30

I am working at a German university after I obtained my PhD. My professor asked me to write project proposals to get funding. One and a half years ago, I spent all my time during 6~8 months writing a DFG proposal that is supposed to be a joint effort between our university and another institution. No one contributed to the proposal except me. My professor used to give me some general feedback.

When we submitted the proposal, I wanted to submit it under my name but my professor convinced me that it would have higher chances under his name than mine and at the end, it did not change anything. I accepted, and the proposal was submitted under his name and the name of our partner and me as a co-applicant.

During the review process, my professor changed university and asked me to join him. However, due to private reasons, I couldn't join him. Now, the proposal has been accepted and I asked my former professor to keep the project in my university as my contract will end soon and because I wrote the entire proposal.

His answer was "No, I don't want to". I argued with him and he replied “it is normal to write a proposal for me when you are at the beginning of your postdoc”. In this situation, I am not getting any credit and the project will move with him and another person will be hired for it, where I might be unemployed.

Is it ethical that the professor uses his academic employees to write proposals and what to do in similar situations because I find it stealing my effort and credit?

EDIT

Currently, I am hired by the university and affiliated to a research group, so we can work on the project in our institution. Originally, the project was granted to my current institution.

EDIT 2

I think it is getting more into a discussion rather than answering a question. I allow my self to EDIT the question according to the answers and the comments. I didn't get a clear answer, but people were divided into three categories:

  1. It is unethical and the professor did a terrible thing.
  2. It is unethical but the professor has fulfilled his moral responsibility be offering a position in his new institution.
  3. It is ethical and universities/professors can use employees or professional writers to write proposals. (Btw. I did not mention that I wrote the proposal but I also developed the ideas, where my professor did not agree with most of them).

The goal of my question is not to find who is wrong or to prove that I am a victim of my former professor's behaviour but to know if we are working in a healthy atmosphere or not and if it is unethical I would reject to write proposals for my next professor. Otherwise, I need to agree with the fact that this is how it works and continue doing it without feeling bad about my self.

EDIT 3

Consequently, I would vote to close the question as it is likely to be answered with opinions rather than facts and citations.

2
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Sep 1 '20 at 19:57
  • What kind of proposal requires 6-8 months to write? – user151413 Sep 8 '20 at 20:52
34

If I understand correctly, you (as a postdoc) developed a research proposal, your professor submitted it under their name, and the project was funded. Then you were sidelined --- you will not be a PI on this project and you will not even take any role in it. This is a terrible experience and I am sorry to hear it happened to you.

The professor's behaviour is wrong. Even for German academia, notoriously famous for being professor-centred and often exploiting young researchers unfairly, this is probably beyond what can be considered normal.

Now, what can probably happen if you expose the story? Likely, not much. There are two issues here:

  1. It is impossible to verify reliably who was the author of the proposal. Even if you show the time stamped drafts, it only proves that you typeset the material and prepared it for submission. Your former professor may say that they explained you the main idea and asked you to type it. It's very hard to prove authorship.
  2. Even when evidence is quite convincing, most academics and academic administrators won't pursue an established professor for a single case of academic misconduct, if it does not directly hurt the University. Ideas are stolen very often, but such stories rarely made headlines, so most administrators won't bother dealing with them. Of course, there are exceptions, when even a single problem can unexpectedly grow big and eventually cost academic their job (there were several such stories recently related to hot topics in political/social discourse). But as far as I see quite a few professors made their carriers by borrowing ideas of others and making their students and postdocs to do a lot of their own work.

So, what can you take from this story? First, you know that you can develop a winning research proposal. This is a sign of a great researcher! Not many people can do it in their postdoc. This is something you should be proud of, and this skill and dedication is something no-one can steal from you. If you decide to leave this story behind and focus on what's ahead, I hope you will be able to repeat this success and now get the full credit for your hard work and creativity.

Good luck!

