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It was recently shared with me that a professor in my department (and if anyone saw my question about the verbally abusive ex-advisor...yeah, same guy) offered one of his PhD students his own corpus of data for writing her dissertation, and apparently made this offer in response to her deciding to quit the PhD program. As I understand it, she accepted this offer and decided to stay in the PhD program because of it; I also believe that this corpus -while used in a number of publications - as a whole is not publicly available or anything.

Because I am admittedly biased (see the aforementioned question for context) against this professor, I don't entirely trust my judgement. Is it just me, or is this a ridiculously unethical offer?

Next question, if it is unethical, do I say anything about it to anyone? The person who told me did so in confidence, and I don't want to betray that. I'm hoping he reports it (he said he's thinking of talking to the graduate director in our department about it, as he thinks it's shady too) but if he doesn't - should I say something or just let it go? Because I already have a bad relationship with this professor and have complained about him, I feel like me complaining yet again about something else will just make me look bad and not be taken seriously, not to mention there is the whole matter of this not being any of my business.

My heart and soul are all riled up because I just want to see this professor be held accountable for something (I'm pretty sure he's going to get away with how he treated me. See linked post), but my self-interested brain is telling me to let it go and stay out of it. Thoughts?

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    Thanks for your comments. After sleeping on it, I think I'm going to just tell the guy who originally told me about this to either a) talk about with the appropriate faculty, and/or b) have an open and honest conversation with said student about the shade factor of going along with her advisor's offer. And I'm just going to step out of this. – Ace Apr 28 '18 at 15:48
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Let's deal with the ethics first. It is undoubtedly unethical if:

(1) The corpus was generated by other people who are not credited.

(2) The data used from the corpus was used for another dissertation or for publications not part of the dissertation. (Edit: It has been pointed out by @Dawn, @Fomite and @Stella that this is not applicable to several fields, eg. Economics & Public Policy. Possibly this point is relevant only if you are in an experimental field, so please judge if it's applicable to you.)

Anything outside this falls into a grey zone, which can be defended as:

(1) PhD is a joint work between the supervisor and student, so between them data may be freely shared.

(2) The student is able to answer questions based on data, meaning she has understood and engaged with it. If she credits it partly to superviser, it may again be accepted. Remember, there is no evidence of who actually generated the data between these two.

Now coming to what you can/should do- let somebody else take it up. Preferably the whistleblower who told you. Encourage that person. A complaint coming from you could be dismissed on grounds of prior bias.

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    In my field, (2) is not unethical. – Dawn Apr 28 '18 at 8:06
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    Yeah, (2) is not applicable to a wide variety of fields. – Fomite Apr 29 '18 at 0:38
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    I don’t understand why 2 would be unethical. I’m in mathematics and computer science, and to take the example of AI, people train AI algorithms on the same data all the time. In fact, using the same data as other people is encouraged because it allows you to make better and more meaningful comparisons between techniques. It is certainly the case that the production of data can be itself a research project, but as long as it’s properly cited I don’t see why it would be a problem. – Stella Biderman Apr 29 '18 at 2:40
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    (cont.) I see comments along the lines of “this evaluation of our methodology was done using data sets A and B, by Alice (2012) and Bob (2013) respectively,” in papers all the time. Sure, if you represented it as your own data collection that would be a problem, but you’ve listed that separately. What field do you work in, and why would it bother you to find out that someone is reusing data, but doing original analysis? – Stella Biderman Apr 29 '18 at 2:42
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    @user153812 the issue with your paper getting rejected or the fact that generating data takes effort has nothing to do with ethics. The journal probably simply felt your contribution wasn't substantial enough, and similarly the referees of a PhD dissertation might feel a student hasn't done enough independent work to deserve a PhD. Nonetheless, if the student acknowledges the source of their data in the dissertation, they (and the advisor who gave them permission to use his data) have not done anything unethical, regardless of the separate question about the quality of the work. – Dan Romik Apr 29 '18 at 7:52
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Unless the student claims that they collects the data himself/herself. I do not see any scientific misconduct in using other people's data with their permission.

Of course collecting good data is a contribution. However, even if the student collects data themselves, I would be very surprised if that is more than 30% of the contribution in their thesis.

TL;DR: No big deal. That might be a bad professor, but it doesn't mean everything he does is wrong.

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    "Of course collecting good data is a contribution. " - very true. Excessive emphasis on data collection often means the analysis is inadequate or uninspiring. – user153812 Apr 28 '18 at 7:14
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Whether it’s unethical or not would depend on whether the student acknowledges where the data comes from in her dissertation. If she does, and assuming her thesis committee is okay with it and considers her own contribution (there will be other aspects to it aside from the data collection, I assume?) to be sufficient for a PhD, I don’t see an ethical problem. And since you can’t know at this point whether the student will acknowledge the source of the data, it seems premature to throw around accusations of unethical behavior.

If you do have stronger grounds to suspect anything shady or unethical going on, there is the option of making an anonymous report to avoid getting entangled in the affair. However, even with an anonymous report there are risks.

