Ethics Case Studies

In evaluating ethical dilemmas sometimes there are moral principles that lead to clear-cut courses of action. More often, however, there are several possible solutions each of which is morally acceptable. Our values and experiences, unique to each of us, will influence our views when considering ethical problems and identifying solutions. Since we must live with the decisions we make perhaps the most critical element of ethical decision making is being able to explain/justify the reasons behind our decisions. To help you in learning to do this, you will find a series of nine brief case studies in this section.:

Each brief case is based loosely on one or more real life incidents. Following each case references to articles about the real incidents on which these cases has been designed appear so you can learn more about the people and the incidents themselves.

You will find it most useful to discuss these case studies with your friends, other research group members, and/or your research advisor. If however, you are working alone, you can click on each question and view suggestions for possible answers that identify some of the many relevant issues.

Case Studies

It Only Takes a Second

Shortly after Christmas during the holiday break, Elise, a relatively new graduate student in Professor X’s group, with experience in "scale-up process safety" attempts to carry out a chemical reaction known by the greater research community to be dangerous as the reagent required can catch fire spontaneously upon contact with air. Specialized training is required to handle this reagent properly. Available to supervise Elise are two postdoctoral students both of whom have limited proficiency in English. Elise, wearing a sweater, dons safety goggles and nitrile gloves and eager to prove her worth, sets about to transfer two ounces of the reagent from one sealed container to another using a plastic syringe…

As a group, discuss each of the following questions:

1. As a new graduate student working in a new research environment and performing an unfamiliar procedure, are there any things that you think Elise should think about, plan for, or do before attempting to carry out this experiment?

Likely Elise wants very much to impress her new research advisor. This could make her takes risks that she might not take otherwise. Elise should make sure that she knows how to properly handle this new reagent by researching the reagent and obtaining hands-on training from her research advisor and/or the Office of Environmental Safety at her academic institution. She should also make sure that she is adequately clothed and that she has the appropriate safety measures in place in case of accidental exposure. Since Elise is unfamiliar with the procedure, it is important to carry it out the first time under ideal conditions. Ideal conditions would be when her advisor is present to supervise her, when senior group mates are around to provide such support, and when she is alert and focused. Holiday break is likely not the best time to carry out this procedure safely.

2. Reading the above scenario, in light of your answers to question 1, do you think that Elise has adequately covered all her bases? What, if any, problems do you see here?

Elise has not adequately covered her bases. She is working unsupervised, inappropriately garbed, without adequate knowledge, experience, and support. She does not have the appropriate safety measures in place and is likely exhausted. She is a safety disaster waiting to happen.

3. Would your concerns change if Elise were a postdoctoral student? An undergraduate student? A high school student?

Younger students should not be carrying out such a dangerous experiment without appropriate supervision by their research advisor. Even if Elise were a postdoctoral student and experienced in the handling of this reagent, she should work safely - dress appropriately, have the appropriate safety measures in place before beginning work, and work only when she is alert and focused.

Basis for the Case

Regrettably this story ended quite tragically for this talented young researcher. In the process of attempting to transfer 2-oz of t-butyl lithium, the plunger came out of the plastic syringe, splashing the young researcher’s gloves and sweater with the reagent, which burst into flames. The died 18-days later of second and third degree burns over forty-percent of her body. Five months later, the California division of the Occupational Safety and Health Admiinistration (OSHA) fined UCLA for 3 “serious” violations of workplace safety laws finding that the university had not properly addressed previous outstanding safety violations in that research group, that student had not been adequately trained and that she was not wearing the appropriate protective clothing (flame resistant lab coat) at the time of the fatal incident.

K. Christensen. (2009) Los Angeles Times May 5. “State Fines UCLA in Fatal Lab Fire.” Avail. URL: http://www.latimes.com/features/health/la-me-uclalab5-2009may05,0,6665233.story
Mitch. (2009) “Tert-Butyllithium Claims Fellow Chemist at UCLA.” Avail. URL: http://www.chemistry-blog.com/2009/01/20/tert-butyllithium-claims-fellow-chemist-at-ucla/

Pinocchio's Nose

Tom, a pre-med. student, works two part-time jobs while attending Prestigious University. Tom finds his course load for the spring semester very challenging and he struggles to keep up with the assignments in his anthropology course. Tom knows anthropology instructor, Dr. B., thinks highly of him and that Dr. B has a reputation of being somewhat of a softy when it comes to "good" students. So, having missed the deadline for submission of an important paper, Tom goes to Dr. B with the story that he and his twin brother were in a serious car accident over the weekend. Tom explains that he didn't hand in the assignment because he has been at the hospital sitting at his brother's bedside in the intensive care unit where his brother is now on life support. Dr. B is of course very sympathetic and grants Tom an extension on the assignment. Later in the semester Tom once again finds himself behind the eight ball on an assignment...