8
  • 3
    Thank you for the nice answer and motivating words! 1) But if I let it go, isn't it like I am encouraging this behaviour and this professor will keep doing this with junior postdocs. 2) I knew this issue when we submitted but the problem is that the goal was that I take the position in this project but now it won't be possible. – Alpha Aug 28 '20 at 10:08
  • @CaptainEmacs It would be nice if you could elaborate more and put it as an answer. "what's gained by that?" == No one takes me effort and put it under his name, where I don't get anything (even credit) – Alpha Aug 28 '20 at 10:43
  • @CaptainEmacs You are legitimizing something illegetimate. Like what he told me justifying the situation: "It is part of you job to write proposal and get funding for the university". This is of course true if it is applied with the name of the applicant. Even if we get tolerant, the proposal is to get funding for the university not for a person and on this basis I accepted to write the proposal but now it is moving with him. It is like I worked for him and not for the university. It is also like I used the money of the university X to get funding for university Y. – Alpha Aug 28 '20 at 16:37
  • 1
    @CaptainEmacs please do not take it wrongly. I am saying that manipulating is not right. We could also convince students to work on their topics and we revise their manuscripts and submit them under our names with their permission. This does not make it right because it is manipulating and using power and fake promises to convince them. Academia is the first place in my opinion which should be clear of this kind of behaviour. Thank you for all the explanation! – Alpha Aug 28 '20 at 17:12
  • 4
    @Alpha Understood. My point is: I don't legitimize anything. All here including me say the ethics here is severely wanting. However, the comparison to a paper is not quite the same; no one is going to write a paper for an advisor when they do not get anything. You had hopes that you would get the position, you were prepared to play this game - and indeed the prof offered you first choice both on location and after move, the latter of which you declined. It's only after the confluence of these factors that ethics came to the fore. I merely tried to address your apparent priorities in situ. – Captain Emacs Aug 29 '20 at 0:52
26

I feel weird trying to play "the devil's advocate" in this case. It is quite clear that doing some work and getting nothing in return is frustrating at least and might be connected with unethical behavior indeed. However, I still want to share a couple of "balancing" thoughts that might be or might not be true in this situation.

First, I see no major issues in outsourcing proposal writing to someone else if it is done properly. In my early postdoc years I was myself hired to co-author a large proposal. It was implied that I am to be in the project if it is funded, but ultimately it was just work for hire, and there was no promise of any future employment. The project was tied to the university rather than individuals, so my name wasn't anywhere in the document as far as I remember (but it was long time ago). I consider such situation a fair deal.

Next, sometimes a project is really connected to a specific PI/Co-PI team. A part of project evaluation is the assessment of PIs abilities to conduct the proposed research, so a plan might be rejected merely on the basis of "inappropriate team". The implication here is that changing a PI after acceptance might be nearly impossible — one cannot just pass a project from one team to another, as the grant is awarded to a specific team.

Finally, your moral standards are really high if you expect people to give up grant money on moral grounds in such situations. Yep, I agree your case is unfair, but from the professor's perspective you got the offer, and you turned it down. So in his point of view he tried to fulfill his moral obligation, and now he is free to go.

While I might say that the moral of this story is to always negotiate on the land before you sail, but in reality life is too complicated, and it's hard to predict all possibilities. There are no winning scenarios here — it's either you without work or the professor without an accepted grant proposal. BTW, remember that he also has obligations to the other participant university — it is probably a part of their agreement that they are going to deal with him rather than with you. So, frankly speaking, I don't see a solution that would make everyone happy here.

7
  • very nice points, but let me comment some of them; 1) "The project was tied to the university rather than individuals", that's the point, if I am the one who is leaving the university, I wouldn't not argue or even if someone else will be hired but when the professor take it away with him, it just feels like I was working for him (personally) rather than the university. 2) "The implication here is that changing a PI after acceptance might be nearly impossible", it is not about the possibility but the willing; he could stay a PI from another university but he said "I don't want to". – Alpha Aug 28 '20 at 20:05
  • 9
    +1 for “you got the offer, and you turned it down” — this seems to be two people being stubborn rather than clearly unethical behavior – Dawn Aug 28 '20 at 22:28
  • 10
    Frankly speaking, you turned down your prof's offer for the same reason -- "you don't want to". I mean, there could be some rational private reason behind his unwillingness, but maybe he doesn't want to discuss it with you. – rg_software Aug 29 '20 at 1:05
  • 1
    @rg_software this comparison is not rational! The professor obviously got a better offer and there is no moral responability that makes his employees move with him. On the opposite, the professor put under his name someone else's work. This is awfal to think that they are equal. – Younes Aug 29 '20 at 8:10
  • 8
    @Younes, Maybe he moved to another place due to a better offer, but we don't know why he doesn't want to keep the project in his past university -- so I am not ready to judge. Then, proposals don't have "authors" -- they have PIs, co-PIs, participants, etc. There is no implication that PI is also the author of the proposal text, so it isn't the case of plagiarism or similar issues. A text can be written by an external paid professional author, which is normal practice in some places. – rg_software Aug 29 '20 at 8:20
4

Summary: there may be unethical details here. On the whole, I consider

  • the professor offering you a job in their new group fair treatment
  • that you cannot complain of not getting a job when you refuse to move there
  • the ethics of the professor taking the grant with them unanswerable here
  • a successful proposal a very important achievement for a fresh postdoc. This should show up in your CV and Arbeitszeugnis.
  • the ethics of postdocs writing proposals complicated - thus long answer below.

