In this section, we will discuss a number of issues such as professionalism, integrity, and intellectual property that might on the face of it seem peripheral to your undergraduate research experience but which are in actuality vital to your success.

Topics on Professionalism


One of the lessons you will quickly learn is that to be successful in undergraduate research, you must know much more than a large body of scientific facts. You will need a variety of both technical and non-technical skills including:

  • first-class lab technique to produce accurate and precise measurements worthy of data analysis and interpretation;
  • good team building skills as science today is usually accomplished by teams of experts rather than individual investigators working independently;
  • excellent time management skills to balance the many competing demands for your time including courses, part-time jobs, undergraduate research, and social activities; and
  • strong communications skills – both oral and written – in order to communicate your science clearly and persuasively to your peers, the greater scientific community, and the public.

A vital but often not consciously recognized element of the research process is professionalism. In order to carry out your project and communicate its findings, you must able to manage yourself and to partner effectively with others. In this section, you will find some advice on how to successfully navigate some of the many non-technical challenges you must successfully navigate in order to be an effective researcher.

Articles on Professionalism

Negotiating your salary

While we will focus on the issue of negotiating your salary as an undergraduate researcher in this section of WebGURU, the information is fundamentally useful and applicable to the greater issue of negotiations, salary or otherwise, in any business relationship.

Your first step should be to do some research to find out what are the salary norms for your employer. Salaries vary widely in undergraduate research experiences. Pelligrini and Mabrouk conducted a nationwide survey study of faculty involved as research advisors in undergraduate research experiences in the field of chemistry in 2001 (unpublished). They learned that faculty utilize a wide array of methods to support undergraduate research experiences including academic credit, salary, honors thesis, senior thesis, and volunteer status. When faculty paid students a stipend, Pelligrini and Mabrouk found that the average student salary was $7.50/h. However, they noted salaries varied widely with some faculty paying students as low as $3/h while others reported paying salaries as high as $12/h. Thus, it is clear that while UR stipends vary somewhat the average hourly pay rate is slightly less than the current minimum wage. This is important information as you will need to weigh the quality and value of the experience and training you will obtain as an undergraduate researcher against the amount of money you will receive in order to determine what is equitable from your standpoint.

Important considerations you should weigh include the following:

  • What is the potential value of this UR experience to your future career? You need to decide what do you want out of this research experience? Do you want to gain:
    • Hands on experience using a specific method, instrument, etc.?
    • Opportunity to work independently on a particular problem of interest to you?
    • Prospect to publish a paper and/or present at a national meeting?
  • What is the quality of the training environment?
    • What is the supervisor’s record, if any, in working with undergraduates?
    • Who are the other members of the research group?
    • What is their educational background, interests, and expertise?
    • Do you think that they will be valuable mentors to you?
    • Do you think that you will enjoy working with them?
  • What is the quality of the instrumentation and facilities that will be available to you?
  • What are the costs, if any, to you in taking on this undergraduate research experience?
    • How much time will you need to devote to this project?
    • Where will you live? If you must relocate in order to take advantage of this opportunity, will you be provided travel, subsistence, tuition waiver, or other costs?
    • Will you have to pay for anything? How much?

Once you have weighed the merits of the opportunity against the salary and any other considerations, you will need to decide whether or not you will be happy with the salary and the situation as presented to you. If the answer is no, you need to decide what you would truly need in order to make the situation acceptable. Think broadly and carefully; a higher salary may not necessarily be the answer. Next you need to discuss your concerns and requirements with your potential supervisor. It would be a good idea to write down all of the key points you want to get across in advance of the meeting and to bring a paper and pencil with you to the discussion so you can jot down the answers you get. If you find it uncomfortable discussing your requirements with your potential supervisor, then you need to think about the reasons for this (For example: Are these issues on your end? Is this a signal that this person is going to be difficult to work with?). It is important to decide whether or not you will be comfortable discussing other sensitive and important work-related issues with this person in the future. When you meet, don’t make any instant decisions one way or the other. Take at least a day and think through everything carefully. Put your decision in writing (this way you have a record for the future). When you make up your mind, move forward and don’t look back.

