I was recently given a green light by my former supervisor to conduct an analysis on individual patient data from their recently published trial for a stats class assignment (Msc). The idea was we could flip the assignment into a research letter/full manuscript if the results are interesting. I didn't describe the full analysis since I knew it would be enough to just give them the overall jist.

I later called my former colleague, the clinical trial coordinator, to describe the data I needed, the analysis I was going to do (more detailed), and discuss data security since it was a group project. I mentioned if my members could not have access to the data, I could do the analysis myself since I had already signed confidentially etc in the past. The coordinator then told me the question/hypothesis I was asking was something s/he wanted to see done but did not have the statistical expertise to do. I want to emphasize here that the coordinator does not have a methodology background and was not familiar with the analyses/methods that I described but just thought what I wanted to do is like what they had imagined.

However, a few hours later, I receive an email from my former supervisor that is clearly written by the coordinator saying that on further consideration, the analysis I was going to do probably belongs in a secondary paper that '[they] want to do'. Complete 180 and phrased 'we' exclusive since I am no longer part of the team. Now, its common for my old supervisor to delegate decision making / email writing to his staff as s/he is a busy clinician so there isn't any uncertainty around the email. They have also offered me an alternative data set for my class but I cant help but feel robbed.

What do I do?

  • 4
    It sounds like your project was changed before you did any work. Why is this a problem? – Anonymous Physicist Oct 30 '20 at 5:54
  • Were you involved in the study design or data collection? – Anonymous Physicist Oct 30 '20 at 5:55
  • I was involved in the randomized controlled trial in data cleaning and preparing kits for participants. This feels like a problem because the coordinator likely took my idea and parroted it to the PI to say we should do this ourselves or that it is what s/he wanted to do. Though am quite annoyed because although it was an idea they likely had in the past they didn't have the expertise to present a concrete project plan which I served up on a silver platter. Feels like idea theft and I can't shake the feeling. – McZaddy Oct 30 '20 at 15:26

While I sympathize with your situation, I believe that you are vastly overestimating the severity of the wrong-doing by the coordinator and your former supervisor, labeling the question with tags such as plagiarism, and calling it intellectual theft in the title. It is hardly either.

As I understand the situation, neither you nor your former supervisor has any ownership over the data. They belong to another group, and when prompted, they said that they would rather do the study themselves. From your description it seems like the study was a rather obvious one, so there is really little intellectual ownership as far as the method goes. The coordinator was even nice, and offered you another data set.

These things happen all the time, and you have not sunk too many resources into the project yet. Cut your minimal losses, write back with a "thanks for the alternative data set", and if you feel like it, you can even add that the coordinator may pass your contact information, in case the group is looking for a collaborator with your expertise.

  • I think you may have understood. The data is owned by my former supervisor. I cut bait and said thank you though I would like to collaborate on the analysis I had suggested. – McZaddy Oct 31 '20 at 16:38

This does not sound anything like intellectual theft to me.

It seems just as likely that your contact (the trial coordinator) did not know someone else had already planned to do the analysis you proposed (or something similar). They had a conversation with others in the group, found this is too close to something they're already doing, and have informed you of this.

The input you've given at this point is very minimal. This does not sound like a special idea you "own", it sounds more like the level of conversation that academics constantly have informally with each other when discussing their data: "Have you tried (xyz approach to your data)?" Sometimes, this type of input will result in an acknowledgement, in other cases there might be an offer to collaborate especially if the person with the suggestion has more expertise with the method. Other times it's just that, a suggestion.

As a side point,

we could flip the assignment into a research letter/full manuscript if the results are interesting

is terrible statistical methodology. Intent to publish only if results are interesting leads to bias in published papers and is a form of data dredging. If you follow this methodology it's likely you will publish junk.


Ah, the wonderful world of "coopetition" where at first you are collaborators, but actually one party was secretly treating it as a zero-sum game. However, in multi-institution collaborations, it's not uncommon for investigators to stake out turf, and all the better you know of this now rather than after you invested time beyond the developing a hypothesis and analysis plan. This does sound like an error on the part of the trial coordinator, since ideas are cheap, whereas the time, expertise and discipline to carry them to publication is much more scarce. Are you sure that the clinical trial coordinator intends to exclude you from this project? Maybe another phone call is in order to clarify what their intent is.

As far as what you might do, unless you manage to have a phone call to clarify otherwise, personally, I'd cut bait, and switch to the alternate data set. Given that the you are at different institutions, and that at a minimum communication is poor and perhaps trust is too, I wouldn't chance throwing good effort after bad when they hold the cards with control over the data set.

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