Lets say a member of a lab has an entirely theoretical idea like "wouldn't it be nice if we wrote software that does X?" The member did give a talk showing how such code would work if implemented. Due to general skepticism about the idea, nothing ever comes of it.

The member never actually writes any of the software while in the lab.

After leaving the lab, the member uses publicly available data and implements the software, as well as developing the mathematical theory.

Is the member required to acknowledge his former lab in authorship? Is this a breach of ethics?

What if the former lab member had previously agreed to letting the PI use his idea in a grant proposal, but the PI then forced him out of the lab and thus out of the grant proposal.

1. Can the former lab member write up his work for publication? 2. Does he have to make the PI a co-author if he does?

Extra Information:

The idea was documented as a presentation to the lab. A small simulation with fake data was used to argue this could work. There was some discussion of how it would work when the grant was written, completely the member just saying to others how this idea worked and so the idea was written up in the grant. The PI does not have any training in this area. However, there are plenty of emails where the PI refers to this as the former lab members idea etc. I feel certain everybody in the lab would acknowledge this was the former lab member's idea.

The former lab member didn't actually write any of the grant as the PI claimed to want to collaborate with someone with greater mathematical expertise. So the collaborator wrote the grant, with occasional emails to ask the former lab member questions.

  • Was the idea ever documented in some way while the member was with the lab? Or was it only verbally communicated?
    – Nobody
    Nov 7, 2013 at 6:02
  • This is two separate questions.
    – JeffE
    Nov 7, 2013 at 12:58
  • 2
    "What if the former lab member had previously agreed to letting the PI use his idea in a grant proposal, but the PI then forced him out of the lab and thus out of the grant proposal." This is entirely too specific to your situation. I recommend removing this so the question is more applicable to the general public. Something this unique should be handled by your university.
    – eykanal
    Nov 7, 2013 at 13:56

2 Answers 2


As far as I can see "member" has developed everything from idea to finished product. There is very little sign of anyone else being involved other than possibly as a discussion partner at the lab. To allow someone to use the idea still does not take away the intellectual property held by the member unless there has been important feedback from someone. So I would not hesitate to try to move forward towards publication with the idea. I simply cannot see any ethical issues based on the details you have given.

Having given the green light, there will always be the issue of personalities. You allude to some level of conflict in terms of the move by the member. It is not inconceivable that the PI may have a different view and this view may not even be anchored in reality. So even if you do everything by the book and have all rights, that does not preclude the PI from doing all the things you express, it really depends on the PI's personality.

In the end member should think through if anyone has contributed to the work to the degree that merits co-authorship. Member can, for example, use the the post What are the minimum contributions required for co-authorship to set the authorship in perspective.

  • There is the possibility that rapid publication of this idea will scoop any papers coming from the grant (or the PI will probably see it that way).
    – Henry B.
    Nov 7, 2013 at 12:51
  • The personality issue is one that will always be present but as you stated, the idea was rejected at first so if it scoop other papers, it seems a gross oversight by the PI. I do not see any simple solutions. Talking to the "enemy" or not doing sounds like "damned if you do, damned if you don't". It seems any advise would fall because I do not know the people involved and cannot in any way judge possible outcomes. So, intellectual property is what it comes down to. Nov 7, 2013 at 13:36

There are actually at least three(3) persons involved: the member, the collaborator and the PI.

There are two parts in the work: the software and the mathematical theory.

Based on the information described in the question, the member definitely owns the software because the original idea was his and he implemented it.

The real question is, who is responsible for developing the mathematical theory? Based on the info, So the collaborator wrote the grant, with occasional emails to ask the former lab member questions., I think the collaborator plays a role. But, how much is his contribution? Anyone else contributes to the development of the theory?

There is another question, did the lab ever receive the grant? Grant proposal and the grant itself are completely two different things. Did the lab ever start to work on the grant (not the proposal)?

In my opinion, the ideal solution is for the collaborator to write the paper if he is the one who develops the mathematical theory. The member will be the co-author. Whether or not the PI is another co-author depends on how much his contribution is.

If the member develops the whole thing including the theory without much help from the collaborator and/or the PI, then the member should be the main author. Who should be the co-authors depends on the invidual contribution.

The above is my opinion based on the limited information I know.

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