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I am currently a Postdoc at the University of A. I did my PhD (in Computer Science, if it matters) at the University of NotA. All my Postdoc funding (salary, etc.) comes from my current PI's grant.

I work full-time with my PI (Dr X) on several projects. However, I also collaborate (provide guidance, write codes, papers, etc.) with my research team from NotA, primarily on weekends and beyond the working hours at A. These are some projects that I was already involved in during my PhD at NotA. Furthermore, I try my best to ensure that my external collaborations have no or minimal effect on my current postdoc research.

I have this "ethics" dilemma and confusion regarding my current collaboration setup.

  1. Since X fully funds my salary, is working outside X's lab ethically or morally correct?
  2. If yes to (1), do I stop all collaboration with my team at NotA?

Distantly related posts: here, here.

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    You are providing free work to Uni NotA. Why? Are you interested in building your CV? What advantages do you plan to obtain from working for them? if it purely out of philantropy, consider that you have plenty of other options.
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 14, 2023 at 8:24
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    @EarlGrey Well, I do this for research. I clarified my question, "I also collaborate (provide guidance, write codes, papers, etc.) ...". It is similar to what a professor does when he collaborates with other universities/organisations, except in my case, I am getting a salary from my PI's grant.
    – Coder
    Aug 14, 2023 at 8:39
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    @EarlGrey There is no question here on whether I am replaceable or not. It is just that I am doing this because I like working with the NotA team and the research problems. I learn from it; publications are a byproduct, of course. Do you mean if an organisation hires someone, they must restrict themself to the same organisation and never collaborate with others? We would never have seen any scientific progress if this were the case. Isn't science a collaborative enterprise?
    – Coder
    Aug 14, 2023 at 8:56
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    There is a difference between wrapping up the final papers from NotA, and continuing forward with an ongoing collaboration without informing your current PI.
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 14, 2023 at 20:31
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    Side comment: for your CV, while having more publications is nice, it is also important to show your independence. Collaborations with anyone except your PhD group would be better for that. Though I am in no way implying you should stop working with them. Aug 15, 2023 at 7:34

2 Answers 2

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This is a pretty normal situation that happens with many postdocs. What you should do is have an open discussion with your PI Dr. X about these collaborations (in the future, it's best to have that discussion already during interviews, or at least before signing a contract). Three common outcomes of this discussion:

  1. Dr. X does not want you to work on NotA's research, period. I find this stance ethically quite questionable, but I know of multiple people who were in that position during their postdoc - so it seems to be a position that some PIs take, even if I find it a bit outlandish. In this case you can either stop or insist that you continue working with NotA outside of your work hours (but check your contract if there are any non-compete clauses in there). The latter has a good chance of antagonising your PI, so that's difficult to recommend.
  2. Dr. X is ok with you working with NotA as long as it does not impact your work at A too much. That's more or less the same as what you do now, but with the added benefit of not keeping secrets from your PI. Most reasonable PIs would also be willing to give you some small feedback or help on these projects, even if they are not directly involved.
  3. Dr. X is ok with you working with NotA, but wants to be involved. A quite common reaction to finding out that your postdoc still has some strong, active ties to another research group is to see this as an opportunity to establish collaboration with that group, essentially turning the "moonlighting" you currently do into yet another project that you work on with your PI (and your old PI). You don't have to worry anymore about doing it outside of work hours, and you get to spearhead a new collaboration of your lab. As long as everybody gets along, that's probably the preferred outcome that works best for everybody.

I would consider all of these outcomes preferable to working behind your PI's back, if for no other reason than that they are bound to find out (at least once papers get published). No ethical concerns arise once you have an open communication with your PI.

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    added benefit of discussing with PI: if they react as (1), and there is no way to mediate, it is a clear sign of strong character incompatibility (which may come down to an agreement, the common mutual view "the other is an a**hole" when each sticks emotionally to its own point of view...)
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 14, 2023 at 10:28
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    @EarlGrey Agreed. I find it's much better to know in what regards you have different views than your PI than to tip-toe around any potential issue suspecting problems. It also makes it easier to decide if you should renew your contract and/or look elsewhere.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 14, 2023 at 10:56
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    2. may even allow the OP to work with NotA during part of the week, not just during the week-end, so it is better than the current situation. This is the most common situation in my field (in CS). Aug 15, 2023 at 7:26
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    The OP should read their employment contract and/or other paperwork they signed (IP assignment, personal conflict of interest, ...). Where I work, continuing outside work (paid or not) has to be on the PCI and approved, and anything going outside the lab goes through formal review and approval. As a manager I want my postdocs to wrap up their work. But I have plenty of good new work they can use to get a real job without ever needing to mention their PhD work again.
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 15, 2023 at 12:43
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"collaborate" may range from "I review the presentation they prepared for next conference" to "I am responsible for the Fortran code that is at the foundation of their work".

In the first case, it is normal academic activity, no need to limit yourself to weekend nor to hide it from your supervisor, in the second case it is normal academic exploitation, no need to hide it from your supervisor unless you want to be exploited on one side and fired on the other.

Additionally, if it is the second case, if you are so important that the project cannot go forward without you ... please reconsider yourself, someone else can do your job equally good, but you are preventing them from being hired to do that job (and you are doing it for free, apart from the obvious mental and possibly health costs deriving from overworking).

If you feel you cannot be replaced ... please remember

Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime

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    The perspective on collaborations that this answer seems to be based on is quite different from how academic collaborations work in my experience (at least in my field, which is math; it might be different in other fields). Aug 14, 2023 at 9:14
  • @JochenGlueck I welcome to be wrong, you are welcome to provide info on how things work in maths. But the answer must be as general as possible and OP did not explain which field they work. Math represents 4% of the awarded PhD in the US. If 96% are non-math, I think the standard is quite different
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 14, 2023 at 9:50
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    From your answer and also from your comments under the question I got the impression that you consider collaboration as a relationship where one side (a PI or a lab or whoever) uses the services of the other side. In maths a collaboration is, in my experience, a more even relationship: people choose to collaborate on a certain topic or problem because they all find the problem interesting. The question whether someone can be "replaced" in a collaboration isn't really something most mathematicians would ask - people work together because they like working together on a particular problem. Aug 14, 2023 at 11:00
  • Regarding generality of the answer: I agree that it should be as general as possible, as OP has not specified their field. I'm just not so sure that all (or most of) the 96% outside of math work the way that you decribed. Aug 14, 2023 at 11:02
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    @Coder: "There is a difference." Yes, I agree. That is the point of my comments. Aug 14, 2023 at 19:00

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