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

The cause for concern is that Tom finds himself for the second time this semester behind the eight-ball in completing an assignment for his anthropology course.


2. Who or what may be affected?

Tom's course grade, GPA, and taking a long term view likelihood of acceptance to medical school could potentially be affected.


3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

If Tom does nothing, he will likely do poorly on the assignment and this could deleteriously affect his course grade and therefore lower his GPA which could hurt his chances of getting to medical school.

If Tom speaks to Dr. B and asks for help, Tom could receive an extension which would give him time to turn in a good paper and earn a good grade. Dr. B. might also be able to help Tom figure out how to manage his time better so Tom will not fall behind in the future.

If he lies to Dr. B which is what he did the first time, he could get more sympathy and another bailout but he could also get caught. In this case, he could get in serious trouble, fail the course and perhaps even be thrown out of college. So, depending on what he does the consequences could be severe.


4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

The unwritten rule "honesty is the best policy" applies here. Tom is more likely to receive the help he needs if he is honest with Dr. B. Dr. B may be able to help Tom better manage his limited time and he may be able to give Tom time to complete the assignment. Today many faculty include a policy on honesty in coursework in their course syllabi so if Tom lies again to Dr. B and gets caught in his lie, Tom could suffer severe consequences including failing the assignment and failing the course.


5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

Tom could tell Dr. B that he has fallen behind. If he does this Dr. B could either give him an extension, help Tom learn how to better manage his time, or he may not give Tom an extension.


6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Tom needs to find some way to better manage his time. Tom may not be able to see any options so it is important for him to discuss his problem with someone he trusts who can help him. Even if the person can't solve the problem, sometimes simply by discussing a problem out loud we are better able to identify possible solutions and even if solutions don't come to light immediately simply sharing a burden can provide needed perspective and lessen the intensity of our emotions. The person who can likely best help Tom with his immediate problem, the impending assignment, is Dr. B. However, Tom could also consult his parents, his academic advisor, a trusted teacher or a close friend.


Basis for Case Study 1
In 2000, tragically a Columbia University pre-med student committed suicide when his alleged dishonesty came to light. This case is based on a series of articles that appeared about the case in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2000:

J. Hardi. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. April 14. "Student Who Was Suspended for Fabricating Twin's Death Loses Suit Against Columbia U."

J. Hardi. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. April 25. "Columbia U. Is Shaken by Suicide of Student Suspended for Fabricating Brother's Death."

The Cost of Integrity

Dr. X, a distinguished structural engineer, received a phone call from an engineering student at a nearby college. The student expressed concern that Dr. X's famous skyscraper had a serious technical design flaw. At first, Dr. X dismissed the student's concerns outright but the conversation gets him thinking. Over the weekend, Dr. X sifts through his data and realizes the student is indeed correct - strong winds could cause this famous landmark to topple and in the process kill thousands of innocent people. Rectifying the problem would be no small task and would require notifying the building's owners, city officials, and the press and might negatively impact Dr. X's professional reputation.

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

The cause for concern is that the building Dr. X designed could potentially topple in strong winds.

2. Who or what may be affected?

The building's owners and occupants of whom there are thousands (large number).

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

The building occupants could be maimed or killed. The building's owners would be ruined. Dr. X's professional reputation and career would certainly be ruined and he could also face imprisonment and civil lawsuits.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Certainly if the building collapsed and people died, Dr. X would be guilty of many counts of murder. There are likely many laws and regulations that would also apply. Likely the code of ethics for Dr. X's profession holds its members responsible for ensuring public safety.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

Dr. X can go to the building owners and inform them of the problem and of what needs to be done in order to fix the skyscraper.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Certainly by informing the owners as soon as possible Dr. X will minimize the severity of the consequences. Dr. X should also carefully review his calculations to determine how/why he made the error in the first place. This will allow him to make sure that he doesn't make the same mistake again in the future.