I've known similar things happen. In the case I'm thinking of everyone stayed at the same institution, but someone else was assigned to do the research. The grant writer was not threatened by unemployment, though. To some extent, it would be seen as OK (solidarity as in: everyone may occasionally need a grant that they did not propose, so in turn, others occasionally need to write successful grants that they won't work on). But when this turned too disparate (someone writing several successful grants and not getting any of them for their resarch), it caused bad blood and IMHO rightly so.


I think your question hinges on whether it is ethical for the professor to take the grant with them. Which I think cannot be answered by strangers on the internet, since the answer would depend on details for the grant. However, such a move/change is certainly approved by the funding agency.

What you may do is contacting the funding agency to learn how they handle/consider changes such as the professor moving. It may also be instructive to learn what they expect of their applicants.

Without knowing further details, I think it quite likely that the funding agency considers the professor's research group a highly important "infrastructure" aspect for the grant* - and that would likely also have been the case with you as main applicant. It may also be that a fresh postdoc doesn't have any chance as applicant not because of lacking scientific ability but because they want to see someone experienced in the grant business and someone who is in a position to actually do hiring decisions.


Is it ethical that the professor uses his academic employees to write proposals

IMHO it is perfectly fine if a professor (or rather: a university) employs people to write proposals. This is certainly academic work. Unfortunately, it is a large part of academic work that is often not recognized and appreciated at its true importance.

From the employment perspective, the university pays a salary and gets written proposals in exchange. This is not different from hiring an employee to do research where salary is exchanged for research work.

Things turn murky when someone is told to write proposals who was hired for other work (e.g. doing research):

  • On the one hand, most employment contracts that I've seen (I'm in ) have a clause that allows the employer to assign the employee to other work (typically: at a comparable level of expertise). My guess would be that the writing of scientific proposals compared to doing research as postdoc would easily pass this test.
  • On the other hand, if the employee was funded by grant money and several person-months of work went into writing proposals rather than research on the project that pays, this is IMHO corruption.

In academia, there's an additional conflict here: In industry, everyone knows that an employee is typically not allowed to talk too freely about what they did for their salary. In constast, in academia there is an assumption that the work can be judged correctly from what is publicly visible.
When that assumption is not met, difficulties ensue. This is the case with your proposal but it can happen also e.g. if the employer does not allow scientific publication of a piece of work - which is within their legal rights (legally speaking, you were compensated by your salary).

IMHO it is unethical to hamper your professional career by assigning you work that will not have the same visibility as the work you were hired for without any compensation or measures to mitigate this disadvantage. IMHO, a certain compensation may be reached quite easily:

am not getting any credit

That would clearly be unethical. Your Arbeitszeugnis should certify that you wrote a successful grant application. As a fresh postdoc, having written a successful grant proposal deserves to go into your CV, so when you apply for another job the hiring committee sees this experience.

What would also be clearly unethical is promising a grant to someone who writes a proposal and then breaking that promise. I'd also include deliberately creating the impression of such a promise as unethical.
But again, we strangers on the internet do not know here how much was actually promised to you vs. you not seeing the risks of the proposal not working out to a contract for you even though the proposal its granted.

For a fresh postdoc, I'd even say that a nice professor may prepare a "green" postdoc that things can go wrong. I would not call this an ethical obligation though, since it is somewhat in conflict with treating you on eye-level as a fully grown-up professional (who'd be aware of such risks without being told). In that case, misjudging your understanding of how academic funding works would not make this ethical misconduct.

 and the project will move with him and another person will be hired for it, where I might be unemployed.

  • As I said above, we cannot know whether the grant should or even can stay at your university after the professor moved.

  • The professor asking you (= offering you a job at their new university) is very fair treatment. I therefore don't see cause for complaint for this aspect of the situation. Why you do not want to take this offer does not matter at all.
    (If not all bridges are burnt by now, it may be worth while exploring whether you could work remotely/mostly remotely on that project - I'd think that right now, you may have extra-good chances with such a request).

  • Someone who wrote the proposal does have an "objective head start" compared to other applicants for the job since they are obviously up to date already with the topic. OTOH, hiring someone only because they wrote the proposal without considering other candidates could have a smell of nepotism, which would also be unethical.

 it is normal to write a proposal for me when you are at the beginning of your postdoc

The professor may argue that this is ethical: starting a postdoc directly after PhD means that you are currently funded by a project that someone else wrote. The may argue that it is only fair if you work off this "debt" by writing a proposal that funds some other fresh postdoc.