Time Management

Unlike traditional college courses, undergraduate research is a relatively unstructured experience. You will find that you have a great deal of freedom and flexibility in terms of what you do and when you choose to do it. This can be both a good or a bad thing depending on how effectively you are able to manage your time. Here we offer some tips on time management that will help you get the most out of your undergraduate research experience.

Suggestions on How to Get Off to a Good Start on Your Research Project

  • Make sure that you know what the goals, objectives, and deadlines, if any, are for your research project and establish a project timeline. Good time management begins with an appropriate appreciation for the “big picture.” If you don’t know where you are going then you will never get there. At the same time it is important to establish a deadline for accomplishing the goal even if the deadline is artificial. Most people work more effectively when they must meet a deadline. It is also important to take time at the outset to plan how you are going to achieve the goal. The individual, bite-size tasks you will need to accomplish in order to achieve your goal are what we refer to as the objectives. Next you will need to figure out how much time you will need in order to accomplish each objective. It is also a wise idea to think about whether or not each objective must be accomplished sequentially or whether any of the objectives can be tackled independent of the rest. This will give you flexibility. With the project outlined as suggested above, you will find it much easier to accomplish your project on time.
  • Take time at the start to research your project to orient yourself with respect to your project and the laboratory. What project will you be working on? What information is already known about the scientific problem, materials with which you will work, etc. Be sure to do the necessary background work on your laboratory and facilities. Good questions include: How do things get done in your lab? For example, how does one order chemicals, reagents, and/or supplies? How do new group members get trained on any specialized equipment or instrumentation? How is the lab organized, i.e., where are the chemicals, instruments, etc. located in the laboratory?
  • Use an organizer or day planner. If you don’t already use a day planner or agenda, consider purchasing a simple one and beginning to learn to use it to track appointments, telephone conversations, e-mail and any written correspondence, etc. related to your research project Day planners can be extremely powerful tools when used reflectively. They can help you see how you spend your time which can in turn can help you learn how to better prioritize your time which will give you more time to do the things you really want to do.
  • Adopt a regular work schedule. Establish for yourself a regular work schedule that you will be able to sustain and you strive to keep to that schedule. To do this it is best to begin by identifying all of the regular activities including time spent commuting, lecture and lab sections, part-time jobs, clubs, sports, etc. Then block out, i.e., set aside time for your research each week. Last comment related to this the schedule you create isn’t magical. It won’t work unless you keep to it.
  • Prioritize. If you aren’t used to long term or short term planning, you might want to begin by keeping “to do” lists for each day. Prioritize the tasks listed for the day and then work through them in the order of their priority. At the end of the day, evaluate your progress and prepare a new list for the next day.
  • Know yourself. Know your limitations – time and abilities. Don’t take on more than you think you can accomplish.
  • Communicate regularly with your advisor. If you find yourself unable to move forward on any task related to your project, meet with your advisor as soon as possible to discuss possible options and/or solutions. Don’t get in the mistaken mindset of thinking that you can only meet with your advisor when you have obtained positive results on your project. You will make stronger and more consistent progress on your project if you discuss difficulties as well as accomplishments with your advisor. Remember their role isn’t to judge you but to teach you.
  • Learn how to stay focused and on task. Until you are confident in your ability, put all your effort into doing one thing at a time. Learn how to say “no” when necessary to requests from your advisor, friends, family, etc. that will divert needed energies from the task at hand.
  • Experiments usually take time to do well – usually more time than you think. This is often the case when you are mastering a new experimental protocol, learning to use a different instrument, etc. Be sure to schedule blocks of time in order to make progress on your project.
  • Understand what you are doing before you try to do anything in the lab. If you don’t understand ask. If you still don’t understand, ask again or ask someone else. It may not seem like this is a time-saving tool but this really is a time saver. If you understand what you are doing when you set about to do it you are more likely to do it right the first time.