Basis for Case Study 2

This case is based on the true life story of Dr. William LeMessurier, a famous structural engineer who consulted on the construction of the 59-story N.Y.C. CitiCorp Tower and was confronted with the possibility that he had made a serious error that had the potential to not only possibly bring down the tower but also irreversibly harm his professional reputation and career:


E. Karagianis. (1999) MIT Spectrum: 11, p. 3. "The Right Stuff. A Question of Ethics." http://web.mit.edu/giving/spectrum/winter99/stuff.html

"Borrowing" Without Permission

Lisa, a postdoctoral student in Prof. X's lab is told that she will not be re-appointed when her current 1-year contract expires. Lisa feels that Prof. X has the funds to support her but that he simply doesn't like her and that is why he is not reappointing her. Angry with Prof. X and determined to get back at him, Lisa decides that she will take her lab notebooks, some lab supplies, and several critical laboratory reagents when she leaves. Lisa is surprised a month later when armed policemen show up at her parents' home to arrest her...

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

Lisa has stolen laboratory notebooks, supplies, and reagents that are university property.

2. Who or what may be affected?

Lisa will certainly be affected by her own actions. By taking the notebooks, supplies, and reagents from the lab she has deprived Prof. X and the other members of her research group of access to the information in the notebooks and of the ability to use the reagents and supplies. The reagents and supplies Lisa took may present potential biological, chemical, radioactivity, and/or laser safety hazards. So, depending on where Lisa has stored these reagents and supplies they may present safety hazards to others in their vicinity as well.

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

Lisa's research advisor and the other members of her research group may be unable to continue their research projects and/or publish their work. Any individuals in the vicinity of the reagents and supplies including Lisa could be in danger due to the safety hazards represented by the stolen materials.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Yes, by removing the notebooks, reagents, and supplies which are not her property from the laboratory, Lisa has committed theft. Lisa has certainly also violated the creed of her profession which likely holds its members to high standards of integrity in all aspects of conduct.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

Certainly, it looks like Lisa is going to be arrested. If it were in doubt, Lisa will certainly not be reappointed and she may be fired as versus simply not being reappointed. If the work is funded by NIH, she could be censured by the NIH. Likely her career as a scientist will be over. Depending on the circumstances, she may be imprisoned or face fines. If anyone is injured due to their exposure to the reagents, Lisa could face very serious charges, prison, and civil lawsuit.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Lisa's actions were rash. Lisa would have been wise to stop and consider the consequences of the actions she intended to take. When you are angry or tired or frustrated, confiding your concerns with trusted individuals is therapeutic and wise. Often others see things that we ourselves simply can't see in the heat of the moment. Sometimes simply the act of saying our concerns out loud to another human being gives us much needed perspective on the situation. At this point, there may be little that Lisa can do to mitigate the damage but certainly admitting that what she did was wrong, expressing a sincere willingness to do anything she could to rectify things, and facing the consequences of her actions would be good first steps in minimizing the severity of the consequences she will no doubt face.

Basis for Case Study 3

This case is based on two incidents and a series of articles that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002 and 2006 describing several incidents in which students allegedly removed research materials from the academic laboratories in which they worked and the consequences of their actions on all involved:


C.E. Shoichet. (2002) Chronicle of Higher Education, July 31. "Former Research Assistant at Cornell U. Accused of Stealing Biological Materials to Take to China."
http://chronicle.com/prm/daily/2002/07/2002073102n.htm

A.M. Borrego. (2002) Chronicle of Higher Education. June 20. "2 Scientists Who Worked in Harvard Professor's Lab Are Accused of Stealing Secrets."
http://chronicle.com/daily/2002/06/2002062005n.htm

A.K. Walters. (2006) Chronicle of Higher Education. April 17. "2 Scientists Admit They Stole Research Material from Harvard Lab."

It's All About Sharing...

Xian, a summer undergraduate research student at Big University, was flattered when a graduate student, Pingwei, at another university emailed him inquiring about his research. Since Xian had just finished writing a progress report for his research advisor, Xian sent it as an attachment to his email reply to Pingwei. Throughout the summer, Pingwei emails Xian several times asking very specific questions about Xian's work. Xian happily answers every question. The following spring Xian is surprised to see Pingwei's name on the by-line of a technical article in a leading scientific journal. Xian is even more surprised when he reads the article and sees text, figures and tables that were clearly taken word-for-word from Xian's summer progress report.

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

Xian's concern is the apparent theft of his research by Pingwei as evidenced in the published paper..

2. Who or what may be affected?

Certainly Xian, Pingwei, Pingwei's advisor, Xian's advisor and possibly the other members of Xian's former laboratory may be affected by the publication of Xian's work. Depending on the source of the funding for Xian's project the funder may also be affected by the publication of the research.