Finally, I must say that from reading your question I’m getting the sense that you may be driven by feelings of vindictiveness related to your own ongoing conflict with the professor (you pretty much suggest this yourself when you say “I just want to see this professor be held accountable for something”). Needless to say, such feelings would be a really bad reason to take any action on unrelated matters. If you are considering taking such action, I would urge you to be very careful and apply a lot of doubt and skepticism to your own thought processes (including consulting other people, as you are doing now) to make sure your decisions are free of such dishonorable motivations. If the professor mistreated you, that’s bad and you should do your best to get him held to account in connection with that, but I don’t see how it has any bearing on his offer to his student to use his data.

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A dissertation is not the collection of data. And the collection of data is not a dissertation.

My entire PhD was rooted in the analysis of other people's data, and I collected none of my own (a model generated some, but this is not generally what people mean).

Your question also implies that if I spend say, three years and potentially tens of thousands of dollars funding a student's project and they decide to drop out of a PhD for whatever reason, that the data from that is lost forever, and should never be used again.

So long as the student doesn't represent the data as something they collected themselves, I see very little ethical issues.

  • Thanks for backing it up with your personal experience. However the hypothetical case that you mention does not hold, because all IP generated during research work is joint property of the institute and the researcher, and typically registration letters have clauses specifying exactly what will happen in such situations. – user153812 Apr 29 '18 at 3:31
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    @user153812 That hypothetical case is what follows from the OPs assertion, not a hypothetical agreement regarding IP. Also note that the statement "all IP generated during research work is the joint property of the institute and the researcher..." is really overly broad and not universally correct. – Fomite Apr 29 '18 at 3:34
  • @Fomite- not disputing your statement, but I have frequently come across and signed such clauses. It appears logical to have everything covered in an agreement, to prevent conflict and misuse later. This may not be universal across fields/departments, I concede that. Nevertheless, it's good for OP to know all the different possibilities so that (s)he can choose what's most applicable. – user153812 Apr 29 '18 at 3:41
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    @user153812 I think it's misleading that you refer to scientific research data as "IP". IANAL, but I don't believe that scientific research data is a form of intellectual property in any meaningful legal sense (e.g., it doesn't fit any of the categories listed here). It's true that there are academic conventions that research data should not be used without permission from the people who generated the data, so I sort of understand what you meant, but still I feel that "intellectual property" is not an appropriate term to use here. – Dan Romik Apr 29 '18 at 8:04
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I don't see anything unethical about this offer in itself. There may be some field-specific norms I'm not aware of, but assuming he's not breaking any confidentiality/IP/etc. rules, sharing data with a student seems like a good thing that should happen more often.

However, it becomes a little more bothersome when taken in the context of your previous post. You mention that when this guy was your advisor, he exhibited controlling/bullying behaviour including sexual harassment, and punished you for setting boundaries.

Controlling types often use gifts/favours as a way to create a sense of obligation, and sometimes as leverage down the road. If he has the power to revoke permission for her to use the data, after she's invested a year or two of her life into analysing that, then obviously that's pretty powerful leverage.

If your contact does take it to the graduate advisor, it might be worth him suggesting that this data-sharing agreement should be formally documented, to ensure that it can't be used in this way. But I think you're right in saying that you are not the person to be raising this issue, for the reasons you've already identified.

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I can see several aspects to the question, and I can't see that reflected in the existing answers. Overall I'd say that the situation is fine. There are many ways there could be problems, but each is unlikely unless you have particular details pointing to them.

  • Is it ethical for the supervisor to make such an offer in response to the student's stated intention to leave? This probably depends on the way it came about and how it was done, but I'd err on the side of assuming it's fine. A plausible situation would be that the student doesn't get on with data collection, and the supervisor agrees to change the focus of the PhD from data collection to data analysis. That would be a very sensible approach.

  • Is it ethical for the supervisor to pass on the data? Again, probably yes, in the absence of other information. Sharing your own data is totally fine in general, unless there are specific restrictions on it. If the data is of a sensitive nature, there might be a need for permission to be sought, but it is entirely possible that such permission has been received.

  • Is it ethical for data to be shared privately but not publicly? Yes, unless there is a strong public-interest case, in which case the private sharing is irrelevant. The related case that would not be ethical is where someone in a business uses information for gain by themselves or a third person without permission to use that private information. But that is not the case here. Subject to what I said above, the supervisor is in control of the data and so has the authority to share it. Is it fair for them to do share the data with this student but not others? A student-supervisor relationship is a fairly close one that carries a duty on the part of the supervisor, so generally yes. Potentially there could be a problem if, say, there were two students in similar circumstances, and the data was shared with one and not the other. But that's getting into extreme cases.

  • Is it ethical for the student to use the data to gain a PhD? As others have said, this is an issue of plagiarism (or not). Pretending to have collected the data when they hadn't would be wrong, regardless of where they got it from. But so long as the source is suitable acknowledged, there is no problem (and indeed this is pretty common, since not everyone is an experimentalist).

  • Is it ethical to reuse data? Yes (and you indicate this has already happened). What it does do is limit the interpretation of any pattern you find. As I understand it, reusing data is not accepted in situations where the results are likely to be used in a way that is not a valid interpretation of reused data (eg deducing causation when all that's been shown is correlation, or cutting the data so many ways that something comes out by chance). Results of the form 'in this data set we found this pattern, which matched with what we thought' are perfectly good if stated as such, just less likely to get published when there are stronger claims around.

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