Adventures in Ethics and Science

Fine-tuning an analogy.

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?


  1. #1 Enigman
    June 28, 2007

    A cook taking her recipe books with her to her new restaurant? But why not just photocopy the books and take the photocopy with you?

  2. #2 Melinda Barton
    June 28, 2007

    I don’t know if I have a good analogy for that other than theft, maybe building a car for Ford and taking the car with you? But I’m intrigued. Don’t you have standard contracts for this sort of thing? In journalism, any work done under contract (as part of day to day work for a particular publication) is the automatic property of that publication. Unless you make a separate agreement in advance, you no longer have the right to publish that work elsewhere. This is not just an ethical standard but a legal one. You can be sued for publishing the material elsewhere without permission.

  3. #3 Drugmonkey
    June 28, 2007

    I would think perhaps some artisan type analogies would work better.

    Imagine working for a cabinetry shop. You use the owner’s tools, wood and facilities to build a dining room set that is supposed to be for sale to profit the shop. You are paid for your labor, although at apprentice rates rather than journeyman rates because you don’t know what you are doing at first, are receiving valuable skills and screw up a lot of nice oak in the learning process. You are about to leave to take a higher-paying journeyman’s position in the next town, thanks to the owner talking to his buddy about your great work. Or even, gasp, to start your own little cabinetry shop somewhere. You decide, gee, it would be better for me if this sweet dining room set was sold from my new shop so you back up the truck and steal it.

    how’s that one?

  4. #4 Ben M
    June 28, 2007

    It’s like when an architect and construction crew finishes a building. Who gets the blueprints? The building owner needs them, obviously; the building will be repaired and expanded in the future; the blueprints tell you where the pipes and wiring are, how much weight you can add to the penthouse extension, which walls you can tear out during renovations. But the architect views them as his or her *intellecual* property; they’re part of a portfolio; they’re a library of ideas and solutions which may serve future projects.

  5. #5 Rich Reynolds
    June 28, 2007


    I hate analogies, especially when the original situation is so much more intriguing or meaty.

    But here goes…

    This isn’t an analogy (whoops!). It’s an actual requirement of the work places.

    That is, if one works at Microsoft of Apple, they are not allowed by law and confidential agreements to take anything with them when they leave the employ of either place, and that even if they provided the substantive elements within their division or work parameters.

    As for divorce — judges often make arbitrary decisions that don’t allow a spouse to leave with things accumulated over the duration of a marriage.

    Then again, some judges do.

    (It’s always a mess — well, almost always.)

    The lab director (or graduate advisor) should make it clear at the outset that materials and notes garnered during the sojourn will have to be turned in when the research period is finished or over.

    This, of course, will limit the amount of note-taking or note-keeping but c’est la vie.

    If a bakery worker helps create a batch of donuts each morning for his employer, using that employer’s flour, sugar, machinery, et cetera, does the employee get to take home the lion’s share of those donuts at day’s end — the ones that didn’t sell?

    Maybe, if the owner is generous. But usually no. Customers may be willing to buy day-old donuts — I do — so there is some mercenary incentive to prohibit employees from pilfering the holey things.

    (Okay, that’s the best I can come up with, but it is an analogy, isn’t it?)


  6. #6 flunkie
    June 28, 2007

    It is hard with a material analogy because copies of the notebooks are possible. As the first commenter posted, why not just make a copy? This might be more like the intellectual property / filesharing / sampling issue. Taking a copy doesn’t deny or exclude the lab group from making use of the property. Maybe a better analogy would be a band member taking practice, jam, or recording session tapes when they left.

    The ideas you seem to be talking about in the lab notebooks are not publishable in themselves, but are relatively unformed ideas and concepts that need further development. Taking the tapes would hinder the band, not taking the tapes would prevent the departing member from building on the experience, and taking copies of shared work might help both parties. The arguments for preventing one or the other parties from having a copy after the breakup might be similar for a band or a lab group.

  7. #7 Colst
    June 28, 2007

    “But why not just photocopy the books and take the photocopy with you?”

    Indeed. In the lab I just left, the policy is that the advisor microfilms the notebooks, then lets you keep the originals. Some sort of policy like this seem to make the most sense to me. There are, of course, also lab notebooks that use carbon paper so copies are made as you go.

    Melinda – it’s not really the same sort of thing as writing under contract. In academic science, there is an expectation that your eventually work as a principal investigator will most likely build on work you’ve done previously. Part of the qualification for getting a job like that is that you’ve already come up with a research plan of some sort, and it would be difficult to come up with a realistic plan that wasn’t in some way related to what you’ve done.

