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I work for an organization that has some research restrictions -- for instance, we do not allow non-employees to have direct data access for security purposes.

I recently invited an academic collaborator to work with me on a new (social science) project that may get launched. It would involve data collection from a non-profit. The plan was for the non-profit to send the data to my organization. My potential academic collaborator and I were in very early talks over the ideas and direction of the overall project when I mentioned the data restrictions. His response was that not having direct data access is unacceptable (although I offered to try to facilitate an on site visit) and as such, he is going to directly contact the non-profit, thereby eliminating me and my organization from the project.

The original contact was made by another employee at my organization, meaning that he would have not had access to the non-profit without me.

My gut reaction is that this behavior is unprofessional and unethical. My understanding was that many organizations restrict data access to give preference to their employees, so that this restriction is not unreasonable. My question is whether others agree regarding 1) those restrictions and 2) the ethics of this professor's behavior. Thanks.

Added: A follow-up question, given the response below, is whether we have any obligation (ethical or otherwise) to keep the academic on the project. We built the relationship with the non-profit for months prior to contacting the academic, so I certainly would feel comfortable moving forward with the non-profit on another idea (and possibly this one, if the logic holds on both directions).

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    If the non-profit is gathering the data, why would it be reasonable for your organization to restrict access to it? Isn't it the non-profit's choice who should get access to their data? – jakebeal Sep 3 '16 at 23:03
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    To turn jakebeal's comment into a specific proposal, why not ask the non-profit to supply the data to both your organization and the university? Then your organization will be happy (since you'll have the data and won't need to jeopardize security by sharing it), and the academic collaborator will be happy (since he'll have the data too). Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't see any downsides to this, unless the data is so sensitive that the non-profit would refuse to share it without extra security. – Anonymous Mathematician Sep 4 '16 at 15:49
  • Thanks. The data is very sensitive, but this is certainly one option. I think part of my unease comes from the fact that the academic did not offer dual access as a possibility (or any of the other arrangements that i thought could be workable); he simply jumped to going around my organization. At a certain point, it seems like we are the only ones willing to be accommodating! – Rachel Sep 5 '16 at 2:33
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There is nothing unethical about this. You approached a researcher with an idea for a future project, which you both agreed would be a good idea. However, your employment situation makes it impossible to meet the potential collaborators entirely reasonable demands. (I would probably not get involved in any research project in which I could not, in principle, have access to the underlying data. I might never need to see it, but if there is some kind of problem, I would definitely want to be able to look at the raw data for myself and draw my own conclusions.)

Having suggested the research project but been unable to come to an agreement about how it should proceed, you are in a tricky situation. The other researcher has no obligation not to pursue the project without you or your employer. I would not consider it a particularly friendly thing to do, but there is no ethical problem. Your original idea should be acknowledged in the final publications (or whatever) based on this research, but that is as far as your contribution may go.

  • I'm interested in your response. My thought is that the researcher also has no obligation to pursue the project; they could also drop the collaboration after deciding that the conditions of the agreement do not need their needs. I obviously would not be upset with that decision, since that is their preference. – Rachel Sep 4 '16 at 2:45
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    @Rachel: Sure, they have no obligation to go forward with it; and, as I said, it might be friendlier if they dropped the whole thing. But that evidently is not what they want to do--leading to your problem. – Buzz Sep 4 '16 at 4:09
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I suggest you work within the hierarchy of your organization to make an exception to the policy that prevents non-employees to have direct data access, because in this case, it is not your organization's data. I think this is the underlying ethical problem. I personally would not feel it ethical to participate in this type of imbalance of power relationship.

If you respect the independent researcher, then please trust that his or her continued involvement with your proposal will be a good litmus test for the ethical validity of the project. In other words, if you get the parameters fair and clear enough for the independent researcher to continue his or her involvement, then you need have no qualms about whether your own participation is ethical.

(Not that that was what you explicitly asked.)

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Whether or not you agree with the conduct of the academic, it seems the issue boils down to a non-profit interested in having their data used in some academic and beneficial way. If you have had contact for months and built a relationship with the organization, and a random person (from their perspective), contacts them with a proposal to do the same research you have been in talks with, I doubt they would not say anything to you. Rather, you can discuss the issue with them, propose that your organization alone has access to the data, and ignore what the failed collaboration would have been. If they want to pursue both opportunities, you can suggest your potential collaborator work together, where both your organization and the collaborator have direct access to the data. If they send a proposal to the organization around you, and use your proposal as the basis, you may be in a plagiarism situation. However, I would be cautious to jump to that conclusion, and even if this was the case, I imagine the non-profit would notice this and discuss it with you.

In the end, I would hope the academic you refer to would find his/her direct access to the data a method for everyone to collaborate. If not, based on the track record you described with the non-profit, the academic will not be able to pursue a research project with them without your knowledge/acknowledgement.

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It seems to me that you need to "reroute" the data. That is, get the non-profit to send the data to the outside researcher's organization instead of yours. Then work with him on the project, riding his "coattails." instead of yours.

A possible solution is to try to get your organization to carve out an exception to the policy because this is really "third party" data, not proprietary. But the other solution may be more workable. In either event, try not to "miss the boat" if you can avoid it.

  • I respectfully disagree with this idea. Riding his coattails would have the effect of cutting MY teammates out of the process, the exact outcome that I'm trying to avoid. – Rachel Sep 5 '16 at 2:27
  • @Rachel: Then I recommend that you lobby your organization for a "third party" exemption. But your view is certainly a reasonable one, you need to decide whether you have greater loyalties to your organization and colleagues or to your own ideas and career. You may end up going your way, I'll go mine. – Tom Au Sep 5 '16 at 2:30

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