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.