The Rat Race


This case discusses the issue of two PhD students that had conflicts during the research process leading to issues of communication and the responsibilities of instructor in an environment of internal competition.


Cindy, a new graduate student, entered an established and highly productive experimental psychology laboratory at Very Big State University (VBSU). From the beginning, Cindy exhibited high motivation and competence in psychology with a desire to publish early on in her graduate career in research journals within her area of specialization. She joined six other graduate students in the lab of her adviser, Tom. Other incoming first year graduate students in the area but outside her laboratory competed in a friendly manner; they competed in the class room and made wagers as to who would finish their master's first and who would publish first. Cindy excelled in and out of the laboratory, and subsequently developed a very good reputation with most of the faculty in her area. Further, she developed a very close relationship with Tom in the first few months after she arrived at VBSU.

However, a series of events unfolded in the laboratory soon after Cindy's arrival at VBSU. Tom asked another graduate student, Beth, to complete a research proposal for a grant. Beth knew the deadline was fast approaching; the unfinished manuscript needed to be mailed out the following day, requiring work late that night. Tom asked Cindy to help Beth finish the manuscript since she had experience on the topic. Tom failed to mention this arrangement to Beth, who had expected to work on the project alone. That evening Beth walked in on Cindy, who was working on the manuscript; Beth immediately turned around and left. Beth ignored Cindy for some time after this meeting. The two eventually reached an understanding that Cindy did not intend to cut into Beth's territory. Rather, the misunderstanding had been a result of poor communication.

About two months later, another situation arose. Cindy required the use of a joystick for an experiment for a particular day and signed the laboratory time sheet requesting the use of the only working joystick. Beth had requested the use of the joystick for the evening prior to Cindy's request. The day Cindy started the study she noticed after running the first few subjects that the data made no sense whatsoever. After examining the equipment, she discovered that her subjects were using one of the defective joysticks, although it bore the instructions for the experiment she had put on the working joystick. Cindy believed that Beth had replaced the good joystick with a broken one and moved the stickers with instructions from the good joystick to the bad one.

Cindy confronted Beth and more or less accused Beth of sabotaging her experiment. Beth denied this accusation and stated she had merely forgotten to replace the joysticks when she had finished. Furthermore, Beth claimed she needed to take off the instructions because they were not pertinent to her experiment that she ran the evening before. Cindy brought up the matter with Tom, who took a hands off approach. The two graduate students have not talked since that time, and the laboratory, which had always been congenial, according to Beth, had become a source of friction for all.

Other events have transpired over the course of two years, and Beth and Cindy have complained to Tom about various situations. His response to the situation can be described as laissez faire.

Beth completed her work for the Ph.D at the end of the two years, and she will be leaving for a very good post-doc position. Cindy composed a website for the laboratory with the names and research of the graduate students at about this time. By the end of the second year Cindy managed to publish ten articles, which she listed on the website. However, she did not include any information about Beth.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some of the ethical considerations in the way Cindy and Beth related to each other? Could the problem have been handled better?
  2. Should Tom have taken a more proactive position, especially with allegations of sabotage?
  3. What practical policies could be developed for airing disagreements in this laboratory?
  4. Should the more senior graduate students in the lab taken a more proactive approach in addressing the situation? With the two students? With Tom? Was it their responsibility to raise the issue in a lab meeting?

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

. . The Rat Race. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

These days, we most frequently think of research ethics as fabrication, falsification and plagiarism (FF&P). This case, however, deals with ethics in the more general sense of a concern for what one ought to do. Here we are asked to consider what Cindy ought to do in her interactions with others in the laboratory, and also what Tom, the PI of the lab, ought to do in managing and leading his research group.