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

Since Pingwei has published work that is not his own, Pingwei's academic progress and career prospects will likely be negatively impacted if his crime becomes known. The reputation of Pingwei's research advisor may also be harmed since this took place while Pingwei was a graduate student in his group. Xian's advisor will likely not be able to publish Xian's work since it has already been published. If Xian was collaborating with other students in the laboratory then the theft of the research will likely also negatively impact their ability to publish as well.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Certainly Pingwei has violated the creed of his profession - integrity is a core element of most creeds. He has also certainly violated the ethical standards for his academic program.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

If Pingwei's misappropriation of the research became public, the paper would likely be retracted by his research advisor and Pingwei would likely be dismissed from his graduate program.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

In hindsight, Xian could have forwarded Pingwei's original email of inquiry to Xian's research advisor and he could have spoken with his research advisor and asked him what if any information he could share with Pingwei. It would also have been a good idea to copy or blind copy all correspondence to his research advisor so his advisor would know what exactly Pingwei was requesting and what information Xian had shared. As a general rule, you should not disclose any information about your research without your advisor's prior permission. If the research is proprietary this can be a critical point.
At this point, Xian should go to his former advisor and give him all the emails that he sent to Pingwei so his advisor can decide what the best course of action is. Should Xian call or email Pingwei? Probably not a good idea. It is not likely that Pingwei is going confess and there is nothing that Xian is likely to say that is going to get Pingwei to confess.
What about Pingwei? At this point there is likely little that Pingwei can do to minimize the severity of the consequences of his actions. Certainly, going to his advisor and telling him what he has done, formally apologizing to Xian and his advisor, and accepting the consequences of his actions with good grace would represent steps in the right direction.

Basis for Case Study 4
It isn't always students who are naive about sharing their information. Recently in a first-person account detailed in the Chronicle of Higher Education a young assistant professor detailed the unexpected results of sharing her dissertation with a graduate student from another university who was doing related work on the same topic:

Copy and Paste...

Late in the afternoon, Lisa finally had a chance to Google for information on "problem-based learning" for her course assignment due the next morning. Though she was tired, she couldn't help but wonder when she noticed the same article appearing on the first two websites was almost identical word-for-word. Both websites were for education courses being taught by two different faculty at two different academic institutions located in different states. Curious, she emailed the authors of both papers concerning her observation and printed out a copy of both pages to bring with her to class the next morning.

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

The cause for concern is that Lisa believes she has discovered a case of plagiarism involving a webpage for a course.

2. Who or what may be affected?

The professor whose work has been plagiarized has been affected and of course, the alleged plagiarist. The college or university where the plagiarist is employed may also be affected by the alleged plagiarist's actions.

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

It is difficult to gauge the significance of the alleged plagiarism. Certainly, the alleged victim has not received credit for his/her work. The college or university where the alleged plagiarist is employed may receive negative press and their reputation may be negatively impacted as a result of the plagiarist's actions.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Yes, any printed material that you post on a webpage is automatically protected by U.S. copyright.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

Certainly universities and colleges take plagiarism and other acts of professional misconduct by faculty very seriously. Depending on the rank and tenure-status of the alleged plagiarist, he/she might be censured or could even be fired if it indeed turns out that he/she plagiarized the webpage.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Aside from education, it appears that there is little that can be done to prevent plagiarism. Certainly by the time one becomes a degreed professional, you are expected to know what plagiarism is. It is for this reason that the consequences of plagiarism are so severe.

Basis for Case Study 5
There are many examples of alleged plagiarism. Harvard undergraduate author, Ms. Kaavya Viswanathan was accused of plagiarism and copyright infringement. The resulting publicity uncovered multiple offenses and ultimately led to the withdrawal of her first novel from the market by her publisher, Little Brown & Company.

Zhou, David. (2006) Harvard Crimson. April 23. "Student's Novel Faces Plagiarism Controversy." http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=512948

Students aren't the only ones who commit plagiarism. In 2000 a college student doing research on the internet discovered marked similarities between speeches given by two college presidents, one speech having been delivered more than ten years earlier. The alleged plagiarist ultimately acknowledged the close similarities between the speeches but argued that someone else had prepared his speech for him. Interestingly, the same individual came under fire subsequently for alleged plagiarism.


