Shades of Gray


Nothing is black and white for any of the individuals in this multifaceted situation. As scientists, we would probably all like to argue that our goal is to have a positive impact on human health and well-being. So, when there is a conflict between what might have the most positive impact on human welfare and what might contribute to our career goals, how can that conflict be resolved?

Here?s how the conflict is presented in the case study: Jones, the established PI, has both the resources and the knowledge to have the most immediate impact on human health, possibly by curing both AIDS and cancer. On the other hand, Montgomery, the new PI, and his student have put in the effort to push the investigation to the point where it can be useful in treating these diseases. However, Montgomery needs to use this information to establish his career and that of his graduate student Smith. Although these findings would clearly have a positive impact on Jones?s career, these advances are not essential for her to establish her position in the field.

As the scenario is written, Montgomery is clearly in the driver?s seat. He has something that Jones wants, so he is in the position to handle the situation as he sees fit. If he opts not to share the reagents and data, I feel that this is his right since the information has only been presented at a scientific meeting. We do not live in an ideal world, however, and once information is disseminated at a conference, that knowledge is then out in the community. While we have physical control over reagents and large data sets, we simply cannot control information. Thus, Montgomery should contemplate his findings and see if they are ready for publication. The hope is that Montgomery and Smith have a plan to publish their work in the foreseeable future, and they should shift this plan into high gear, especially because Jones?s postdoc is working on this and may soon be able to replicate some of Montgomery?s and Smith?s results.

However, the hope would be that Jones would understand Montgomery?s position and would perhaps offer a few suggestions for working out a mutually beneficial outcome. For example, Jones could encourage Montgomery to publish quickly so that the information and reagents would be in the public domain while ensuring that he and Smith still got the credit they deserved for the initial observations. Jones might even offer to collaborate with Montgomery, which would probably be the most productive approach to getting the science done.

Obviously, if a collaboration were to ensue, it would be essential to define the contributions of the different individuals. The situation also has the potential to be more complicated than a standard collaboration because of patent and money issues that could arise if these drugs were indeed found to be clinically useful. As an alternative to collaboration, Jones might be able to use her influence to expedite publication of Montgomery?s work. Perhaps she serves on an editorial board or can communicate his work. This would allow Montgomery and Smith to get the credit for their findings by publishing first but would speed the release of the information and reagents into the public domain, where they would be available to all researchers in the field.

But Montgomery will not be aware of these advantages of interacting with Jones if he does not communicate with her. In the case study, a breakdown in communication is making a sticky situation even worse. By ignoring Jones?s request for the data and antibody, Montgomery is making a major mistake, in my opinion. Montgomery should respond, and should have done so from the start, regardless of the position he takes. He should pick up the phone and discuss the issue with Jones.

On the other hand, Jones should make additional efforts to contact Montgomery. Ideally, instead of demanding the reagent and data, she should simply discuss the information on the poster in a nonthreatening manner. She should make it clear that, despite the disparity in their positions, she realizes that Montgomery is in the decision-making position in this situation. I do not think she has the right to demand either the data set or the antibody if they were only presented at the meeting. But she certainly has the right to point out to Montgomery the potential advantages of sharing the reagent or collaborating, as well as the disadvantages if he chooses not to cooperate.

Smith, the student, should work together with Montgomery, his PI, to determine whether their current information is ready for publication. Smith?s goal is to assure his own position as first author on a publication. In his case, it is not so important who is a co-author as long as his name is listed first. So he should do his best to determine whether his data tell a story. He could generate an outline and then present it to Montgomery, or ideally they could work together.

Finally, there are situations where it may be legitimate to apply pressure to non-cooperative individuals in the scientific community. In this particular case, my opinion is that presentation at a scientific meeting does not mean that reagents and data must be made available. However, many individuals are unwilling to readily share reagents that have been officially entered into the public domain by publication. It may be appropriate, in that circumstance, to exert pressure on these individuals through either the journal in question or the chair of their department. I feel that it is never acceptable to contact another researcher?s funding agency except in the case of out-and-out fraud.

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