View Full Version : WDYT Academia and conflict of interest

07-25-2000, 01:36 AM
I just got the May-June issue of the ISB newsletter containing a letter
from Kit Vaughan on the subject. I always thought to be the very last ISB
member to get the newsletter, because of the Italian proverbially slow mail
service. So, I was quite surprised to read Kit letter and discover that it
did not start up a discussion thread on BIOMCH-L, yet.

I am sure most of you share Kit perspective that this matter is of great
relevance. I prefer to believe that you were just waiting for another one
to start it so you could flame him or her ad libitum. OK, here I am.

For those who missed the letter from the President please go get it on the
web site, it is too long to re-write it here. Kit point was to pose some
vignettes, some ethical dilemma, and ask us how we would sort them out.
Now, my main argument is that most of the cases are not ethical dilemma as
it is in the majority of the cases. The situations that pose a real
ethical problem in a professional career are very few. In most of the
cases with some good will it is possible to sort the problem out in a way
which is better for everybody involved.

Kit used hypothetical names for the people involved. I shall use the same
names for reference.

CASE#1: Jennifer Jordan was closing her PhD thesis when she realised that a
Polish thesis completed some years before already contained her
conclusions, which are thus not original anymore. Under the rules of her
university this may prevent her graduation. Should she tell it to her

I think so. If I would be Jennifer supervisor I am sure I could help her
to put it in a positive way. First of all, I am not so sure that we should
consider a PhD thesis a publication. Although it is technically a
publication in many countries, I am not sure this is true anywhere.
Second, everything not published in English cannot be considered a
reference in the case. I know this is a strong statement but I am
convinced that science needs a common language and such language today can
only be the english language. Third, a scientific publication is
considered so when it is indexed in a relevant index. Now, only a few
countries have a nation wide easily accessible index of the PhD theses; if
Poland is not one of them this also makes a point. Because of all these
arguments I would consider the results reported in the Polish thesis valid
but not published, something like a personal communication. Along this
line Jennifer could easily complete her PhD and mention the results from
Poland as a further evidence of her findings.

CASE #2: Toshio Nakamura while playing at night with entertainment
programming finds out that a visualisation algorithm available for games
could be used to solve at higher speed the reconstruction of CT images.
Such finding can be converted in a patent that he could sell for a lot of
money to medical imaging companies. The problem is that he is employed by
a public research centre with a contract that entitles all intellectual
properties developed while working to the centre. The centre would
acknowledge him a 10% of the royalties as additional research founds but
nothing for his pockets.

Again this is not an ethical dilemma. All depends on how his contract is
formulated. If the intellectual properties rights to the centre are
limited to what has been developed during the working time Toshio can sell
his idea directly. Otherwise he cannot and if he does it he commits a
crime and can be persecuted for this. A third approach again to explore in
legal terms is to resign from the centre and after this register the
patent. Again, for some contracts this is allowed but others have also
time clauses. Thus, my advice to Toshio is, consult a lawyer. Last but
not least: if you are looking for money a research job is the last place I
would start from.

CASE #3: Georgina and Henrietta are good friends that end up in two
different universities in the USA. Georgina is called to act as a referee
for Henrietta tenure application. The problem is that Georgina believes
Henrietta is not good in raising research founds. What should Georgina say?

Again I do not see the problem. No matter how she was questioned Georgina
is asked to act a scientific referee. In other words she has to say if
Henrietta is a good scientist. She has not the duty to express her
opinions on other aspects she is not qualified for. The fact that we all
apply for founding does not automatically qualify us as experts in research
founding. Henrietta may work in an area that is currently under-founded,
although extremely relevant. She may had not been founded so far because
she did not had a tenure track position. Who knows? Not Georgina, for
sure. By the way the first thing I would do in her place is to apply for a
name change .

CASE #4: Henk van Doorn needs three papers published before he can finish
his PhD. Two are out but the third one is stopped because the reviewers
found one missing evidence. Henk's professor receives as reviewer for
another journal and passes it to him for review. This paper contains the
missing evidence, but because of confidentiality requested by this journal
Henk is not allowed to contact the authors for permission to cite the work.

Here a little problem exists. As a first step I would contact the editor
of the journal asking the review and tell him the whole story. He may
contact the authors on my behalf maintaining the confidentiality.
Otherwise I would wait for the acceptance of the paper and then I would
contact the authors eventually saying that I saw their manuscript on a
colleague's desk. Last but not least I would tell the whole story to the
editor of the journal I send my paper to and see what can be done. If
nothing works I would consider replicating their experiment; this also is
unfair in theory but probably before I finish their paper will be published
so there is no advantage. I would also start to think a good explanation
for my wife on why I am going to get the PhD two years late.

MARCO VICECONTI, PhD (viceconti@tecno.ior.it)
Laboratorio di Tecnologia Medica tel. 39-051-6366865
Istituti Ortopedici Rizzoli fax. 39-051-6366863
via di barbiano 1/10, 40136 - Bologna, Italy

Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright in the forest of the night,
what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Opinions expressed here do not necessarly reflect those of my employer

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