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I am a junior faculty member at a research university. I am working with postdoc A on a project. Postdoc A's PI, Dr. B, works in the same university, but is affiliated with another department. Prior to starting the project, postdoc A and I have agreed that we would work on the project during their spare time. We did not inform Dr. B about this arrangement. When the project is about half-way done, Dr.B found out that A is working with me on the project. Dr.B approached me and told me that all postdoc A's projects have to go through them, and claimed that postdoc A could get fired by the school if the school found out that postdoc A is publishing papers without their PI.

My questions:

  1. Is it true that all projects of a postdoc have to go through their PI (even if the research is conducted during the postdoc's spare time)?

  2. Do I have the obligation to let Dr.B know about my collaboration with postdoc A, given that we agree to work on the project during A's spare time? (I know as a courtesy to a colleague, I probably should have informed Dr.B about it before the project starts...)

  3. What can I do at this point to make sure postdoc A's career is not affected by this incident?

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    "spare time" ... what's that?
    – GEdgar
    Jul 1, 2016 at 21:12

4 Answers 4

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"Can" is a very vague way to answer this, as it will depend on many factors - like the policies of Dr. B's lab, and if said postdoc wants their contract renewed. Or university policy (never underestimate the detail of university policy). But there's no universal, legally binding policy regarding this.

Do they? Yes, all the time. Probably a good 50% of the publications that came out of my postdoc were from outside my PI's lab.

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  1. It is likely not legally binding that postdoctoral activity must go through the supervisor, especially not if the additional work was beyond "normal working hours" and uncompensated. For example, if the postdoc had wished to donate time to a charity, no permission from the supervisor would be necessary. However,

  2. Yes, you and Postdoc A had a professional obligation to inform Dr. B about your collaboration, especially if it was intended to result in publication and was not just for Postdoc A to learn something new. Dr. B has committed to training and advising Postdoc A, and Dr. B's financial and intellectual commitment to Postdoc A makes your unpaid collaboration possible. Also, you might be hard-pressed now (after the fact) to demonstrate convincingly that none of the work ever took time from the projects with Dr. B. Therefore,

  3. You should take the fall for this one. Apologize to Dr. B, say that you should have known better and that you wrongly advised Postdoc A. Offer review and editing of the manuscript and possibly minor authorship to Dr. B. Or, collaboration on a follow-up project. Give a gift of coffee, tea, or a favorite food (I have found this to be a surprisingly effective apology strategy with academics -- citing my personal experience here).

Citation for all advice -- personal experience in the lab of another Dr. B, watching another Postdoc A.

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    Offers of (minor) authorship should come with assumptions of earning that authorship, one hopes.
    – Tommi
    May 15, 2019 at 9:59
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    Legally binding is a bit vague here - there can be grant restrictions on the tasks that a postdoc is paid to do.
    – Spark
    Jun 8, 2022 at 19:20
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Projects don't have to go through the PI, but it is considered professional courtesy that they do. The PI is paying for the postdoc's time and efforts.

You should have asked before starting the project.

In general, if a postdoc is hired to complete a certain task, then depending on the terms of the grant that they're under, it might be the case that the funding agency will get mad if it's discovered that the postdoc works on unrelated research activities.

Grant applications often have research effort descriptions, e.g. postdoc will devote 100% of their research efforts to task X, PI will devote 20% of their research efforts to task Y. So your claim that the postdoc worked on this in their spare time is irrelevant - they were doing research activities, and this took away from time they could have done other research activities related to the grant.

What can be done now? Apologize to Prof. B, and to the postdoc for putting them in an uncomfortable position. Be ready to write a very warm and glowing reference to the postdoc regardless of the outcome of your research efforts. I don't think this will have a lasting effect on their career assuming the work with their PI went well.

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  • "The PI is paying for the postdoc's time and efforts." I don't know where such arrangement is common, but this is certainly not universally true. From what I have seen, postdocs are employed by universities and their salary comes from a government agency or an industrial partner. Some PIs behave as if they can do whatever they want with the grant money, propagate this misconception or even truly believe in it. How a postdoc can remind them this is not the case without risk to postdoc's career is a separate question. Jun 24, 2022 at 2:07
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    The PI manages their funding. They are in charge of deciding who to hire, they are held accountable for their grant’s progress, they are the ones who decide whether the postdoc stays or goes, they’re the ones who need to answer why a goal wasn’t achieved. For most intents and purposes they’re in charge of the postdoc. That’s a simple fact. When a PI directs a person hired by a grant to do X and not Y, it’s precisely because they’re acutely aware that it’s not their money, so postdocs (or grad students and the PI too) can’t do whatever they want.
    – Spark
    Jun 25, 2022 at 16:11
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Is it true that all projects of a postdoc have to go through their PI (even if the research is conducted during the postdoc's spare time)?

No. That would be blatantly unethical. Authorship must be earned. Being the PI is not sufficient to earn authorship in most disciplines. You might also check your local labor law.

Do I have the obligation to let Dr.B know about my collaboration with postdoc A, given that we agree to work on the project during A's spare time?

No. You have no obligation to report on any colleague's spare time. It does not matter if they are golfing or doing research.

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