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."