Post-Doc Blues


This case discusses scientific relationships including adviser-graduate student; adviser-post-doc; and post-doc-graduate student. It also explores the relationship of one lab to another lab in the scientific community and intellectual property.


John McGovern is a graduate student in the laboratory of Dr. Julius Martin at XYZ University. His research has focused on the identification and characterization of the Rac GTPases of the amoeba, Dictyostelium discoideum.

Bringham Bringham, a post-doc in Martin's lab, has recently identified a Rac GTPase binding protein that she is almost certain is a GTPase-activating protein. She needs to perform only a few more experiments to confirm the role of this protein. McGovern and Bringham have become good friends and have worked together on many aspects of their projects. As a result, McGovern has become familiar with Bringham's research and data.

McGovern soon will have fulfilled all his requirements for graduation, and he has applied for several post-doc positions. His best possibility is from the lab of Dr. Chen Wang, who works in developmental biology using Dictyostelium as a model system. McGovern visits Wang's lab and presents a seminar about his research. After his seminar, Wang discusses McGovern's previous research and shows McGovern some of his own data on a protein that he has isolated from Dictyostelium. Since McGovern has experience in the characterization of proteins from Dictyostelium, Wang suggests that it may be a good idea for McGovern to characterize this new protein should he choose to come to Wang's lab. After reviewing Wang's data, McGovern quickly recognizes the similarity between it and Bringham's data back at his old lab. He suspects that Wang may have isolated the same protein that Bringham is currently characterizing.

Upon returning to Martin's lab, McGovern receives notification in writing that Wang wishes to extend an invitation for McGovern to join his lab. Wang requests a written response as soon as possible.

Discussion Questions

  1. Should McGovern accept the position in Wang's lab? Why or why not?
  2. Must McGovern discuss the information he learned at Wang's lab with Martin? Should he inform Bringham that if he accepts this post-doc position he would be doing the same work she is currently doing?
  3. If you were Martin and McGovern asked your opinion about what he should do, what advice might you offer?
  4. Should McGovern be allowed to take his data from Martin's lab to his new lab?
  5. Even if McGovern decides not to take the position in Wang's lab, should he inform Bringham or Martin about Wang's data?

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

. . Post-Doc Blues. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

This case is designed primarily to stimulate discussions about scientific relationships including adviser-graduate student; adviser-post-doc; and post-doc-graduate student. It is further intended to explore the relationship of one lab to another lab in the scientific community. What may not be obvious at first, however, is that this case should also stimulate discussion about intellectual property.

Discussion Questions

1. Should McGovern accept the position in Wang's lab? Why or why not?

This question is difficult in that there is no one correct answer. To begin to answer this question, one must first think about McGovern's responsibility to himself. Although McGovern has most likely been invited for interviews at other institutions, it is evident from the case that he is most favorable toward Wang's lab. McGovern's first love is developmental biology, and Wang is well known as the leading developmental biologist in the field due to his frequent publications in prestigious journals. To accept a post-doctoral position in such a lab could prove highly beneficial to McGovern's career.

Since much of the preliminary data has been collected on the protein that Wang has just isolated, and McGovern has already learned about techniques used in such work from Bringham as well as being privy to her experimental data, it seems highly likely that he could finish such a project quickly. McGovern would be able to publish quickly, which would certainly impress Wang. Wang certainly has a wide network of collaborators and scientific friends, all of whom could be potential sources of future employment for McGovern.

Despite all of the positives for McGovern, one must question whether his taking the position is ethical. Although McGovern is not responsible for the fact that Wang and Bringham may have isolated the same protein, he would be responsible for using Bringham's data at Wang's lab, should he choose to accept the position. Would it be fair for McGovern to capitalize on Bringham's hard work? Alternatively, it appears that Wang has done the same work independently and derived the same results; is it possible that McGovern would have no responsibilities to Bringham after all? There is also a possibility that the two proteins are totally different. Would the situation be easier to resolve if that were the case?

2. Is it necessary for McGovern to discuss his findings at Wang's lab with Martin? Should he inform Bringham that if he accepts this post-doc position he would be doing the same work she is doing?

