Everyday Situation: Anything But Ordinary


This situation exemplifies many of the quandaries involved in modern research. How can the interaction between these two research labs be made to benefit both? Unfortunately, no clear-cut answers exist for such situations. As in this case, they can start off in an antagonistic manner: Jones feels slighted by the initial lack of response by Montgomery, whereas Montgomery appears threatened by Jones? potential take-over of his "territory." Furthermore, Montgomery has the future of his student, Peter Smith, to consider. Pitting a lone grad student against the production potential of a large lab such as Jones?s would be an exercise in futility.

As a new investigator in the field, Montgomery is in a position to benefit the most from collaborating with the Jones lab; however, he also stands to lose the most if the collaboration fails to be productive. How can he be sure that such a venture would be in his (and Smith?s) best interests? Montgomery has a responsibility to his funding agency to research the subject matter in his funding proposal, produce results, and have those results published. He already has accumulated a large data set, yet apparently it is not in publishable form. Collaboration with Jones would provide an avenue for quick publication of his data, with the added bonus of having a well-established name attached to it. This association is often necessary for a new investigator trying to break into a particular area of research. It would also give Montgomery access to potential postdocs for his lab--the whole reason this situation came about in the first place. Large, productive labs such as Jones?s invariably attract many more postdocs than they can actually hire. Montgomery?s association with the Jones lab would create a natural segue for postdocs that could not be hired by Jones.

It seems obvious that while Jones made the initial connection of using Montgomery and Smith's drug administration to treat cancer, she could not have done so without first knowing about their results. She should be willing to give credit where credit is due. As the main providers of the data needed to make the Jones paper publishable, Montgomery and Smith should expect to be made co-authors. (While the question of authorship is not directly addressed here, a much more thorough investigation can be found at www.councilscienceeditors.org/services_ATF.shtml).

Montgomery also has a responsibility as a mentor. While a publication will help Smith start his career, his ability to work alone or in collaboration, and the feasibility of that within the scope of his dissertation, must be considered. If Montgomery decides that a joint venture would be fortuitous, then in his discussions with Jones he must be very clear about what areas of research Smith will be pursuing as part of his dissertation. Jones, for her part, must be willing to concede those areas to Smith, realizing that by stimulating the growth of a budding scientist, she also will be helping the advancement of future research.

It is quite possible that cancer research falls outside the scope of Smith?s interests. If such is the case, does Montgomery have an ethical responsibility to share his data? Some would argue that he should not--that as a new investigator he should keep the data as a way of securing an area of potential research for his lab, or that he has no obligation to share the data because it has not yet been published. However, others would point out his moral obligation to provide a potential treatment of cancer or AIDS. Being stingy with his data could cost lives. As the curator of data implicating a drug class as an inactivator of a key protein in both AIDS and cancer, Montgomery should be willing to share his results with other scientists. However, to fulfill his obligations to his funding agency and university, he must be sure that his lab is given due recognition for the contribution. Indeed, it is not uncommon for such exchanges of data to have strings attached.

But what if those "strings" are cut? How can Montgomery be assured that those he shares his data with will honor their commitments? This is one of the areas where he stands to lose the most: He has nothing to fall back on without his large data set. There is evidence that he should be skeptical, especially if there are commercial interests involved. The federal Office of Research Integrity handles allegations of scientific misconduct, but has no real teeth. The very existence of this office indicates that there is a degree of dishonesty in the research community: a community that is supposedly devoted to finding "truth" and receives a significant amount of trust from the general public. In a potential collaboration between labs, the issue of trust is immense. Unfortunately, one usually cannot tell going in how trustworthy the collaborator will be. The lack of a "Better Business Bureau" of science means that unless he is very careful about how and whom he shares his data with, Montgomery could be left in the cold room of career advancement.

Situations like this are faced daily by researchers, yet their very nature makes them anything but ordinary. There is no set of rules that can guarantee success. There is definite potential for collaboration among Montgomery, Smith, and Jones; however, getting carried away on a wave of enthusiasm may be just a precursor to a long walk back on dry land.

David Gillespie is a third-year postdoc at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Readers can contact David at david.gillespie@hci.utah.edu .

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