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I am a master student at a big university in Germany. I am not a chemistry student myself, but as I am active in university politics, an issue was brought to me that I am not sure how to deal with.

Master students in chemistry have to do mandatory lab hours to be admitted to the exam for some specific modules. During these lab hours they synthesize chemicals for semi-commercial research projects which is a win-win situation for the professors and the students as students get in touch with real research and the professors get a lot of work done.

The problem is that over the last years a lot of postdoc and doctarate positions got cancelled because of an austerity program. The professors subsequently assigned more and more lab hours while decreasing the hours for self-study to stay within the 30 hours/credit point requirement. The demand for knowledge from the lectures stayed the same, so students actually need the same amount of self-study as before. There seems to be a big conflict of interests.

I cannot prove it, but sources from the working groups told me that at least one professor informally made clear, that he is well aware of this issue, but chooses to take benefits from it.

I am not asking if this is ethical as this is clearly not the case. I am asking what I can do to end this exploitation of master students. Who is the right person to talk to about these issues? Is it even adequate maybe to take legal action against the faculty?

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    Might be interested in this question: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/24526/… – Alexandros Jul 20 '15 at 16:31
  • In United States, funding agencies mandate conflict of interest disclosures from researchers. As result, the universities have people whose job is to manage conflict of interest. If your university has such people, they might help. I do not see a basis for a legal action though (is there a contract with the student that university breaches?). – Boris Bukh Jul 20 '15 at 16:33
  • Alexandros: The question you mentioned is indeed interesting as the issues touched are very similar. Thanks for the hint. – anon Jul 20 '15 at 17:01
  • Can you elaborate on the phrase "semi-commercial"? What are these products being used for? Who benefits, in what way, and how much? – Nate Eldredge Jul 20 '15 at 18:44
  • Nate Eldredge: The research is done using third-party funds. I might be wrong, but i think think the third party gets certain rights to the patents the research yields. – anon Jul 20 '15 at 18:59
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First, see if you can find some existing university policy you could use as a basis for a complaint. The other place you could look would be in some professional societies for their ethics policies. Your university would not be bound to follow ethics recommendation made by outside bodies, but still it could be a useful reference to help you apply pressure.

If there is no university (or government) ethics policy in place, then you can lobby for one to be created. Look at some general ethics policies and try to draw something up as a proposal.

I don't know where in your university governance structure you could submit a proposal of this sort -- that could vary from country to country or even by institution.

Once you have a proposal or a platform, you need broad support. It's okay if you don't have a ton of people supporting it initially. As you become more public in advocating for your university to comply with its own policy, or for it to enact a policy, people will join you. Be ready to catch them with at minimum a google group.

Hopefully you can get some faculty to join with you in advocating for some clear limits for the chemistry students' non-academic requirements. Hopefully they will see that the level of excellence of the institution will go down if students are spending too much time on "production", and not enough time expanding their knowledge and creativity.

Point of comparison: in the U.S., graduate teaching assistants work 20 hours a week. Based on my experience as a TA, I would say that it would be difficult or impossible for most mere mortals to make significant progress in the graduate studies if the work hours per week were above 25.

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