J. Basinger. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. May 19. "The Similarities of 2 Presidents' Papers." http://chronicle.com/weekly/v46/i37/37a05001.htm

Honesty's Always the Best Policy

Raj knew he was smart. His classmates always turned to him for help on assignments and he always knew the answers to the questions his teachers asked in class. Raj just didn't study for tests so his grades were often mediocre. He knew he could do better in school, it was just that school was so... well, boring.
School was coming to an end for the year and Raj needed to get a good job this summer, after all this was the end of his junior year. He desperately wanted to work at the famous Research Institute. Raj felt that if he got a job there as a summer intern, it would really boost his chances of getting admitted to the graduate engineering program of his choice. He knew the institute hired very few summer interns and generally these were students from private schools who had excellent academic records and high standardized test scores. So, Raj decided to "tweak" his resume. He rounded his GPA up from 3.0 to a more respectable 3.5 and listed his SAT scores as 700 verbal and 820 math (in reality they were 600 verbal and 720 math). Raj reasoned that these changes really didn't matter because he would show them who he really was through the quality of the work he did for the Institute once he was hired...

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

The cause for concern is Raj's dishonesty in misrepresenting his academic record and accomplishments on his resume.

2. Who or what may be affected?

Raj is likely to be affected. If Raj is hired instead of someone else, he has affected that person as well.

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

Raj could be hired and his personal misrepresentation might never be discovered or it could be uncovered in which case Raj would likely be terminated. If Raj is hired and another deserving candidate is turned away that person will likely be deprived of the opportunity to work at the Institute.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Yes, when you complete an application for most jobs you sign a form stating that everything you have said is true so if Raj does this he will be violating hiring law. He is also certainly violating the code of ethics for his profession as in most codes integrity is a core principle.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

If Raj's dishonesty is uncovered, he would likely be fired and his actions might be reported back to his college/university.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Yes, Raj should think through the consequences of misrepresenting himself and discuss his situation with a trusted friend or advisor before he makes a terrible mistake. While Raj's GPA may not be high enough, certainly he should be able to obtain a summer internship. By sharing his concerns with a trusted friend or advisor, Raj may be able to identify unique skills and strengths that he can showcase, without embellishment, on his resume. Since Raj is a college student there is no value in reporting his SAT scores, which are not all that bad and certainly do not need to be inflated.

Basis for Case Study 6
In spring of 2007, Marilee Jones, the MIT Director of Undergraduate Admissions, was forced to resign after it came to light that she misrepresented her own educational history - claiming to have earned degrees from several well known universities at the start of her career in an effort to boost what she felt was an inadequate resume and get the job.


E. Hoover and S. Millman. (2007) Chronicle of Higher Education. May 11. "Shocking Admission. A Popular Dean at MIT Lied About Her Credentials, But Her Message Resonated With Many Supporters." http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i36/36a04501.htm

There have actually been quite a few similar incidents. Another one you might also have heard about was the highly publicized case of Dr. Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize winning history professor at Mt. Holyoke College (eventually fired) who for years misrepresented himself to students as a Vietnam veteran in a course he taught on the Vietnam war.


A. M. Cox. (2001) Chronicle of Higher Education. June 29. "Noted Historian Misled Students That He Was Vietnam Veteran." http://chronicle.com/weekly/v47/i42/42a01301.htm

Sometimes Silence is Golden

Tom was working with supervision provided by a graduate student Mr. Li on a proprietary summer research project in Professor Zhou's lab which enjoyed private financial support. The project which was nearing completion was an exciting one on a currently hot topic in nanoscience and the results were so exciting that the university and the company had jointly filed for an international patent. As the project involved significant intellectual property everyone working on the project including Tom had been required to sign a confidentiality agreement at the outset. One day Tom overheard Mr. Li discussing the research project with a friend who is a graduate student from another research group in the department at the university.

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

The source of concern is that Tom believes that Mr. Li, another member of his group may have violated the confidentiality agreement.

2. Who or what may be affected?

Since the project is a team-based project, Prof. Zhou and the whole team may be negatively affected by Mr. Li's violation.

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

It is really difficult to know what the significance is at this point. The seriousness of the situation will depend on 1) what Mr. Li discussed with his friend; 2) how many times he discussed the project with his friend; 3) whether or not Mr. Li has discussed the project with any other people, and; 4) how much information he shared with them about the project.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Since everyone signed a confidentiality agreement, which is a legally binding contract, there are laws that will apply here. Breaking them opens the university up to legal prosecution by the funder, should they choose to take legal action.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

It is difficult to know what actions might be taken at this point and what the consequences might be.
Likely if Prof. Zhou determined that there was a significant breach of contract, he would have to inform the university and the company. Professor Zhou could lose his research funding for the project and the company could sue the university for breach of contract. Mr. Li could lose his graduate assistantship and he could be terminated from the graduate program depending on what information and how much information he has shared with others about the project.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Certainly Tom should go to his advisor and tell him of his concerns. Tom may be reluctant to do so for fear that his advisor and/or team mates may question Tom's loyalty. He could be labeled a "whistle blower" by his teammates.
When working on proprietary projects, it is much safer and easier simply to refrain from telling anyone anything about the project instead of trying to decide what if any information you can safely share about it. If you are uncomfortable not being able to discuss your work then do not work on proprietary projects.

