Ethical Dilemma

Dec 16 2008 Published by under Uncategorized

As I have chronicled, I am having a bit of an issue with a potential collaborator, but the situation is a bit more tricky than what I have written about so far. The reason I have been trying so hard to contact this person is not only because they have old (10 yrs!) data I would like to analyze and publish, but because I want to avoid an ethical dilemma that I will have to deal with, should I never get in touch with this person.

The backstory: when these data were new, “Data Producer” collaborated with another individual who had far more experience analyzing these types of data. “Collaborator” put a substantial amount of time and effort into the project and then it never got written up. Collaborator has (and had) plenty of other projects on the go and never pushed very hard to get the thing out, so the data have languished. Amazingly, these data are still relevant to the field and have a very interesting story to tell.

So, fast forward ten years to a conference over the summer where I had some time to talk with Collaborator. We got talking about a number of things and I asked Collaborator if they had any knowledge of the data that never got published, not knowing that Collaborator had worked on the project. This got Collaborator a bit steamed thinking about the time invested and the fact that nothing ever happened with the data. I discussed my inability to get much communication from Data Producer and Collaborator suggested the following: We both try and get Data Producer to resurface and participate in whatever capacity they feel like towards getting the data published. BUT, the kicker is that Collaborator still has the data and suggested that they would give it to me to analyze and publish, should Data Producer ignore our communication and fade into retirement. I would then be free to use the data as if I had produced it – and herein lays the dilemma.

On the one hand, it seems silly for me to spend the time and money to reproduce the data from scratch. It’s already done and there is nothing tricky about the process, it would just take time and money. Rather than have data lost to science, it makes more sense to use the data set already completed.

On the other hand, these data are not mine, nor will they ever be. I feel extremely uncomfortable (maybe fraudulent) using data I did not produce, without the knowledge of the person who did. I’m actually not sure I could do it. Despite Collaborator’s insistence that it would be the best thing for science for the data to be available, I don’t think it would be the best thing for me.

Collaborator did get an email back from Data Producer (just as I had originally) saying that they were interested in getting the data out and that we should work it up, but nothing has happened since. Data Producer even had the gall to ask Collaborator for my email address (apparently the 10 emails I sent in the last 5 months didn’t include my address on them), but that was two months ago and I have yet to hear anything.

So, the data sit on a hard drive and will never be published unless I either get Data Producer to agree to let me deal with them or I ignore my conscience. As hard as it has been to get in touch with Data Producer, it will be far more difficult to do the alternative.

7 responses so far

  • Odyssey says:

    Don't ignore your conscience. Analyzing and writing up the data without involving Data Producer would be wrong. Yes, it's wrong for Data Producer to sit on the data for a decade - apart from denying the field, they have also screwed over Collaborator. But that doesn't change the simple fact that the data are not yours.Obviously these data are important for your research. If you can't get Data Producer involved, you may have no choice but to reproduce the data yourself. Perhaps if you subtly suggested to Data Producer that you would be willing to do that, they might suddenly find a reason to collaborate.

  • bio-chick says:

    On the other hand, I don't see any reason why you can't analyze the data, write the paper, and then put all 3 names on it -- data collector, collaborator, and you. This way, everyone wins - the data get published, credit is duly awarded, and you can move on with your life (and your science) without a guilty conscience. Send the manuscript to data collector for his/her approval with a deadline (say, a month to give comments or blessings or to veto the paper), and then submit it after a month (with or without data collectors input), but with the blessing of collaborator. Just make sure you leave data collectors name on it, and in the proper order (first author? second? let your collaborator decide). It's not a perfect solution - obviously, data collector should read the paper, contribute to the analysis, etc., but in this highly imperfect situation, it may be the only way to proceed efficiently and still be true to the science, the ethics, and the politics of the situation.

  • Odyssey says:

    Send the manuscript to data collector for his/her approval with a deadline (say, a month to give comments or blessings or to veto the paper), and then submit it after a month (with or without data collectors input), but with the blessing of collaborator.This would be wrong too. Journals accept manuscripts on the understanding that all authors agree to the submission. Sorry to be a stickler here, but as the situation has been described, the data belongs to Data Producer and it is their call as to what is done with it.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    If I wrote the paper and sent it to Data Collector, they would obviously know that I had the data, which would put Collaborator in a tough spot. I also couldn't send the paper in with Data Collector's name on it without their knowledge/input because, as Odyssey points out, that is a clear violation of journal rules. Plus, imagine picking up a journal article with your name on it even though you have never seen it. This has happened to me with a poster abstract before, and I did not appreciate it. If I don't get any response from Data Collector, the only options are, as I see it, ignoring the data or pretending they are mine at the behest of Collaborator. Despite the insistance of Collaborator, the second option just doesn't work for me. Which. Really. Sucks.I left a note on Data Collector's door today. If you can ignore something that blatant, than I just don't think this is happening. Other than setting a snare trap by her office door, or taking it a step further and going to her house (hello restraining order!), I am out of options. But if you are walking around your department and see a pile of leaves in front of a senior colleague's door, don't step on them.

  • gnuma says:

    This is a sucky situation that you best steer clear of, PLS. Obviously Data Producer is wanker, but I would be wary of Collaborator as well. Seems like this person is willing to put you in a dishonest position for what...a publication?? Not worth it. Collect the data on your own, do a rock-star job, own the data and then wear it on your head if you want to. If Data Producer is too slow or cranky to hand their data over, they will not be writing it up anytime soon, although it might be helpful if you can add a twist to the collection that DP did not previously just in case. You have done what you can, now move on with your badass self.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Does DC know that you are collegial with C? Perhaps a misunderstanding that two independent requests for the data suddenly arose after years is leaving DC uncertain as to course? Or did C mention you to DC?

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Collaborator clearly mentioned my interest to DC, spurring the request for my contact info. Having not met DC in person I am at a loss to figure out if I am dealing with indifference of hostility at this point. Dropped by DC's office today to see if the note was gone but couldn't get into th ebuilding due to classes being out and the hour we were there. So, either DC saw the note and ignored the fact that we were here or hasn't been in for the past couple of days. I guess if I don't hear anything in the new year I will assume the ship has sailed.

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