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: