I did a successfull research project for my studies. My team created a software prototype and a promising evaluation therefore. It has potential for further research and eventually for an industry product.

The idea of the overall prototype is mine, but one core component originally comes from my advisor at that time. However, I reprogrammed it in another programming language and did several improvements on it, but the core algorithm is unchanged.

I eventually have the chance to do more about it, e.g. deliver it as a product to a company or get research fundings or a PhD grant. Therefore, I want to replace all code lines (~150) that I copied from my former advisor with own ones and leave him uninformed about what I am doing. Why?

  • As I said, the idea for the overall prototype was mine.
  • During the work with our advisor, I and my colleagues found him to be a difficult person. He has a tense and controlling attitude, which I think is distrustfull.
  • At the end of our project our team wanted to make our code Open Source. He refused.
  • He wanted to be informed about everything that I would do about the prototype. Especially, he wanted to have a veto about if regarding further scientific publications can be submitted.

So, things will get complicated if I inform him about my procedure or use his unchanged code.

Do you think this would be correct from an ethical and juristical perspective? What is your personal opinion about my thoughts and behaviour?

Furthermore, do you think my behaviour could have negative consequences for my potential academic career, since my former advisor works at a different chair on the same university? Is it possible, that my former advisor's boss will be notably pissed off by me?

Thanks in advance!

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    How much was his contribution? Is his algorithm something known in CS, or something he developed ad hoc? How involved was him in directing and supervising the project, besides providing such component? – Davidmh Dec 8 '15 at 12:05
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    I do not understand many things. It was not "your team" it was your advisor's team and your advisor's project. You and other undergraduate students implemented a project and maybe were paid for that. Of course you have rights towards the project but so does the one who proposed it, supervised it (even micromanaged it as you suggest) and assembled the team to implement it. – Alexandros Dec 8 '15 at 12:19
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    So, technically that makes it "his project" and not yours. In a nutshell, he implemented an already published algorithm (even wrote the code for it, which is unusual for a professor), evaluated results, set goals and provided scientific feedback and you (as an undergraduate student) like to cut him out of this project? Not going to work. – Alexandros Dec 8 '15 at 13:00
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    Interestingly, I have recently asked a question that seems to be from the other side of this. Maybe it is of some help for you to see the overall picture. academia.stackexchange.com/questions/57193/… – user-2147482637 Dec 8 '15 at 13:16
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    I might suggest that the person you are deceiving is yourself - you seem to believe that a student project is so valuable that you wish to cut others out thinking that you will prosper in the end. But, lets suppose it could be a huge success - is it more likely that having your professor (a known quantity who has published in an area critical to the product) will help or hinder your further success, be it in industry or in a PhD program? The most likely outcome is that you burn your bridges with the professor and the rest of your project team. – Jon Custer Dec 8 '15 at 14:52

First of all you should inquire with your institution regarding intellectual property. Usually, there are some strict regulations in place. In my institution, for example, whatever is produced by the university's funding or using the university's equipment is at least to some point eligible to be the intellectual property of the university. Honestly, I've never heard of anyone who got into trouble with these regulations, but they're there, and should a feud arise, the institution will have the legal upper hand.

As you see, even if your code contained nothing of someone else's code (or other contributions - source code is not the only thing that makes a project), you could still expect some difficulties.

Further, is the algorithm published, i.e. could I find a paper describing it and reimplement it to make a similar component as your adviser? If so, that puts you in a bit better position to use it without his consent, but I still wouldn't.

However, you still can't sell this product for your own benefit, without getting the consent and including all the parties that made a significant contribution. (Well, you could, of course, but that would be highly unethical and probably illegal) I do not see any obstacles in continuing research on your project, if you find a suitable department and new adviser whose interests happen to coincide with it. You could even find a way to improve you adviser's algorithm.

Finally, I would strongly advise against antagonizing you adviser (whether you are right or not). Remember, that you will need recommendation letters for your PhD studies. You should always try to maintain good relations with ex-collaborators (including your adviser), it's a lot easier to advance you career, if there are people who worked with you and have nice things to say about it, especially at the beginning of your career.

My advice is not to go behind anyone's back in your group. Your ideas are your own and nobody can prevent you from working on them in the future, so you have nothing to lose there. But, you shouldn't rely on those border cases, e.g. "if I took that and modified it slightly, would they still be able to sue me?. Talk to people, if you can't work things out, it is not the end of the world, you'll have to work on it more and come up with your own methods. As a byproduct you also get additional research material which is never a bad thing for a PhD candidate.

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    You stated some very good points for me. Actually I don't have a problem to make things clear with my colleagues, but with my advisor it is a different thing out of the mentioned reasons. But still you are right, it is a bad idea to go behind his back, not to speak about the University. I think I will talk to him and if he feels difficult with this topic -- which probably will be the case -- I will rewrite the whole prototype on my own. – oroberos Dec 8 '15 at 13:23

Look, as a general rule in life, if you have to ask someone else whether your behavior is ethical, then you already know the answer: you're at best skirting the boundaries of good citizenship in the group you're in, and you're likely beyond it.

Whether the behavior is legal is of course a different question. But, as humans, we rely on the good will of others a lot. You imperil the relationships you have with other at your own risk if you already suspect that your behavior may "piss off" others.

  • "Look, as a general rule in life..." In general I agree. But for a substantial minority of "Is it ethical..." questions we get on this site, my first reaction is "Sure, what could possibly be wrong with that?" and then other people chime in to explain what they feel is very wrong with that. Ethical questions can be tricky. – Pete L. Clark Dec 9 '15 at 20:48
  • @PeteL.Clark -- I don't disagree. But I think from the original question, you could see that the OP knew that it was an ethically fraught situation and simply wanted someone to re-affirm his decision. I just wanted to point out that if you know that there is a dilemma, you should also know that you're likely taking the wrong course. – Wolfgang Bangerth Dec 10 '15 at 3:41

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