Yesterday, I helped give an ethics seminar for mostly undergraduate summer research interns at a large local center of scientific research. To prepare for this, I watched the video of the ethics seminar we led for the same program last year. One of the things that jumped out at me was the attempt I and my co-presenter made to come up with an apt analogy to explain the injury involved in taking your lab notebooks with you when you leave your graduate advisor’s research group.
I’m not sure we actually landed on an apt analogy, and I’m hoping you can help.
First, before critiquing the analogies we suggested, let’s consider just why leaving a lab with your notebooks in tow is viewed as problematic.
During one’s graduate research, one generally works under the supervision of an advisor who has secured the funding for the lab space and lab materials, as well as securing research funds that support the graduate students themselves (so they can pay rent and buy instant ramen noodles). Since the research funds are most often provided for specific research projects, the graduate student doing research usually depends on the research advisor for at least the starting point and general methodology with which to pursue the research.
The short-hand way an advisor might express this is, “I put up the money and came up with the project.”
Now, in the best circumstances the graduate researcher is more than just a glorified data collection device. The graduate researcher not only sets up and runs the experiments, collects and analyzes the data, but also makes a real intellectual contribution to the project — refining the experimental procedure or hitting upon additional experiments that give more useful data, coming up with useful insights about how to interpret the data, etc.
So a graduate researcher who has brought a thesis project to completion is usually justified in claiming, “My ideas and insight (as well as my hard work) were crucial in creating this new knowledge.”
It is often the case that, in the course of one’s graduate research, one works on a variety of projects before it becomes clear which will be the one big enough, important enough, and successful enough to grow into the thesis project. Sometimes one completes the Ph.D. (yay!) but still has a few promising beginnings of other projects that haven’t been followed up.
One might think, given that I generated those promising beginnings, shouldn’t I be able to follow up on them when I strike out on my own as a grown up scientist? And given that the intellectual labor (and experimental preliminaries) that convinced me that these were promising beginnings worth following further is all lovingly documented in my laboratory notebooks, don’t I have a legitimate claim to those notebooks?
The graduate advisor usually doesn’t see it that way. “I provided the facilities, materials, and support you needed to do that intellectual work. I gave you the place to start. My grants funded this research. And, I have other graduate students staring in the lab who will need staring places for their research projects and who can follow up on these promising beginnings form your notebooks.” (Let’s assume that the chances of new students picking up these projects are really good, and that the newly minted Ph.D. in whose notebooks the promising beginnings are described will be properly credited for his or her intellectual contribution to the research.)
Finally we come to the attempt to get the right analogy.
In this situation, if you were to decide to take your lab notebooks with you, my co-presenter suggested that this would be like divorcing your husband and keeping the wedding ring.
Aside from all the patriarchal assumptions built into this analogy — casting the graduate advisor as the husband (and head of the family), casting a wedding ring as the price of admission to a marriage, figuring out exactly what kind of contract between two individuals a marriage is assumed to be — I didn’t think the comparison really worked. Except in bad circumstances, getting your Ph.D. and moving on from your graduate lab shouldn’t be like a divorce. And, unless you’re making a trip to the pawn shop, a wedding ring strikes me as more of a symbol than a resource — making it significantly different from a lab notebook.
So I suggested that maybe deciding to take your lab notebooks with you when you left the lab was more like heading off to college but first setting fire to your childhood bedroom in the family home so none of your siblings could use it after you’re gone.
But, I’m not sure if that analogy quite captures the relationship between lab notebooks and the laboratory group, either. What do you think a better analogy here would be?