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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Questioning a Mentor

Clare Bartlett

Colleen was very excited to be accepted into graduate school and will be conducting her scientific research under one of the field’s up and coming names.

Her research advisor, an assistant professor, is doing well and is coming up for tenure the next year. Right before Colleen starts working in his lab, he had published multiple papers, which were considered to be a break-through in the field. Colleen sees there is opportunity for further investigation on the topic and wants to base her research on these findings.

However, when Colleen begins working in her advisor’s lab, he directs her (and the other grad students) away from his recent findings and assigns their research in a different direction. Colleen finds this strange, especially since further research could lead to even more publications for her advisor.

Her advisor continues to direct people away from this project until he receives tenure. After receiving tenure, her advisor finally goes back to the project and repeats the experiments. Although some of his results are similar to his original data, all together they no longer support the scientific break-through of his original findings. This leads Colleen’s advisor to retract some of his publications, work that Colleen knows earned him his tenured position.

Since her advisor did not allow others to work on this project and only repeated the experiment after receiving his tenured position, Colleen suspects that her advisor knew something was wrong with the data and did not want to risk his tenure by trying to repeat the experiment too soon. However, she has no concrete evidence that her advisor did anything wrong.

What should Colleen do?

Clare Bartlett was a 2014-2015 Hackworth Fellow in Engineering Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

August 2015

Aug 26, 2015