An easy solution to this whole problem seems to be for McGovern to discuss what he has learned at Wang's lab with both Bringham and Martin. All of the issues would then be on the table, and McGovern would be able to determine the feelings of his current lab on the topic. It is important to consider Bringham and Martin's reactions to McGovern's revelation, however. It is quite possible that they may encourage McGovern to accept the position, understanding how such a move could prove to be a positive career decision. Conversely, Bringham may realize that since another lab is conducting the same research as she, it would be in her best interest to work extra hours to ensure that she is the scientist who gets to publish the data first. Martin may even encourage Bringham to follow this strategy. Bringham would then be receiving unfair inside information, which would reflect poorly on McGovern. Would this action be just as unethical as McGovern sharing Bringham's data with Wang's lab?

3. If you were Martin and McGovern asked you what he should do, what advice might you offer?

Although Martin is McGovern's adviser and should have McGovern's best interest in mind, it is almost a given that Martin would want to publish the data before any other lab. This goal would certainly cloud any words of wisdom that might come from Martin. Which is more important: Martin's responsibility to McGovern or Martin's responsibility to Bringham and the rest of the lab?

4. If McGovern takes the position, should he be allowed to use his knowledge of Bringham's data to apply to new research at Wang's lab?

This question is intended to spark discussion about intellectual property. To whom do the data belong? Are they Bringham's, since she has done most of the work? Are they Martin's, since the research was done in his lab, supported by his grant? Does McGovern have some rights to the data, since he and Bringham have worked together on parts of the project? It is easy to argue the case for each of the persons involved. The decision, however, should be in the hands of the head of the lab, Martin. Since the work has been done in his lab, and supported by his grant, he has the final say in what is done with the data.

Many PIs make it clear to each new lab member upon arrival that all data become and remain the property of the lab. What if Martin took it for granted that Bringham and McGovern knew of this unwritten rule, and therefore never informed either of them that such is the case? Should Martin still have the final say about the data?

5. If McGovern decides not to take the position in Wang's lab, should he inform Bringham and/or Martin about Wang's data?

This question was partially discussed following Question 2. If McGovern decides to decline the job offer from Wang, what should he do with the knowledge that someone could be close to scooping Bringham? Is it McGovern's place to inform Bringham? If Bringham learns that another scientist (especially one who is well known and respected) is currently conducting the same research that she is, she will almost certainly rush to publish quickly. Suppose that in doing so she becomes less concerned about accuracy and decides that she needs to do her last few experiments only once. What if her conclusions are altered due to lack of experimental repetition?

As stated earlier, there is no one right or wrong solution to the problem(s) introduced by this case study. However, consider the following as one possible resolution.

Suppose that upon arriving back in Martin's lab, McGovern organizes a meeting with Martin and Bringham and informs them that Wang has presented him with data that look quite similar to Bringham's data. McGovern further states that Wang has offered him a position in which his first project would be the one Bringham is currently working on. McGovern points out that taking a position in the lab of a figure as well respected in the field as Wang could prove to be an important career move. McGovern suggests that the two labs work as collaborators and publish the data jointly. He suggests that this strategy may allow the labs to publish more than one paper out of the data with a few follow up experiments. Since Wang is a developmental biologist and has isolated this protein as a result of some developmental studies, it is possible that this protein may play a role in the development of the organism. Since Martin's lab has little experience in developmental biology using a model system, and since Wang's lab has little experience in molecular and biochemical studies, it seems ideal that McGovern become the bridge to link the two labs together in a mutually beneficial collaboration.

This solution is certainly not the only solution, nor is it necessarily the best one, but it could provide a platform on which further discussion may be built.

This case offers an interesting angle on relationships within a lab and at the same time an opportunity to examine relationships between labs in the competitive environment of science. The very presentation of the case reveals some of the complexity of relationships within scientific research groups.

