Administrators and the Responsible Conduct of Research
Case Study:
Supporting Documentation

Supporting Documentation

Janet Jones is a pre-award specialist for the engineering school. She is working on putting in the final edits, and then assembling a grant application Prof. Wilson is submitting tomorrow to the NSF. In particular, she is double-checking to be sure that she has all the letters and other supplementary documents that need to be sent with the application. Unfortunately, there is one thing that is bothering her. In the text of the application, Prof. Wilson presents, with citation, a lot of preliminary, unpublished data from a research group in a different country with whom he has worked in the past. However, Janet cannot locate either a letter giving Wilson permission to cite these data, or any sort of documentation that a collaboration with this group is planned as part of the new research project. In fact there is no mention of either of these items in the list of supporting documents, and she recalls that a letter of permission was required when Prof. Wilson included some unpublished results from a different colleague in a journal article he submitted recently. "What should I do now," she wonders.

Case Discussion

Interests of the Affected Parties


Ethical Issues

Janet feels a conflict between her interest in doing her job as efficiently and independently as possible and her obligation to ensure that the applications she helps prepare are of the highest quality. Prof. Wilson's interest in preparing the strongest research proposal may be in conflict with his obligations to his colleagues who are the source of the unpublished data, and the interests of those colleagues.

Consequences of Actions

If Janet decides to do nothing further, and just send off the grant application without checking on things any further, there may be no negative consequences. However, there may be some uncertainty about the status of the unpublished data from the other research group that could lead to difficulties. The unpublished data are cited as having come from another research group, but Janet does not seem to know if these data were generated as part of the earlier collaboration, or if they belong to his colleagues and were given to Wilson along with permission to include them in his grant application, or if Wilson is using the data without permission. In addition, Janet seems uncertain as to whether the funding agency requires some sort of documentation confirming permission to use unpublished data cited as a "personal communication" the way some journals now do.

If Janet simply assumes the worst, and storms into Prof. Wilson's office accusing him of "trying to get way with using someone else's data" in his grant application, she would be endangering her working relationship with Prof. Wilson, and perhaps her job. No one reacts well to being accused of behaving unethically.

However, Janet could demonstrate her professionalism by doing a quick checking to see if documentation of permission to use data cited as a "personal communication" is required by the funding agency (not required by the NSF at this time). She could then follow up by inquiring of Prof. Wilson concerning his use of the data. In this manner, she would be most likely to further everyone's interests. Asking polite questions that seek clarification of a situation, usually lead to a more productive exchange of information. If the situation warrants, Janet may be able to suggest to Prof. Wilson that he get his colleagues' agreement to include the unpublished results in his grant before he sends it in, and so help Wilson to avoid future unpleasantness in his collaborative relationships.