Administrators and the Responsible Conduct of Research
Case Study:
First Class

Facilitating Sharing Between Collaborators

"Oh hello, Prof. Thomas. It's nice to talk with you," responds Jason Reynolds, the departmental administrator after picking up the phone. "I've missed those long talks about fishing we used to have when you were here on sabbatical working with Prof. Simonds. Come to think of it, we haven't talked since we closed out that grant on which the two of you were collaborating last year. So, how are things at Enormous State, and how has the fishing been?"

"It's nice to talk with you again too, Jason. Work has been going well, and the fishing this summer was great. Unfortunately, I'm calling about a problem in your department. I've contacted Steve Simonds four times about getting some more of antibody Ab2765 that we prepared during our research together, but he keeps putting me off. In our last conversation, he actually said that there wasn't enough left to send, and that just can't be true. This whole thing is holding up our work here, and we can't keep waiting around. So, I decided to call you. I don't want to cause trouble, and you know that that antibody is as much mine as Steve's. It seems to me that the easiest solution to this, for all of us, is for you to go to Steve's lab, get some of the antibody from his technician, and have it shipped to me as soon as possible."

Case Discussion
Interests of the Affected Parties
Ethical issues

Jason Reynolds' obligation to help the university meet its obligations is in conflict with his obligation to respect Prof. Simonds' control of his laboratory. Prof. Thomas' interest in furthering his research, is in conflict with Jason's interest in maintaining a good working relationship with Prof. Simonds, with Prof. Simonds' interest in controlling the disposition of materials from his laboratory, and with Prof. Thomas' obligation to communicate openly with Prof. Simonds. It appears that Prof. Simonds sees his obligations as a member of a collaboration, including sharing and communicating with Prof. Thomas, to be in conflict with his interest in furthering his research and/or in maintaining control of the disposition of materials from his laboratory.

Consequences of Actions

If Jason Reynolds proceeds as Prof. Thomas requests, goes to Prof. Simonds' laboratory, obtains some of the antibody without Prof. Simonds' knowledge, and sends it to Prof. Thomas, it may be that conflict will be avoided for a short period of time. However, what happens when Prof. Thomas requests more antibody, or when Prof. Simonds finds out what has occurred? It is likely that here will eventually be an uproar in the department, a major falling out between Prof. Simonds and Jason Reynolds, and a general loss of trust in Reynolds by members of the department. It could cost Jason Reynolds his job.

If Jason Reynolds refuses to help Prof. Thomas and does nothing further about the situation, he is most likely only delaying the day when conflict and disruption affect the department. The longer this situation continues, the more polarized the two researchers probably will become, and the more difficult the conflict will be to resolve.

However, if Jason Reynolds alerts some key people to the situation it may be possible to resolve it before communication between the two former collaborators deteriorates further. As the recipient of the collaborative research grant, the university, through its personnel, is obligated to act to resolve this situation, but some basic information needs to be gathered: Was there a collaborative agreement and if so, what were its terms? What is the reason for Prof. Simonds' refusals? (It could be just a communications failure. Maybe Prof. Simonds really has no more antibody left from the collaboration. Maybe Prof. Thomas has already used all the antibody to which he is entitled.) Precisely whom Jason Reynolds contacts will depend on the details of the situation, and the personalities and relationships of the people involved. Some possibilities are the department chair, , or a faculty member who has worked with both of the collaborators. However, this is a situation that needs to move to mediation by faculty, with the assistance of administrative staff like Jason Reynolds on matters such as agreements, guidelines, and policies.