Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The ethics of witnessing a scoop?

This one is actually an ethical dilemma that's been bugging me.

One of the professors in our department, Dr. TallGuy, has been working with a summer student (REU-esque, though not an REU in this case) on a project that she presented this morning - in the interest of euphemisms, let's call it measuring how cold rivers are in different states. It's interesting, it's neat, I liked her presentation, she's done good work.

But. My adviser, Dr. Awesome, at a different department, is ALSO working with a summer student. And unless my memory deceives me, she is ALSO working on how cold rivers are in different states. She's checking out the silt content of the river, and our department's student is measuring the current of the river, but they're mainly both measuring temperature, which is what a lot of people who wants to go swimming in a river care about.

In short, I'm watching a scooping in action, and I don't know who's about to scoop who.

I want to write to Dr. Awesome and ask him a few scientifically curious questions about Dr. TallGuy's students work, since I'm kinda interested in this stuff and it's similar to work I do. But I have a feeling that by doing this I am basically saying "DR. TALLGUY IS ABOUT TO SCOOP YOU." This really isn't my intent - but at the same time, I feel like I should let him know. I don't have any similar sentiments towards Dr. TallGuy - I'm not going to go to him and say "Dr. Awesome at Other-Department is working with a student on this stuff too!" So I guess my loyalties lie with Dr. Awesome. What should I do? Could it possibly get out if I tip off Dr. Awesome and he winds up scooping Dr. TallGuy? Conversely, if Dr. TallGuy publishes first then Dr. Awesome could easily guess that I knew what he was doing and might wonder why I didn't warn him. Plus, there's two undergrads involved here - they both deserve some papers.

I think the way to go might be to stride ahead with the email to Dr. Awesome, asking the questions that I have and thus revealing what Dr. TallGuy is working on. He and Dr. TallGuy get along and could exchange emails on the topic. They could probably figure out a way for the research to not overlap too terribly. And hopefully Dr. Awesome will answer my questions and say something like "Hey, that's kinda like what me and my new student are doing, but not exactly. I'll refer her to Dr. TallGuy for some advising." One can hope.

Still - I feel like I'm sitting on some sensitive information here. Is there a good way to deal with a situation like this? It's times like these when I am made very aware of the fact that I'm a little kid that's just gotten into the big kid's game - eventually I'll be equipped for dilemmas like these, but for now I have a lot to learn.


flyingwalrus said...

I think it's up to the two parties concerned... If it was your research, that would be different - but in this case, I think tipping one party off would basically be non-kosher. Put yourself in their shoes and then see what you think.

Addy N. said...

Are you sure that the two profs are unaware of what the other is doing? Are there some subtle differences that really make the two studies different? Could the studies be seen as "converging lines of evidence" rather than competing with each other? It's hard to advise without having personal knowledge, but I tend to agree with Flying Walrus, that it's best to stay out of it, since it's not your own research. Good luck!

Twice said...

What did you decide to do?

btw, You've been tagged.