    The advisor-advisee relationship is also often different from and employer-employee one. Employees aren’t often given a monetary stake in patents, for example. In my lab, we split those evenly among the contributors. The way former employees perform at their new job isn’t necessarily important to the employer. Academics’ reputations are based in part on the success of their advisees. Partly because of that, my advisor actually asked my permission to put someone else on a project I had started – I had brought the ideas to the lab, and he didn’t want to get in the way of my pursuing them further once I’m out on my own.

  8. #8 Emory Kimbrough
    June 28, 2007

    The new back-up singer in a band picks up all the sheet music for a half-finished song that _all_ members of the band, including the band’s founder and front-man, had been collectively composing. She leaves the band and uses the notes to finish the song, and then records and markets a solo performance.

  9. #9 Frederick Ross
    June 28, 2007

    I think that this is entirely the wrong argument for leaving the notebooks. The principal investigator is usually who you call about the content of a paper, for the obvious reason that they’re the most stable. Grad students and postdocs are there for only a few years. Thus if a question comes up about the paper later on, the original records need to be there, and the best person to leave them with is the professor.

    I keep my lab book in the computer and on paper, and I would feel no qualms at all about taking it with me, especially since I have a number of side projects which are in pure mathematics or computer science, completely outside the expertise of the biology laboratory I’m in. If I kept it only in hardcopy, then it would be different.

    If problems to work on are so scarce that you need to hold on to every odd direction a grad student wanders down, it’s time to switch fields.

  10. #10 Mike
    June 28, 2007

    I do not know if I buy your reasoning. In my graduate program, particularly my PhD, I obtained both my stipend/tuition funding and my lab supplies funding from outside sources. In addition, I chose a research area that my advisor was not working on so that I could take this research with me to my current faculty position. Given these circumstances, would I have been justified in taking my lab notebooks?

    Fortunately, the lab notebooks were the kind where you can make carbon copies as you go along. Therefore I could take all of the carbon copies with me and leave the originals.

  11. #11 Graeme Williams
    June 28, 2007

    It seems to me that you’re conflating several things: ownership of the physical artifact, the data that is contained in the notebooks, the experience that is expressed in the notebooks, and the right of reuse.

    I guess in some or perhaps all regulatory environments, the physical artifact might be required for auditing purposes, in which case the graduate student is out of luck. Taking the artifact is like destroying the chain of custody of a piece of physical evidence, and we all know how bad that is from CSI.

    The information contained in the notebook might be needed to reconstruct the calculations or reasoning that went into the conclusions. Depriving the lab of the information is like trying to do a medical diagnosis without a history, and we all know how difficult that is that is from House.

    The experience expressed in the notebooks clearly belongs to the person who experienced the experiences, the graduate student. Having presumably learned from them the first time through, he or she would be deprived of the opportunity to learn from them again if he or she didn’t keep a copy. I guess I’d think of this aspect of the notebook as being like class notes. You can look back over the notes from a class you’ve taken, but you can’t use them to give the class yourself. I can’t see the difference, or at least don’t want to draw a line, between someone with perfect memory of what they did in the lab and someone with a copy of a notebook.

    Presumably the right of reuse is covered by some sort of legal agreement, and I’d expect that the lab gets it all and the graduate student gets nothing. The only metaphor you need here is that the law gives some rights the same status as physical property — someone owns them.

  12. #12 Janet D. Stemwedel
    June 28, 2007

    As a number of you have noted, what is the “right” thing to do in this situation depends on factors including the official policy of the institution. Photocopying the notebooks may seem like a reasonable compromise situation, but given that the work contained in them is arguably the result of *some* sort of collaboration between the PI and the graduate researcher (even if not a 50-50 collaboration), that suggests to me that both parties need somehow to be involved in the follow-up work (if only in the crediting of the initial collaboration as the source of the starting point).

    Taking the notebooks and leaving no copies behind seems a different kind of move. But so, for that matter, might retaining the notebooks and allowing no copies to go off with the person whose intellectual labors they document. Policy may require one of these, but that doesn’t preempt the possibility of arguing that the policy ought to be changed. (Please note that I always advise mounting your arguments against bad policies openly. Stealthily breaking with policies with which you disagree is no way to bring about better policies.)

    And, I’m loving your analogies here!

  13. #13 Fred Ross
    June 28, 2007

    but given that the work contained in them is arguably the result of *some* sort of collaboration between the PI and the graduate researcher (even if not a 50-50 collaboration), that suggests to me that both parties need somehow to be involved in the follow-up work (if only in the crediting of the initial collaboration as the source of the starting point).

    I think this divides into two issues, one a non-issue, one a really sticky issue. If the work in the notebooks is already published, and the followup work continues from there but at a later date, different place, without the adviser involved, then you cite the previous paper, and there’s no problem.

    If it’s unpublished work to be finished later, then you get into exactly the same sticky situation as if you had two labs collaborating. If someone’s got a cut and dried solution to this one, I haven’t heard it yet. However, it reduces the problem to a more general one which people consider a lot.