Question: I have an examination and need to spend my time preparing for the exam. I really want to just forget about going to the laboratory this week. What should I do?

Answer: Make an appointment to speak with your advisor. I can’t guarantee their response but every research advisor wants to see his/her undergraduate researchers succeed both in the classroom and in the research laboratory. It is important to touch base with your advisor as he/she may have deadlines to meet. It is also simply the mature, responsible thing to do. I can’t guarantee that your advisor won’t be disappointed. However, if you don’t tell him/her about the exam and if you simply don’t show up to lab then I can guarantee that he/she won’t be very happy.


Coping With Stress

Everyone experiences stress at some point in their workplace. The research enterprise is by its nature competitive. The first time some of us realize that we are stressed is when we experience physical symptoms such as dizziness, problems sleeping, headaches, stomach aches, or extreme nervousness. These symptoms which can be irritating at best and debilitating at worst are useful in that they get our attention and help us to realize that we have a problem. Managed well, stress can enhance your job performance and push you to new heights. Managed poorly it can damage your health, personal, and professional life. Consequently, it is important to develop healthy coping skills now at the outset of your professional career. In this section we’ll discuss some strategies for managing stress.

Common sources of stress in undergraduate research often include:

Time Management

Many problems that produced stress result from our failure to understand how to manage time effectively. Specific examples of potential difficulties might include an inability to accurately gauge and budget adequate time to carry out specific protocols and/or experiments, interpret data, prepare presentations, or write a thesis.

Personal Conflict in the Workplace

Conflict with others at work due to differences in communication styles, job expectations, etc. can be extremely stressful. It can be particularly painful if the conflict involves your research advisor. The section “Managing Your Advisor” contains specific information on how to work effectively with your research advisor.

Poor Diet, Lack of Exercise or Insufficient Sleep

Are you taking care of your physical body – eating balanced meals regularly and working out? Are you sleeping well and for a sufficient amount of time? It is no understatement to say that you are what you eat. If you aren’t eating healthy food on a regular basis then you may not have the mental acuity needed to do your research, perform optimally in the classroom, or to deal with the many problems that can arise both inside and outside of the laboratory on an average day. Be sure that you take time out to eat three healthy meals each day. Also, be sure to exercise. Exercise is a known stress reducer. Meal time and regular exercise can also be beneficial because they can provide you with breathing room and time for relaxation and reflection. Lastly, it is important to get sufficient rest. Seven to eight hours is recommended by most health professionals for adults. Too little sleep creates a state of sleep deprivation that may cause you to feel sleepy during the day. Sleep deprivation is very dangerous as it can produce impaired judgment and poor hand-eye coordination that can reduce your efficiency in general and could potentially result in dangerous situations in the research laboratory. Students often turn to caffeine and other stimulants in an effort to combat the effects of sleep deprivation. Although these drugs may prove helpful in the short term in combating the effects of sleep deprivation, they can interfere with sleep and impede the recuperative effects of sleep. Be sure to approach their use with due caution.

Self-Image and Self-Confidence

To be a good researcher, you need to have a healthy self-image. You need to know your strengths and recognize your weaknesses. You need to have a realistic self-confidence in your abilities which may be tested on a daily basis depending on the type of work that you do. No one feels self-confident all the time but if you feel incompetent or like an imposter most of the time then something is wrong either with you or with your work environment. The first step is to figure out whether the problem has to do more with you and your self-view or with your work environment.

Perfectionism and Failure

Most of us want to be the very best that we can be. Too often in the process we set our personal expectations so high that it isn’t humanly possible for us to meet them. The first step is accepting imperfection in ourselves and in others – giving ourselves “permission” to fail. This can be very freeing. Once you accept that you have made a mistake it is important to learn from your mistake so that you can avoid making it again in the future. Don’t get upset by minor things. No one is perfect.

