23

I am posting this on behalf of my advisor.

A post-doc in my research group at US told that he'd be going home to meet his family who are in a different country, but after two months he emails that he is quitting. He has the laptop which my advisor paid for and important research data. He hasn't communicated in email that he will return the things he owes. Besides, he was playing tricks by procrastinating his return, even confirming his return tickets, only to finally resign.

What are the legal ways to get the resources as well as the monetary compensation made in his absence back, in case he doesn't respond?

(Note: The research data needs to be surrendered because it belongs to unpublished work from other groups, not because it wasn't backed up.)

11
  • 13
    Have you started with a police report? The items need to be reported as stolen to start with. Jul 30 '18 at 16:48
  • 9
    Just to be clear, the 'important research data' existed only on a laptop? No backups? No repository with version control? Dropping the laptop in the stairwell at your university would have had the same result.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 30 '18 at 16:52
  • 13
    So when you say "surrended", you actually mean "deleted"? I wouldn't worry too much about plagiarism. If he tries it on, a letter accusing him of such to the journal would be pretty lethal to his career. Jul 30 '18 at 17:18
  • 8
    What did this guy say when you asked him to return the stuff?
    – littleO
    Jul 31 '18 at 2:52
  • 18
    From the given information you seem to be making a lot of assumptions of bad faith - e.g. you're assuming he was "playing tricks" rather than deciding late, and that him not saying he was returning the laptop indicates he isn't planning to. Now, you may have more information than you're giving here, or other reasons to make these assumptions, but if not, please try a normal, polite, professional approach first!!!
    – Flyto
    Jul 31 '18 at 10:56
62

The issues you are describing of misappropriation of university equipment, research data and unearned salary, rise to a level of seriousness that a rank and file faculty member is not equipped to deal with and will not typically be expected to deal with. It is time to call in the cavalry — by which I mean, the matter should be referred (probably through your advisor’s department chair) to the university legal counsel or similar office. They will take appropriate steps, starting with sending the absconding postdoc a threatening letter, and ending with who knows what (in theory, a police report and/or civil lawsuit, although given the negligible economic value of the misappropriated items and the difficulty of proving outright theft, I’m guessing not much legal action will come of the whole business).

Of course, I’m hoping that the postdoc will listen to reason and return what he has wrongfully taken, but in any case, if your advisor hands the matter over to the university authorities, and cooperates with the resulting follow-up actions, then even if the items are not returned, your advisor will be in a good position to explain to their funding agency and collaborators that they tried in good faith to fix the problem, and the embarrassment and damage to their professional relationships will be kept to a (probably negligible) minimum.

Good luck!

3
  • 1
    While this may, indeed, be the correct answer, my fear, and experience, is that the legal department of the university may consider this (by their standards) such a small issue as to want to ignore it. That may differ if the institution is large enough to employ intellectual property lawyers specifically, of course. But I've seen quite serious issues left on the table with no action.
    – Buffy
    Jul 31 '18 at 12:58
  • 1
    @Buffy yes, they can choose to ignore it of course, and maybe that would be a rational decision on their part given what’s at stake. Anyway, I don’t see how the possibility that they’ll ignore it makes any difference to what I wrote.
    – Dan Romik
    Jul 31 '18 at 23:14
  • 2
    In particular, the university failing to take action does not fall upon your head but their's. You get to say "I took the matter to the appropriate authorities and they took control and made the decisions from there." Which in pretty much every situation is exactly what an employer/university wants you to do all the time. Aug 1 '18 at 4:16
7

Your advisor needs to talk to your department's administration and they need to talk to a lawyer.

However, since the person you want to take action against is in another country, you have no realistic hope of gaining a legal resolution (unless perhaps you and he are both in the EU). The cost of conducting and enforcing a legal action in another country is massively, massively higher than the value of the laptop and any salary he was paid.

As for the research data, you'll just have to keep an eye out to see if he does anything with it. He probably won't but, if he publishes anything using the data, you'll need to be able to demonstrate to the journal editor that he stole the data from you, that you should be co-authors or whatever would be appropriate.

6

It is difficult to apply the needed pressure at a distance. However, I assume that the data is more important to you than the laptop. You might try to make a deal with him that if he returns the data, complete, that you will let the matter drop. It might be just a bluff on your part or not, but it might be your best outcome.

Alternatively, if he becomes associated with another institution, you might be able to work through them (or threaten to) to apply the needed pressure for a resolution.

In the case that you don't actually need the data returned as you also have it, you should inform him, by some sort of registered (governmental) mail that any use of the data by him will be treated as improper and followed up on with "appropriate authority". What you want back is his assurance that he will make no use of it, so you might include an affidavit, to be signed and notarized, to that effect. Make everything as official as possible.

However, since he was a post-doc, presumably you have access to his former advisor and the institution he studied at. You can, carefully, contact them, avoiding anything that can be construed as slander. But you can also threaten to contact them. Unethical behavior in graduates, if known, is not welcomed.

And have a plan in the future for proper backups of important data that is "owned" by the project and not by individuals.

2
  • 1
    See the edited version of the question. The OP has copies of the data, so that isn't the issue. The problem of course is that there is simply way to verify that the post-doc has destroyed all of his copies of the data. Jul 30 '18 at 18:46
  • 2
    @BrianBorchers I hope my earlier edit addressed this. You don't need to assure it is destroyed, but that it isn't used in another publication. That can be done since such a publication would be public as would be the uproar it caused.
    – Buffy
    Jul 30 '18 at 18:53

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.