  14. #14 Martin
    June 28, 2007


    if and when you leave your current University, are you planning on leaving your teaching materials behind and at your new University completely recreating your course materials from scratch? Would you leave all your research material behind? The University has been paying your salary, providing facilities and is your employer and has a good case that it owns the IP to all your work.

    I think this is a clear analogy for the grad student experience and my answer is that both the grad student and the research lab have the right to use the IP embodied in the notebooks and neither party should be able to restrict the use of that IP by the other.

    Now when it comes to commercialisation etc., then that needs to be negotiated, hopefully the University has fair and equitable policies in this area.

  15. #15 Janet D. Stemwedel
    June 28, 2007

    Martin, my department and university policy don’t claim my teaching materials as their property (which is a good thing, since I developed a significant proportion of them on my own before I was in their employ). This is contrast to the explicit policy in many university labs that the notebooks are property of the research group in the university.

    As you suggest, there may well be good reasons to question this kind of absolute policy.

    Another difference that occurs to me is that I didn’t have an “advisor” who sat me down and told me where to get started on my syllabi, exams, and other teaching materials — I had to start from scratch — while many graduate research projects *do* rely heavily on the staring point, constraints, and continuing guidance provided by the PI.

    Again, it doesn’t mean that the graduate student might not be able to mount a successful claim to the intellectual property she’s generated during her time in the advisor’s lab. But, if she’s agreed to the policy up front (usually you have to sign paperwork to that effect), I’m guessing it’s non-trivial to get the university to release you from that agreement.

  16. #16 Thomas Robey
    June 28, 2007

    I like Drugmonkey’s analogy because of the way it elicits the nature of academia’s apprenticeship model. That last dining room set was crafted at the height of the apprentice’s productivity, much in the same way that the last 6 months of the PhD training period is often the student’s most productive.

    In many cases, the student takes his or her skills to a slightly different field for the post-doc. There, I can imagine the increased independence of the junior member of the partnership with the professor could lead to an entirely different situation when that post-doc leaves to set up a new shop. I have to mix some metaphors here, but a pre-nup is probably a good idea, and it should address issues like authorship and what is the plan when the trainee moves on.

  17. #17 hip hip array
    June 29, 2007

    Notebooks are primarily used to document the professional standard of the work done. For that reason they should stay in the lab of origin. Make a copy when you move. To varying degrees they also document the intellectual explorations of the scientist. You don’t have to write down every brilliant idea, though you certainly are better off in a lab where you want to share your ideas.

    In unpleasant circumstances (e.g., you don’t trust the PI to give you deserved credit in future papers for unpublished work you’ve done, or you’ve documented your discovery of her unethical practices in your notebook and suspect the originals might be altered once you leave), you’ll want a copy, or not, depending on your appetite for that kind of science karma.

    The issue of ownership of projects, ideally, should not exist. In practice, PIs range from the extremely paranoid to the collaborative to the disinterested to the uninterested, depending on their personalities and the qualities of the project. Best to negotiate as pleasantly as possible.

    (I keep a methods book. I take it with me, like a chef’s knives. Any methods that I develop in a lab are described in the context of the experiments in the main notebooks and also given to interested colleagues in the lab for continued use once I leave. But the original binder stays with me and I don’t leave a copy, though anyone would be welcome to one. It’s quite fat and eclectic.)

  18. #18 Drugmonkey
    June 29, 2007

    Martin, not sure if you know this but there are some moves in the direction of Universities trying to take possession of the slides and other class materials of professors afoot.

  19. #19 Super Sally
    June 29, 2007

    depends on factors including the official policy of the institution

    Even more basic than the ethics of the situation is the legal aspect. Intellectual Property is at stake here.

    Read the fine print of any employment agreement you signed for Intellectual Property provisions. Federal law applies and there are sometimes state provisions too. [And there are federal sanctions to violations.]

    Usually, copyright-able work is owned by the employer if it is produced as a normal component of the job (as in a lab notebook). There is the “education exemption” generally alloted so that authors of published papers own the copyright to those works. If the employment agreement specifies work-for-hire, then the “usually” becomes definitely.

    Patentable processes/compounds/devices may be handled under a “duty to assign” in the agreement.

    Generally, there are also confidentiality clauses in such agreements.

    And if the agreement is with a company, not a university, there is probably some sort of non-compete clause too.

    So If you read your agreement carefully, you only deal with legalities, not analogies.

  20. #20 wafer
    June 29, 2007

    Who is responsible for the work in the notebooks? For published work it is clearly the PI…technically all authors are responsible, but a grad. student isnt going to be dragged before Congress for an ethics violation it will be the PI. Regardless of potential exceptions, I expect all of us realize the PI is the trainer for post-docs, students, etc. and yes some are better than others, but the point is we hold the manager culpable for the work generated under their auspices. I would argue the same is true for unpublished work because it was still done while reporting to the PI even if the trainee didnt report it.