Before moving to consider what these people ought to do to in this laboratory, I want to note two reasons why consideration of this case is not so far removed from FF&P as one might initially suppose. First, the quality of intralab communications and relationships is a major contributor to the climate in the lab, as we see in this case. Climate, in turn, has been found to correlate with the frequency of perceived misconduct. Researchers have observed that in departments where the climate emphasizes competition and individualism over cooperation there is a higher probability that students will report observing misconduct committed by others in their department (Anderson, et al. 1994). Second, some have suggested that "significant misbehavior that . . . intentionally impedes the progress of research" should be included in the definition of research misconduct (Commission on Research Integrity, 1995), and Beth's actions with the joystick, if intentional, might be seen by some to cross over into sabotage and misconduct.

The more general ethical question of how Cindy and Tom, and by association others in the lab, ought to interact hinges on respect. We are accustomed to thinking about respect for persons as critical for the determination of ethical conduct in research involving human subjects, but we frequently forget that that is just a special case of the general requirement that we as ethical people treat others as autonomous individuals capable of making informed choices. Immanuel Kant wrote that one ought to "[a]ct so that you treat humanity . . . always as an end and never as a means only" (Kant as quoted in Rachels, 1993). That is, we are not to manipulate people to achieve our own ends, and the primary way in which people manipulate others is through incomplete or biased information. Respect in interpersonal relationships requires clear and honest communication by all parties.

It appears that Cindy and Beth try to have good communication, although belatedly, with regard to the work on the research proposal. They manage over time to come to the conclusion that "the misunderstanding had been a result of poor communication." However, they do not seem to try to avoid future problems by making sure that the lines of communication are more open. Instead, when another situation arises two months later, Cindy confronts Beth with an accusation of sabotage, rather than seeking to understand what might have happened. If it had been a problem with an experimental technique, Cindy and Beth would probably have sought out advice and training, probably from Tom first. That is what they should do in this situation too. Unfortunately, they don't view their communication problems in the same light, and it appears that nothing is done.

Tom, the professor who is the head of the lab, may believe that he is respecting the independence of the members of his research group by allowing them to solve their problems without his interference, but what he is really doing is neglecting his responsibility to train these students in the skills needed to work in the larger research groups we see today. One assumes that he would not take such a hands-off approach if they were deficient in experimental or analytical skills, but interpersonal skills are also critical for collaborative research. Granted, most professors did not go into academic research because they discovered that they were people persons, and very few have training in management, but there are some things that can be done. The most important is to promote clear and honest communication, even if it is uncomfortable at times. Sign up sheets are a good start, but facilitating timely communication among lab members is also essential. He should have made sure that both Beth and Cindy knew what he had requested of each of them before they "met" in the lab that night to work on the grant application. Then, when Cindy brought up the problem with Beth and the joystick, it was his responsibility to step in if the two could not work things out. The fact that the two are not talking to each other and that the lab climate has changed are clear indications that it is time for Tom to step in. If nothing else, he owes it to the others in the lab, who did not cause the friction but are affected by it. Tom may need to go so far as to force Cindy and Beth and/or the whole lab to sit down, talk about the situation, and figure out a way in which the lab members can work together, perhaps with outside help.

How might the situation described at the end of this case have been prevented? Having in place a lab culture that values and facilitates open communication would help a great deal. Tom would need to make it a habit to meet with lab members individually or in working groups, and he would need to be present in the lab now and then to see how things were going. In order to prevent misunderstandings on "territory," I have known some research groups to draft written minutes of working group meetings so that all are clear on who is doing what. Discussion of cases like this one at lab group meetings can also help. It gives everyone a chance to consider a hypothetical situation in a less emotionally charged environment while also learning the group's expectations for appropriate behavior before a crisis. Then there is the "doughnut penalty," a mechanism for defusing the animosity that can be generated by an error by one lab member that affects the work of others. If someone mistakenly leaves a piece of equipment in a place where others can not find it and so impedes their research, for instance, the offender is required to make the situation right and then bring in doughnuts, or a similar treat, for the lab the next day. In this way the offender makes a type of public confession and penance, and all can then move forward with less danger of bitter feelings.


  • Anderson, M.S., K. Seashore Louis, and J. Earle. "Disciplinary and Departmental Effects on Observations of Faculty and Graduate Student Misconduct," Journal of Higher Education 65 (3, 1994): 331-350.
  • Commission on Research Integrity. Integrity and Misconduct in Research. Washington, D. C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 1995.
  • Rachels, J. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 2d edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993, p. 128.

