Administrators and the Responsible Conduct of Research
The Mary Smith Case

The Mary Smith Case

Here is an example of how an administrator can be drawn into a conflict situation and be confronted with serious ethical questions.

Mary Smith is a department administrator at Flat Plains College working in the Chemistry Department for twenty years. During that time, she has worked closely with and has developed a highly professional and trusting relationship with Professor Thomas. Three years ago, the College signed a research agreement with Company X. At the end of the third year, Company X decided not to continue the sponsored project agreement and at the end of the third year, the agreement was terminated. Professor Thomas had other contacts at Company Z, and the College was able to execute a sponsored project agreement to fund the research for another three years. Professor Thomas, being very busy, told Mary that the company also wanted him to sign a consulting agreement . Since he trusted her implicitly, he wanted Mary to negotiate the personal consulting agreement for him. When Mary looked at the agreement she found that the statement of work was identical to the statement of work contained in the Company’s sponsored project agreement with the College. While the sponsored project agreement signed by the College preserved intellectual property rights for the university, the consulting agreement would give all intellectual property rights to the Company. In addition, in the consulting agreement, Thomas would agree to use his graduate students to perform the research at no cost to the company since this would be a "learning experience" for them and would give them exposure to valuable experience. Finally, Professor Thomas told Mary Smith that it would be very helpful to him if she would collect payments under the consulting contract and administer the funds through a private bank account he would establish. Mary felt uneasy but was not sure what was causing this gut reaction. She believed in doing the right thing, but she also felt that if she refused to help Professor Thomas, she was betraying their long-standing trust and professional relationship.

Brief Discussion of the Case

This case presents a number of problems for the faculty member, administrator, and the university. While few cases may be as complex as this one, it is useful to see how problems can be interwoven. It is also instructive to see how easily administrative staff can be drawn into these problems.

First, a university needs to be particularly careful when negotiating agreements in which one sponsor would be funding a project initiated by funding from another sponsor. A university must be careful not to give the second company the same rights to intellectual property it had already given to the first company. Intellectual property includes copyrights as well as patents (and other rights as well), and under most university policies, researchers are given copyrights to most of their creations. Therefore, while it might not seem obvious at first, having conflicting copyright provisions in agreements with sponsors can easily draw the faculty member into a conflict with the university, sponsors and publishers.

Second, it is completely inappropriate for Prof. Thomas to have a consulting agreement for the same work as is being performed under a sponsored project agreement. In consulting agreements, the company typically retains all intellectual property rights and totally excludes rights to the consultant. In sponsored project agreements, a university typically retains ownership of all intellectual property (although it may agree to option or license certain rights to the company). Therefore, having a sponsored project agreement and a consulting agreement existing at the same time for the same work will almost inevitably result in disputes over the ownership of intellectual property. Putting the institution's rights and interests in jeapardy places Prof. Thomas in conflict a conflict of commitment with his responsibilities to the university as his primary employer. Depending on the compensation Prof. Thomas receives under the consulting agreement, this could also represent a financial conflict of interest.

Third, Prof. Thomas has agreed to use his graduate students and presumably his university laboratory for the consulting work and therefore for his personal benefit. This is a clear and direct conflict of interest. In addition, despite the justification that this work could benefit the students, it is distracting them from their degree-related activities and, if they are paid by sponsored project funding, from their responsibilities as university employees. Prof. Thomas, by acting in his own self-interest is also violating his responsibilities as a mentor to his students.

Finally, by agreeing to assist Prof. Thomas in negotiating the consulting agreement that is inconsistent with university policy and then managing his personal income, Mary Smith is placing herself in a conflict of interest with her university responsibility. She is placing herself in a conflict of commitment regarding her responsibilities to her primary employer. She would also be in the position of being an accessory to Prof. Thomas' violation of university policy. Her decision to do the right thing is further complicated by her friendship with and loyalty to Prof. Thomas. By refusing to assist Prof. Thomas, will she jeopardize her friendship? Will she anger Prof. Thomas? Could this have an effect on her position in the department? What could she do if Prof. Thomas is so angry that he finds ways of retaliating against her? In short, Mary Smith is confronted by a serious ethical dilemma.

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