Dr. Dilemma

Clemson Students, Faculty, and Staff: Need advice on an ethical issue in your life?
Ask Dr. Dilemma. Select questions will be answered here monthly. Your anonymity will be respected.

The Dr. Dilemma forum provides a space where students can feel comfortable asking difficult questions about ethical issues that impact their lives. Much of our present ethics education comes from case studies that students will face in the future, but what about the issues that students face today? Students can anonymously ask Dr. Dilemma, a Clemson faculty member working in ethics, for advice on ethically-related issues. Questions and responses are posted monthly on the Rutland Institute website and social media pages.

Dear Dr. Dilemma-

"My friend has worked really diligently in a research lab for the past two semesters, gathering a lot of valuable data and synthesizing results. Recently, she found out that a fellow student in the research lab was using her data as the primary focus of a poster he was going to present, and he was getting the credit for it. She was not allowed to present this data herself. The PI supported all of this. What are your thoughts? Is it morally permissible to take credit for others' work, or does the science field provide a special exception, especially when it comes to undergraduates who don't have much pull anyway?"

Dear letter writer,

It is a little challenging to answer your letter without knowing more about the particular science field in which your friend is working, since the norms of what it means to present a poster or to do work in a lab differ quite a lot across fields.

In general, it is wrong to present another person’s work as your own, for all the reasons that it is wrong to lie. (For really interesting work on whether and why it is wrong to deceive others you might see articles like Sarah Buss, “Valuing Autonomy and Respecting Persons”) The question is whether the other people you mention are really holding others’ work out as their own. That depends on the relationship the other people you mention have to the project, and the norms in the field in question. For example, in some science fields and some social science fields, it is usual for a PI to be the first author on papers even if they don’t do a lot of the on-the ground work if they do the conceptual work and acquire the grant under which the work is done. Everybody knows this, so a person doing this would not necessarily be holding themselves out as having done the ground-level work, since all who encountered the project would believe they had not performed it. Sometimes the gathering of data is seen as a bit more of the grunt-work. People doing that are often thanked or included as secondary or tertiary authors on papers, but they are not seen as doing the work of designing or setting up the question that qualifies as the primary author of the material. Did the other student design the experiment or come up with the research question and the data-gathering method? What is his relationship to the project? What did the PI say in explaining why your friend was not allowed to present? If that is what is going on, the PI and the student may not be doing anything wrong, since they aren’t really holding themselves out as having done the work your friend has been doing.

However if, for example, your friend designed the experiment or did the heavy intellectual work and not just the on-the ground work of coding, or measuring petri-dishes or some-such, then what they are doing is very wrong. That is especially true if it is the norm in the field that gathering and synthesizing results is treated as giving one authorship. That your friend is an undergraduate should not in itself make a difference, though in practice it may mean the work she is assigned is not that which is treated as most significant in the field.

If your friend feels she was very wronged, she should ask older students in the field or other faculty members what the norms are. If she learns that the faculty member and student in question have acted against those norms, then they are actively deceiving others and wrongly taking her work. She would be justified in lodging a complaint.


Dr. Dilemma

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