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

This case can be discussed on at least in two levels. First, it explores the convolutions of human relationships. This could have happened in any setting; it just occurred in a research laboratory. Second, the accusations of both parties do appear at face value to breach ethical conduct within a research setting and sometimes in an apparently blatant way. The ethical dimension of the case will be examined by the application of virtue ethics.

When this case is viewed from a larger context, the evolution of relationships within this laboratory raises issues of virtue and character. Character is uniquely human and can exhibit itself within any human activity. Scientific research as a human activity is then open to consideration from virtue ethics as we consider relevant issues of character. With the interrelated notions of character, personal integrity and scientific integrity, one can examine the responsibilities and actions of those involved in this case.

Cindy could be said to be one of those people who has considerable aptitude and dedication to her work, incurring the envy of those around her. Because she is such a go-getter, Beth may have been unduly envious. The initial miscommunication between Cindy and Beth over the manuscript, perhaps a breach in etiquette but not ethics, sowed the seed of discord on already fertile ground.

The second incident, the accusation of sabotage, is a serious charge. It goes beyond pettiness and is a substantial breach of research conduct. It is serious for both the accused and the accuser, but the burden of proof lies with the accuser. In response to Cindy's accusation, Beth offered a reasonable account: that it had been a matter of simply forgetting to switch the joysticks at the end of a long day.

However, Cindy did not believe this explanation and related her account of the situation to Tom. Tom responded by keeping a certain distance from the growing problem. The other graduate students in the laboratory keep their distance also, but perhaps behind closed doors they had definite opinions on the matter. At this point the issue becomes one of lab harmony and trust, as well as personal and scientific integrity. What are the responsibilities of those involved?

Simple misunderstandings arise in everyday situations, and usually can be resolved by direct communication. It is obvious that Cindy did not believe Beth, which resulted in more or less open hostilities between the two for a period of more than a year. Their bad relationship must have created tension within the lab, with Tom and definitely between Cindy and Beth. Tom, the PI, did not get involved, nor did the other graduate students. Did they have an obligation to? And if they did, what course of action would be appropriate?

If this were a one-time misunderstanding, I could understand Tom's letting things slide. However, these situations kept coming up. I think in order to foster greater cooperation between the researchers the PI had an obligation to address the situation directly. The reason for this obligation resides in the understanding of scientific integrity. If these students are required to work with other people as a team in some other setting, such as industry, government or academia, and similar situations arise, they do not have a good model on which to base future decisions. If scientific integrity is achieved by cultivating good habits, it seems then these people did not have that kind of guidance from the lab they left. In new situations, they may transfer habits that are not congruent with personal and scientific integrity.

This discussion raises the further question of the responsibility of the other, some more senior, graduate students. The situation could have been raised in their lab meetings, addressing and restoring trust within the lab. But they might ask, "Am I my brother's keeper?" It could be argued that Tom and the other graduate students should have taken a more proactive stance. The popular conception of scientific integrity includes notions of a community of people working together to solve some of the greatest questions we have ever asked of nature. As such, scientists are perceived, for good or ill, as a species of intellectuals who have the greatest good in mind and are given responsibilities and are commonly expected to act in accordance with this. Scientists are expected to be responsible researchers and to put aside personal issues for the greater good of science and society.

Regardless of the validity of such popular notions of science and scientists, the people participating in the scientific endeavor have, at the least, responsibilities to the concept of scientific integrity. They have a concern to maintain the trust and support of the public, who are the ultimate sponsors of science. Self-policing of science, which does work for the vast majority of the time, needs to permeate all levels of the scientific enterprise, including interpersonal relations. From this perspective, then, the other graduate students in the lab could have voiced their concerns. Is this matter really a breach in research ethics, or is it a breach of personal integrity? I think it is both. Cultivating scientific and personal integrity early in one's career will in the long run produce interpersonal habits that will facilitate the goals of scientific research.