    As a PI myself, noone takes their data notebooks, although all are free to photocopy them.

  21. #21 Martin
    June 29, 2007


    I’m not sure of the US situation, but this issue has definitely been raised in Australia and my understanding of the situation (IANAL) is that universities here could if they wanted to, mount quite a strong case that all those materials are copyright to the University as they have been produced as a result of the person’s employment by the University and be able to insist that the academic must not use them in the future.

    As far as I know, no university has decided to go down that route, but it is purely a matter of tradition and pragmatism (the outcry from academics would be very strong), so now it is understood that academics can take their teaching materials with them to their new post (Australia doesn’t have tenure in the American sense, so movement is not uncommon), but this rests on shaky grounds.


    if the lab has an explicit written policy about the IP and the student signs a contract agreeing that they won’t take the IP with them when they graduate, then sure they shouldn’t take the notebooks etc. with them. Inequitable and unfair contracts get signed everyday, but most of them are legal.

    But if a lab does this

    1) – putting on my cynical and market-driven hat – this would surely discourage many potential students from joining that lab, especially the really promising students

    2) – taking off the C&MD hat and putting on my Idealistic hat, such a policy is antithetical to notions of scholarship and science where we want to encourage multiple avenues of investigation into a phenomenon

    The guidance issue would factor in, I believe to a decision about commercialisation, where the more guidance and advice the grad student received, the less interest the student would have. But in my opinion, PhD work should be strongly independent and self-directed, so that any PhD where the work done is of such a low level of independence and self-direction that it would be equitable to claim that the student shouldn’t take away any IP is tantamount to saying that the work shouldn’t have been a PhD in the first place.

    A proviso is that I don’t work in the physical or medical sciences, so research tends to involve much smaller numbers of people than can be the case in these areas (the physics paper with 600(?) authors recently on a new atomic particle being an example), so maybe I’m applying a standard to PhD work that is inappropriate in these areas.

    In terms of taking your teaching material from you, especially materials produced prior to your work at the University, well that would be up to you to prove in a court of law. What if your contract with the University to receive tenure or to get a tenure-track position included a provision that all IP generated by you while in their employ would belong to them? Would you sign it? I bet most people would for tenure, just like most people would to get a grad student position

    As an aside, I think the last few months, you’ve posted some great articles that have been very thought-provoking, this type of stuff is what makes academic blogs worth reading

  22. #22 flunkie
    June 29, 2007

    How does the stipend versus salary distinction work with the for-hire explanations? In my program the stipend was explictly described as not a salary for tax purposes, in that case is one’s product in the educational environment of an academic lab still a for-hire situation?

    The whole point of a graduate researcher working in a lab is to develop, learn and collaborate, it isn’t a zero-sum game, and part of the benefit is that it should foster collaboration and expansion of knowledge. Denying one or the other party of the lab notebooks seems antithetical. I still like the band/musician analogy with the lab notebooks as session tapes: Publishing the session tapes (or lab notebook) the as your own solo work is unethical, but either party could refer to them to write a new song, write a paper, start a new band, or build a new lab. Both parties should expect future work of the researcher to be somewhat derivative of the original lab’s work.

  23. #23 Blair
    June 29, 2007

    As my supervisor taught me, the problem with analogies is that they seldom get the full flavour of a problem and typically have a failing of their own. As such they will often distract from a discussion rather than enlighten the discussion. The problem with most of the analogies to date is that graduate school is not a typical employer/employee relationship.

    In a pure employee/employer relationship any intellectual property (including work products like notebooks) are owned outright by the employer and this is spelled out in the employee’s employment contract. Often these contracts include incentive clauses whereby employee’s share patents etc.. These clauses are included to encourage independent thought and the creation of value-added products.

    The relationship in academia, however, is different. My supervisor used to liken it (jokingly of course) to the indentured servitude of the apprentice in the Middle Age artisan communities. As such, the intellectual output from graduate studies is necessarily a shared commodity (since you can’t wipe the memories of departing students). The student leaves with experience, skills and ideas which may or may not pan out into new areas of research. The supervisor meanwhile receives a highly-trained, highly-motivated work force at a significant discount (see ) and all the actual output from that labour force. Since it is a collaboration, the records should also be shared. As such in my experience the lab books were kept by the students, but copies were retained by the lab.

    One point I have not seen considered comes down to property rights. I was once instructed by a colleague to buy my own lab books. The argument went that if the notebook was supplied to me by the lab then by definition the notebook belonged to the lab. If I purchased the notebook, then while I must share its contents with the lab the physical book belonged to me.

New comments have been disabled.