The title highlights a post-doc, Sarah Bringham, a member of Dr. Julius Martin's lab. She may be harmed if a graduate student in the same lab, John McGovern, accepts the offer to join Dr. Chen Wang's lab after graduation. In Wang's lab, it seems, McGovern will have an opportunity, perhaps an obligation, to take up research problems very similar, if not identical, to those Bringham investigates in Martin's lab. McGovern might take advantage of his knowledge of Bringham's research to move ahead of her. Interestingly, although the title represents Bringham's perspective, the case is presented from McGovern's perspective. Absent from the scene altogether and playing no role in the unfolding situation is the lab director, Martin, who perhaps is a remote adviser.

Despite McGovern's close relationship with Bringham, we find him concentrating on his opportunity, without thinking about the consequences for Bringham. He ignores Martin as well. He seems not to consider the fact that the latter has control over the data produced in his lab through his funding. If McGovern were to turn his attention to his current circumstances, as he should, he might see the need to discuss Wang's offer with Martin and Bringham before he responds to Wang.

McGovern should inform Martin of any offer, surely any offer he finds tempting. Martin reasonably expects to hear from McGovern about any offer involving research and data in his lab. Because funding awarded to Martin's lab supported McGovern's graduate research, he owes Martin a full account of the offer, as a matter of reciprocity and fairness, as well as courtesy. Martin is owed that information even if he has been a remote adviser. In addition, it would be prudent to inform Martin because McGovern might benefit from Martin's assessment of the opportunity.

Martin should not be left in the dark, unable to protect his and the post-doc's interests in the success of research in his lab. He should have an opportunity to help McGovern in his career move. Furthermore, McGovern needs Martin's permission to take any data from the lab. If McGovern is not aware of that requirement, both he and Martin are remiss. At the outset of McGovern's research, Martin should have made clear the status of data collected in the lab. If he failed to do that, McGovern should have asked him about ownership of a graduate student's data or somehow informed himself.

Finally, by handling the offer unilaterally, McGovern would close off the possibility of turning the offer into a gain for himself, Bringham, Martin and the lab. Openness and discussion, on the other hand, would allow consideration of arrangements from which all might benefit.

McGovern's friendship and close research relationship with Bringham form the basis of his duty to talk with her about Wang's offer. He must confront the prospect that in going to Wang's lab he might have to exploit his involvement in Bringham's work - to her detriment. Ethically speaking, he is not permitted to disregard her interests and treat his involvement in Bringham's research merely as a means to his own advancement. If McGovern finds the offer tempting, he should raise the question with Bringham and Martin of how to protect Bringham's interests.

Out of discussion among the three of them might come the prospect of collaboration with Wang's lab. The fact that Wang has shown some data to McGovern and is interested in McGovern's previous research suggests the option is worth exploring. Each lab director has already learned something valuable about research in the other lab. That development, as well as features of the research, may prompt Martin and Wang to consider collaboration. Whether collaboration is a realistic prospect depends on details of the circumstances and on the personalities involved, especially the lab directors.

In any event, Martin, McGovern, and Bringham must consider how to deal fairly with the information they have received about Wang's work. Is simply appropriating the information to advance Bringham's work like taking advantage of information gained in reviewing a proposal or an article? Would Martin, McGovern and Bringham want their own research treated in that way? These are questions they should consider. It seems that they must work out some kind of cooperative arrangement to avoid either lab's taking unfair advantage of the information gained from McGovern's application for a post-doc position. This aspect of the situation adds complexity to the effort by Martin, McGovern and Bringham to protect Bringham's and Martin's interests while allowing McGovern to advance.

In the competitive environment of U.S. science, several research groups may simultaneously pursue very similar lines of research. The assumption that science benefits when research groups compete vigorously underlies funding practices in some government agencies. At the same time, scientists appreciate the benefits that collaboration can bring and the needs that arise for cooperation among competing research groups.

Working out cooperative or sharing arrangements in a competitive landscape demands care and tact. Even communication between competing groups requires thought and attention. In this environment, graduate students and post-docs need thorough orientation to problems and pitfalls if they are to avoid unfortunate blundering. That orientation should include focus on opportunities for collaboration with members of competing research groups and justification for any constraints on contact. This preparation is necessary to protect junior researchers from damaging encounters, to avoid fostering cynicism in junior investigators about practices in science, and to advance research.

Author: Vivian Weil, Illinois Institute of Technology.