In future, you may want to discuss very openly the implications and prospects for you when asked to write a proposal. Like discussing authorship right at the beginning of a collaborative paper, this is a lesson often painfully learned. And something that you may find difficult to achieve in practice (in particular as a still quite fresh postdoc).
I'd take good care to make clear that you do not want to question the good faith of your collaborators/professsors but that you need such things to be spelled out quite clearly for your own sake/for your own professional improvement/to better learn how academia works.


* I had a scholarship during my PhD time - the funding agency thought the research group aspect sufficiently important to ask me whether there's any other group where I could do the proposed research better than at my "home" group and offered to help with a transfer if so. (My project was quite interdisciplinary - they asked whether moving my "base camp" to the other discipline would help me)

2

I don't actually see a clear cut ethical problem here. It is likely that the grant DID in fact have a better chance of success with the established professor as the PI. There was probably a considerable part of the proposal that involved the professor's research record, their connections to other scientists, etc. which played a large part in the decision process (regardless of who compiled and wrote the section highlighting this, this is something significant they brought to the table in this proposal).

It is possible the professor knew in advance that they were leaving, but honestly, it is not always safe to discuss these things until they are set in stone so I don't know what they could do there in terms of being upfront about this. And they DID offer you a position in the new group, so if you are left unemployed by this turn of events, that is a choice that you made and not a situation forced on you by the professor.

Could the professor hand off the PI position to someone else? Who would that be? Should they make YOU the PI of the grant and leave the project behind? I'm not sure that is fair to ask, honestly.

You did good, you apparently wrote a good proposal, this is a valuable skill to have. Keep at it, try to collaborate with this current project in any way you can, and keep writing good grant proposals (next time with your name as either PI or co-PI).

3
  • 1
    The way the story here was told, it seems to me it would indeed be fair to make OP the PI and leave the project behind. – user111388 Aug 30 '20 at 20:38
  • @user111388 It actually seems like the OP was hoping that the professor would still be the PI, but keep the project based at the old university... this doesn't make a lot of sense. Also if the professor took the research group to the new university, making the OP the PI of the project also might not make a lot of sense. "Fair" or not. – Morgan Rodgers Aug 31 '20 at 18:09
  • I agree: It makes sense for the prof to take the grant because then he has the grant and the OP cannot do anything against it. I just do not agree with "I'm not sure this is fair to ask". I think it would be fair to ask. – user111388 Aug 31 '20 at 18:12
-2

Is it ethical that the professor uses his academic employees to write proposals and what to do in similar situations because I find it stealing my effort and credit?

Someone should come out and say it clearly. No, the behavior you described is not ethical. The professor clearly exploited your work and skills, and his blunt refusal to cede to your request at least partially shows bad faith on his part. How bad the behavior is precisely may depend on various details, such as whether he knew he was going to leave the university and was not straight with you about his plans and intentions at a time when you could have used that information to decide how much effort to invest in the venture. But any way you look at it, he took advantage of you.

4
  • I don't see how the professor can cede to their request. The professor I'm guessing can either take the grant to the new university, or abandon it (they are the PI after all). I don't know that it is reasonable to ask the professor to leave the grant behind. They offered the OP a position in the new group, but OP declined (so I don't understand them complaining that this leaves them unemployed; they have an option here, postdoc life means you can't be too picky about where you go). – Morgan Rodgers Aug 30 '20 at 19:45
  • 2
    @Morgan he could easily come up with alternative arrangements, like offering to pay OP as a consultant to work on the project from the old university, leaving the grant at the old university (with OP or a senior faculty member in charge) or exploring other options with the funding agency. Just saying “I don’t want to” without showing any willingness to entertain different solutions shows bad faith. Also, I don’t see why it’s too much to ask the professor to abandon the project if that’s the only option. It was OP who did all the work. The professor’s behavior stinks, plain and simple. – Dan Romik Aug 30 '20 at 20:17
  • 2
    OP feels they did all the work, and maybe they did. And maybe the grant would have been successful with them listed as the PI. As it went, they were not even on the application as a co-PI, from what I could tell from their comments. And they don't have a continuing contract at the university. Hard to know what would or wouldn't be possible or feasible as an alternate arrangement. They were hoping professor would have been PI at university A and hire them, instead professor will be PI at university B and offered to hire them (OP also said "I don't want to"). Disappointing but IDK re: bad faith. – Morgan Rodgers Aug 30 '20 at 21:05
  • I am not trying to belittle, and feel like my comments hold even taking OP's claims at face value. But I can agree to disagree. – Morgan Rodgers Aug 31 '20 at 7:36
-2

You have to live with your decisions and accept that you didn't move for personal reasons and now won't be a part of that work.

1
  • 2
    This answer reads like if you did not read the question and also can not understand why one might not want to move for personal reasons (why the quotation marks?) – user111388 Aug 29 '20 at 20:15

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.