Adventures in Ethics and Science

Occasionally I get email asking for advice in matters around responsible conduct of research. Some readers have related horror stories of research supervisors who grabbed their ideas, protocols, and plans for future experiments, either to give them to another student or postdoc in the lab, or to take for themselves — with no acknowledgment whatever of the person who actually had the ideas, devised and refined the protocols, or developed the plans for future experiments.

Such behavior, dear reader, is not very ethical.

Sadly, however, much of this behavior seems to be happening in circumstances in which the person whose intellectual labor is being stolen doesn’t have as much power as the people stealing it (or at least complicit in its theft). What this means is that one sometimes has to choose between taking a stand to expose unethical behavior and having a future in science. (One’s supervisor, after all, can determine whether one’s current position continues or ends abruptly, and that supervisor writes the letters upon which one depends to find future positions.)

What’s a scientist to do when facing this kind of snake pit?

First, my advice for the scientist who has already been wronged is to download and read “How to Blow the Whistle and Still Have a Career Afterwards” by C.K. Gunsalus which is in this PDF offprint bundled with “Preventing the Need for Whistleblowing: Practical Advice for University Administrators.” After reading Gunsalus’s careful discussing of what’s involved in taking on scientific conduct as a responsible whistleblower, you may decide against blowing the whistle, but you’ll have a better idea what steps you would need to take to make your case effectively, how to protect yourself in the future, and perhaps what other options may be available for addressing the problem.

My own sense is that it may be easier to protect oneself against future theft of intellectual property than it is to satisfyingly address theft that has already taken place. Here are some habits I recommend cultivating:

1. Keep an accurate, detailed laboratory notebook.
A laboratory notebook is a legal record. If your ideas, protocols, data, and analyses are recorded (in ink, in dated entries, etc.), it’s much easier to establish that they are the result of your intellectual labors. (Of course, a good lab notebook should also keep track of when you have used the ideas, protocols, data, and analyses of others — so their intellectual contributions can be acknowledged properly.)

2. Create a paper trail for your communications with others.
For every scientific communication with bosses, students, collaborators, etc., make sure a dated written record (including the content of that communication) exists. Before presenting results or plans for future work (or whatever) to a research group meeting, write up a set of notes that details what you plan to share. (It may be useful to include references to the appropriate pages in your lab notebooks.) Before a chat with the boss, write a memo about what you’ll be communicating; give the boss a copy, and keep a copy for your own records. Write a dated post-script after the communication if you ended up discussing other scientific matters not anticipated by your memo or notes. Save copies of your emails, and jot down notes on your phone communications.

It might even be advisable to keep a separate notebook of your communications — kept with as much care as your lab notebooks. It probably doesn’t hurt, either, to include in your lab notebook notes about to whom you’ve communicated the details of this protocol, or that preliminary result, and when these communications took place.

This kind of record keeping doesn’t just help you in case someone takes your ideas without proper attribution; it also helps you be more conscientious about recognizing the contributions of others to the development of your ideas so you can give proper acknowledgment. As well, if you’re interacting with people who habitually swipe the ideas of others when they think they can get away with it, your habit of preparing written memos may mark you as an organized record-keeper who might not be an easy target of idea-theft.

3. Be candid about your concerns.
Scientific activity requires cooperation, but everyone is looking out his or her best interests (with regard to publications, fundable ideas, etc.). Shunning all collaborations or cooperation just to avoid being taken advantage of is probably an overreaction to the risk. However, voicing your concerns is not. For example:

“I’d like to help you, but in the past I’ve helped others and gotten nothing back — not even an acknowledgment of my help. To look after my own scientific career, publication record, etc., I really have to avoid interactions that aren’t genuine collaborations. If you would like my help, maybe we can talk about ways I can be a real collaborator on this project.”

I would hope this would reduce the amount of non-acknowledgment that flows from carelessness, as well as discouraging people who are looking for help that they don’t need to reciprocate.

4. Trust your gut.
If you get a bad vibe about someone asking you to collaborate (or to provide help), find a way to beg off. (Perhaps you’re very busy in the lab or the library with something else just now.) It’s a big scientific community; it should be possible to avoid putting yourself at the mercy of people who strike you as potentially bad actors.

If you have any additional advice for scientists trying to stay in the game without getting ripped off at every turn, please share it in the comments.


  1. #1 JM
    June 12, 2006

    Everything you’ve said here is applicable outside the sciences as well…especially tips 2-4. _Not that I have any experience in this… When you note to your potential workmates that you’re a big fan of #2 and get a strange reaction, jump immediately to #4. Similarly, if you do #3 and get an even stranger raction, jump immediately to #4.

    #4 is big.

  2. #2 Blair
    June 12, 2006

    A couple additions to a valuable entry:

    Regarding notebooks, try and use hard-bound notebooks and make sure the pages are numbered (preferably printed on the page itself). If you remove a page (which you should never do) include a notation and date indicating that it was done. This ensures that pages are not added or removed and serves to further validate your historical notes. If you are concerned you may want to photocopy pages and store them in a separate file at a separate location….remember keep backups at a SEPARATE location!!!! Nothing hurts more than a small accident (a fire or spill etc) or mistake (leaving your notebook on the bus) that leaves you without record of your work….REMEMBER ALWAYS BACK UP YOUR FILES!!!!

    Regarding correspondences, an approach we have at work to protect chains of information is to create a “file” account where copies of your correspondences can be preserved. As an example, whenever I send an electronic communication to a client or collaborator a copy is sent (as a CC so the action is visible to the recipient) to “file”. In this case file is an email account at our office (the email address is “file”). The contents of the email account are backed up regularly and a paper copy of each correspondence is printed out and stored in a permanent file. This practice provides me with an easy back-up of everything I have sent and provides a paper trail for my clients/collaborators/collegues that is safe from alteration (as time stamps from the servers ensure that there is no hanky-panky about moving dates/times of communications) and provides info in case I’m not there to fill in the blanks.