The Lisa Bach Case


This case discusses issues of post-doc mentor/student relationships, intellectual property, publication, credit, authorship and collaboration.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 1

Lisa is a post-doc who has been working at a major research university for the past year and a half. Since she arrived, she has gotten along well with her boss, Dr. Richard Bell. The work in his lab relates to the synthesis and characterization of anti-cancer agents.

Lisa's first project was the synthesis of divialan, which has been difficult to synthesize in the lab. It is a compound that was found in a species of plant that only grows in the Swiss Alps. About six months after her arrival, she developed a few more steps of the synthesis, and things looked very promising. One month later, working on a crucial step in the reaction, she found that a divialan derivative was being produced in large quantities and only few impurities in low quantities were found in the product mixture.

Lisa told Bell, "Rick, you have to take a look at this result on a reaction I performed. I believe that it is a derivative of divialan." Bell looked at the data, "Lisa, this is great," he said. "I will have to study the data more closely to know for sure. Let me look at it in more detail and if it looks good I will start writing a paper for submission." Lisa had a lot of work to do on other characterizations, and she agreed.

A month and a half later, Lisa was talking with Pete, a post-doc in another lab. Lisa was saying, "I have been having a lot of trouble trying to get the final steps in the synthesis of divialan, but I did get a surprising derivative along the way." She went on to describe the procedure to obtain the derivative. Pete was a little surprised. He said, "I was just at a meeting, and Rick presented that same synthesis. The thing is that your name wasn't mentioned in the presentation." Lisa was very surprised.

Discussion Questions:

  • What can Lisa do to get the credit she deserves?
  • Should she confront Bell?

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Part 2

Later that afternoon, Lisa ran into Bell, "Hey, Rick -- I was wondering how the paper is coming along. Do you have any questions about the procedures or the data?" Bell said, "Everything seemed pretty straightforward. Come to my office, and I will give you a copy to look at and revise, if you would like." "That would be great," Lisa answered.

The paper did not include a title or author list. She returned the copy with revisions, a proposed title and a list of authors.

A month later, Lisa inquired about the article again. "Rick, how is the article?" Bell responded, "Well, it went great. I was glad to get your comments and I completed it and sent it off a couple of days ago." She felt weird about this answer, not having seen the final draft, but since it had already been sent off she didn't press the issue.

Over the next several months, Lisa worked hard on the synthesis and characterization of divialan. Every once in a while, she asked Bell about the paper. He told her that the referees were still reviewing it and he was making minor adjustments to please them.

Lisa is now writing up her CV and wants to put together her list of publications. She asks Bell about the paper. He says, "Oh, I have been meaning to give you some copies of the paper. It was accepted and will be in the next publication. I will leave some copies in your mailbox." When Lisa got them, she looked it over and noticed that her name did not appear until the acknowledgments. She became infuriated. She is now wondering what her options are.

Discussion Questions

  • Could Lisa have avoided this situation?
  • What kind of rights does she have concerning the work she performed?

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Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 1, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 1997.

I find it difficult to see any extenuating circumstances or excuses for Dr. Richard Bell's actions. His tenure situation, future funding or whatever is simply irrelevant. He stole intellectual property from a colleague. To make it worse, this colleague is in an uneven power situation and cannot respond as an equal. This fact makes Bell's actions even more reprehensible.

More importantly, what should Lisa do? Any action she might take could hurt Bell, and, of course, Bell knows that. His reluctance to bring her into the publishing process clearly shows that he knows that he is doing something underhanded, and that Lisa could prove her case. He and Lisa both know, however, that Bell can easily ruin Lisa's career in retaliation.

What should Lisa do? She has several alternatives.

  1. She could write to the editor of the journal, explaining what happened. Depending on the editor's integrity, the paper may be withdrawn or an addendum published in a subsequent issue, causing great harm to Bell's standing in the community. Or the editor may consider this matter an issue for the authors to sort out.
  2. Lisa could go to the chair of the department or the dean. This person, of course, will try to get to the bottom of the issue, call Bell in for a chat and even have a three-way conversation. Lisa will have to prove that the discovery was indeed hers and that she has been wronged. Typically, faculty will support each other, and she will be cast as the infamous "disgruntled employee," unless she can prove without a doubt that Bell has misrepresented himself and the chair or dean has the moral fibre to respond appropriately. The chair or dean will look for some easy way to end the controversy and may, for example, ask Bell to write a letter of apology to Lisa.
  3. Lisa could seek a new position, even in a different laboratory in the same university, and simply avoid all future contact with Bell.

In a way, the choices boil down to deontological vs. consequentialist options. If Lisa keeps quiet, Bell could go on mistreating other graduate students and post-docs. His actions are simply unethical. The principle here is what is important, not the outcome, and Lisa should choose Option 1 or Option 2, or both.

If Lisa were my daughter, however, I would strongly recommend the third alternative to her. The incremental good Bell received from publishing the purloined paper is small compared to the harm Lisa would suffer if she took any action to redress the situation. If she chose to fight, she would still have to leave Bell's laboratory. Whatever the choice or the outcome, the mentor/protegee relationship has forever been damaged. Bell will never be able to write a letter of recommendation without thinking of the incident, and Lisa will never be able to call on him for support in her career. She should take heart in the knowledge that sooner or later, "Time heals all wounds."

Author: P. Aarne Vesilind, Duke University.