental design and in interpersonal relationships, and how they might be resolved.

The actions of two characters in this scenario, Jane and Professor Maple, deserve further comment. Jane recognized the problem with determining the locations of the plots, welcomed others' suggestions (Anastasia's, for example), sought further information on her own (called Dr. Ilex), but then discussed the situation with Maple. She demonstrated an ability and willingness to act and make decisions independently, as a graduate student should, as well as to seek out information and advice when needed, also important for a grad student. When she could not arrive at a clear solution, she did not waste time worrying about the problems, nor did she minimize or walk away from them. Rather she presented them clearly and respectfully to Maple, along with her concerns about her graduate career.

Some graduate students in her situation might have just continued with the research hoping it would all work out in the end, or they might have made up some excuse for wanting to work on a different project with another professor. Others might have loudly accused Maple of lax supervision of previous students, incompetence, or even misconduct. Jane chose a better course of action: respectfully asking Maple what he thinks is the best thing to do while asserting her legitimate interests in completing her degree in a reasonable amount of time with a scientifically valid thesis.

Similarly, Maple responded to the situation very well. He did not dismiss Jane's concerns with some comment like, "Look, I've been doing field studies for longer than you've been alive. Who are you to question where I say the plots are, or my previous students' work?" Rather, he deliberated with Jane, and together they devised a plan to bring in a surveyor, a skilled third party, to mark smaller uniform plots so that Jane and her team could complete the final set of field measurements; arranged to gather measurements so that Maple would be able to evaluate possible amounts of error; and agreed on a research question for Jane's thesis work that was limited to data that she could evaluate and take responsibility for.

Maple, in turn, assumed responsibility for reviewing the data and conclusions that were derived from this study site over 40 years. Presumably he would inform the scientific community if he discovered significant errors that had the potential to invalidate previously published work. Determining what constituted significant error and how best to communicate this information to the scientific community would require judgment calls on Maple's part. His willingness to deliberate with a first year graduate student on the best way to complete his 40-year study suggests that he would make these decisions in consultation with others and in a manner that showed an awareness for his responsibilities to those who will refer to his publications, and a greater concern for the facts than for his pride - admirable characteristics in a scientist.

Author: Karen M. T. Muskavitch, Boston College.

Long-term Studies

Long-term ecological studies are often large in scale, with replication over time and space to account for variables in moisture and temperature regimes, soil characteristics, fluctuating insect and disease populations, mobile predators, and missing data points. However, location-specific management data helps realize maximum contribution from natural resources, including forests (Warren 1979). Like other research, lengthy studies call for attention to detail, correctly calibrated and maintained instrumentation, and legible and accurate notes.

Measurements in a natural environment are subject to growing season changes; work is often compressed or statistically blocked to minimize these variations. The life of some studies, especially those that involve populations of trees, may exceed the professional career of a single individual. Researchers rely on the well-prepared notes and analyses of their predecessors to accurately interpret the current status.

Because of the particularly long-term nature in a forested environment and perhaps as a result of the growing public visibility of all things ecological, employers (both industrial and academic) are seeking a revised set of skills and competencies from recent graduates of professional programs. The need for competence in communication, ethics, collaborative problem solving and managerial leadership has greatly increased (Sample et. al. 2000).

Forest development in naturally seeded areas over time can be studied in two ways. The ideal way is to monitor stands from pre-harvest conditions (Are there enough seed-producing trees? How many seedlings are established before those trees are removed?) until the next regeneration period, and then repeat. This system is easy to implement in biomass plantations where rotations (regeneration to regeneration period) are one to five years. It becomes inconvenient with Southern pines (15-30 years) and very difficult with longer lived (150-300 years) species common in northern climates. The other method is to study a "chronosequence." By examining a host of forests at different ages and stages of development, one can draw inferences. As no two sites can be identical in soil, climate, moisture regime, fertility levels, browsing and disease stresses, this approach cannot provide all of the information needed.

Maple's study uses a combination of the two methods. By using the different cutting treatments, they are viewing different stages of development. More information is gained by his students building on the data and interpretations of their predecessors. Each student must trust that those before collected accurate data and reliable information. Coufal (1999) affirms that more is needed: In its institutional life and professional activities, forestry must reaffirm that integrity is the requirement, excellence the standard, rationality the means, community the context, civility the attitude, openness the relationship, ethics the basis, and responsibility the obligation upon which its own existence and knowledge of itself depends.

