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Case study: data ownership issue

This situational case study is designed to aid researchers to reflect on situations that would pose challenges to research integrity and ethics.

Youssef’s research department has an ongoing collaborative project with a department at an institution in another country. Meilin, a postgraduate student from the other institution, visits Youssef’s department to carry out some new studies for the collaborative project, and they work together on these for a number of weeks. They produce some nice results, and both of them plan to include them in their PhD theses.

Six months after Meilin has returned to her institution, Youssef comes across a paper by Meilin and her supervisor in a journal, and included are the results they produced together. The scale of Youssef’s contribution would definitely warrant inclusion as an author, but his name isn’t included anywhere in the paper, neither as an author nor in the acknowledgements.

Youssef is concerned on a number of fronts: there is no recognition of his contribution to the work, which may jeopardise his chances of including it in his PhD thesis; there is no recognition of the funding source for the collaborative project at his institution, which may have implications for continued funding; and he won’t be able to publish the results anywhere else, because they’ve already been published.

On reading the paper closely, Youssef notices something even more alarming – data has been included that was produced in his department on another project by a post-doctoral fellow. He knows that the visiting postgraduate student was not involved in this project in any way, but she did attend some departmental seminars where the work was presented and discussed. This has potentially serious implications for this project and the post-doctoral fellow’s publication prospects.

Questions for discussion

  1. Are the concerns Youssef has about the publication of results warranted? What should Youssef do?
  2. What factors do you think might have led to what has happened?
  3. What are the benefits of collaborative research projects, and what are the potential problems? How can problems be avoided, or the risk of them occurring be minimised?
  4. What do you think about the inclusion of the post-doctoral fellow’s data in the paper, i.e. using someone else’s data without apparent permission? How might this have arisen? How should this situation be handled?

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