"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."

A.M. Borrego. (2002) Chronicle of Higher Education. June 20. "2 Scientists Who Worked in Harvard Professor's Lab Are Accused of Stealing Secrets."

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