This case

Jane is in an awkward position. Maple is well respected at IBU, and she has information that his long-standing project could be seriously flawed. She does not know him well enough to ascertain if a confrontation of this sort will be detrimental to her success in this new environment. What if this kindly old gentleman turns into a vicious, nasty character when threatened? Further, while she knows something is amiss with the study, she is a new student and still a novice in this field. She cannot judge the seriousness of the problem or suggest an alternative course of action.

Everyone involved had similar expectations (Questions 1 and 2): forthright communication to enable all participants to do their jobs. Jane (and Ilex, when she was a student) expected to be trained as a reputable scientist and her crew to be schooled in proper technique. Maple had an obligation to provide this guidance to all three parties. Ilex may be the one most severely affected. She is still building her career, and now she has learned her foundation is questionable. Jane, on the other hand, asked questions from the beginning. She has the option of leaving the project and continuing work on another, or even working with a different professor at IBU or elsewhere.

Maple (Question 3) really may have intended this project to be a simple case study for demonstration of concepts and theories to be followed by a carefully surveyed and monitored experiment. Exposure may cause "unfavorable reflection on the profession" (Association of Registered Professional Foresters of New Brunswick code of ethics). Nevertheless, it was Maple's decision to keep this study active, and it was his responsibility to see it was maintained. It would have been reasonable to expect each student to check each marker and replace or reinforce if necessary as the study progressed. When original reports made no mention of surveying equipment or desired precision of measurement, students along the way should have inquired. However, they were researchers-in-training and may not have the skills to recognize this situation was out of the ordinary - they rightfully relied on the expertise of Maple and presumably other committee members for assistance.

Questions 4-6 are very interesting. While much of this case was fictionalized, the real publications actually were limited to master's theses, because the professor questioned the quality of data collection by his students. He viewed master's work as learning opportunities, a means to demonstrate hypothesis development and testing, and a practical application of the scientific method. Even with the flaws introduced by their collective sloppiness, these goals were accomplished.

But what if they had presented or published? It would be too late for retractions or corrections submitted to conference proceedings or journals. The assessment that Jane and Maple agreed upon is appropriate. He can address potential error, explain how they compensated, and stress the importance of investment in good quality markers. This assessment could be published as a paper, research note or letter to the editor (whichever that particular journal prefers).

Question 7 State and national forest organizations have codes of ethics that stress honest and open communication (Society of American Foresters [SAF], Indiana SAF, Association of Registered Professional Foresters of New Brunswick, Mississippi State Board of Registration for Foresters) and consultation and cooperation with matters beyond their own competence.

Forty years ago, surveying equipment was far less accurate than it is today. A licensed surveyor could instruct the current researchers on they types of equipment that might have been used then (and accepted degree of precision for each). Further, this crew could use modern equipment to quite precisely pinpoint each existing stake, allowing Jane to determine the ranges of abundance and diversity per unit area. A reputable biometrician could assist with these statistical analyses.

If this approach does not work, the area could be (and probably should have been) designated for demonstration and teaching to introduce incoming students to these concepts, rather than as a research tool. Once the decision was made to continue past the pilot status, Maple should have invested in high-quality markers that could be reliably located at each measurement interval.


  • Coufal, James E. "Forestry: It Isn't Rocket Science - It's More Complex" in K. A. Blatner, J. D. Johnson, and D. M. Baumgartner, Hybrid Poplars in the Pacific Northwest: Culture, Commerce and Capability. Symposium Proceedings. April 7-9, 1999, Pasco, WA, 1999.
  • Sample, V. Alaric, Nadine E. Block, Paul C. Ringold and James W. Giltmier. The Evolution of Forestry Education in the United States: Adapting to the Changing Demands of Professional Forestry. Executive Summary. Milford, Penna.: Gray Towers Press, 2000.
  • Society of American Foresters. 2000. SAF Code of Ethics. Available at:
  • Warren, W.G. "Trends in the Sampling of Forest Populations" in R. M. Cormack, G. P. Patil and D. S. Robson. Sampling Biological Populations. Statistical Ecology, Vol. 5. Fairland, Md.: International Co-operative Publishing House, 1979.