Basis for Case Study 7
The basis for this case study is a patent dispute between a former faculty member at the University of Connecticut and a private company, Sequoia Sciences, Inc. with whom the professor had a confidentiality agreement. When the company refused to share inventorship of a potentially valuable patent with the professor, the professor allegedly violated a signed confidentiality agreement disclosing the name of the compound on which he had been working in a footnote to a paper he presented at an international conference.


K.S. Mangan. (2006). Chronicle of Higher Education. January 27. "Professor Sued for Revealing Data." http://chronicle.com/weekly/v52/i21/21a02901.htm

It's All the Same...

Lisa was puzzled by the image of the gel featured in the research article in the current issue of Cell that she was reading. The bands in the two critical lanes on the gel that established the success of the pulse-chase experiment seemed virtually identical. Increasing the magnification of the image Lisa could see that the two lanes were indeed the same down to the size, shape, and tailing of each and every band. Increasing the magnification still further showed discontinuities in the background on one lane suggesting the image of that lane had been digitally copied and pasted onto the gel image. Confused she wasn't sure exactly what to think. She was a summer undergraduate research student and admittedly a novice in this field of research. Lisa reasoned that the article had been peer-reviewed and was published in one of the top journals in the field so it didn't seem possible that the data could have been fabricated or manipulated in any way. She was concerned that if she showed the article and shared her concerns with her research mentor that her research mentor might either think she was incredibly stupid or incredibly narcissistic.

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

Lisa thinks that she has found an instance of scientific misconduct, specifically, fabrication or falsification of data in a published technical article.

2. Who or what may be affected?

All the authors on the paper since they are responsible for the integrity of the publications bearing their names will certainly be affected. Other members of the research laboratories in which the research was done may also be affected. Finally anyone in the field who is depending on the authenticity of the work on which to base their own scientific inquiries or findings is likely to be affected.

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

Since all authors are responsible for the quality of their published work, the authors' professional reputation may suffer. The quality of their other publications may also be questioned. Remember the old adage "guilt by association"? Well, as unfair as it may seem the integrity of the work of other members of the laboratories involved in the fraudulent research may also be questioned. If the study turns out to be fraudulent, then advancements in the field might be delayed until researchers discover the fraud. This would cost those researchers unnecessary time, money, and effort.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Universities usually investigate alleged instances of scientific misconduct very carefully. In general, the university will identify an inquiry team consisting of senior researchers who have no past or current research ties with the principal investigator to investigate the alleged misconduct. The team will interview all of the individuals involved in the incident, review all of the written records including laboratory notebooks, reports and publications, and prepare a written report summarizing their findings within a finite time period. If the research was funded by the U.S. Government, then The Office of the Inspector General might investigate.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

Consequences would likely be quite severe and could include censure, loss of professional credibility, loss of research funding, termination of employment, fines, and even imprisonment.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

This is certainly the so-called "million dollar question." Can a principal investigator detect and pre-empt a skillful individual determined to perpetrate scientific fraud? Certainly, a principal investigator can go a long way toward preventing problems by providing hands-on training, encouraging good science, and maintaining a healthy, open, positive spirit of inquiry in the laboratory and by insisting that work be replicated independently in the lab before publication. One thing is clear fraud does happen even in the laboratories of the most highly respected scientists.

Basis for Case Study 8

In this case, a postdoctoral student allegedly "edited" a series of gel images in an article submitted for publication. A spot check by a journal editor caught the image manipulation and ultimately led to the discovery that the young scientist had done this on three other publications as well. The student lost her job but more importantly because the research impacted had been support by funding from the National Institutes of Health, the major source of financial support for biomedical research, the postdoctoral student was censured and prohibited from receiving NIH support for 5 years.


J.R. Young. (2008) Chronicle of Higher Education, May 29. "Journals Find Fakery in Many Images Submitted to Support Research." http://chronicle.com/free/2008/05/3028n.htm