A Holistic Perspective

It is vitally important to take a holistic view to stress. Are you engaged in activities outside the classroom and the research laboratory? If not it is important to have hobbies, exercise, make time for yourself. Do you have healthy personal relationships with people outside the research laboratory? It is important to have a supportive personal support network. Normally, this is constituted of family and friends. These individuals need not be scientists and/or engineers and in fact it is probably better if they aren’t. All these people need to be are folks who know and care about you and are willing to take the time out every so often to listen to you and offer thoughtful, candid feedback.

Unhealthy Work Environment

Unhealthy working conditions can also be a source of stress. Old, poorly functioning equipment and/or instrumentation, dangerous work conditions (e.g., poor ventilation, etc.), inadequate funds to support the purchase of needed materials and/or reagents, or a poor match between project and investigator in terms of interests, expertise, and abilities area all examples of work conditions that can lead to stress. If your work environment is unhealthy, it is important to discuss the issues with your advisor so that appropriate corrective changes can be made in your workplace.

Fear of Public Speaking

It has been said that more people fear public speaking than they do death. It is normal to experience some degree of anxiety in preparing and delivering oral presentations about your work. A certain degree of anxiety can be helpful and spur you to excel. However, the prospect of delivering an oral presentation shouldn’t render you a nervous wreck each time you must do it. You can substantially decrease the level of your anxiety by learning how to prepare and deliver an effective talk. You will also find that over time as you gain experience in public speaking your self-confidence will increase while your anxiety naturally decreases. Some basic tenets of public speaking are outlined in the section entitled Communicating Science.”

Get Professional Help If You Need It

Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. If you are experiencing severe depression, are preoccupied with death, have experienced one or more major losses recently, these are warning signs of a potentially serious mental health problem. If you need help, speak to someone. It is important to understand that there is nothing wrong in seeking professional help in order to learn to deal with stress. The Counseling Services Office at your workplace or academic institution is a safe place to go if you need to speak with someone.

Dealing With Failure

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
-Albert Einstein

The majority of novels, television shows and motion pictures about scientific research often leave the mistaken impression that research is an almost mystical “eureka” process in which the researcher leaps from “A” to “Z” in one instantaneous, perfect step. The reality is that research is a lengthy, sometimes tedious and even laborious process in which the researcher may perform many experiments or sometimes repeat the same experiment repeatedly unsuccessfully before finally obtaining the desired results. Failure is a normal and integral aspect of the research process.

In research we form a hypothesis or best guess based on current understanding of the phenomenon under investigation and then we devise an experiment to test that hypothesis. Hypotheses are often wrong. In these cases experiments may not go as planned so it is critical for student researchers to understand that it is quite normal for experiments to go other than as planned and to not get upset and take it personally when this happens – even if it happens repeatedly. Remember you aren’t a failure if your experiment fails.

Science is all about being creative – thinking outside the box and about taking calculated risks. Failures can lead to new research ideas and new directions. Failures provide correction regarding long held but sometimes false concepts or ideas in a field. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

How can you minimize the risk of failure and maximize the likelihood of your success?

  • Acquire knowledge – read as much as you can;
  • Discuss – talk about your work with your peers and with experts in the field (note make sure that you have your advisor’s permission and that you aren’t giving away your ideas);
  • Review and reflect on failures – reflect on the process and the outcome of the experiment and try to understand why the experiment didn’t go as planned. If you are stuck, take a break, discuss your work with other knowledgeable individuals.
  • Implement corrective action – remember you won’t get a different outcome unless you change something about what you are doing.

Extreme Emotions

It is normal to be upset, become angry, cry, and to feel a loss of control when things go wrong and experiments fail in the lab. However, if you become depressed, feel that you cannot cope, or experience suicidal thoughts then it is important that you seek help from a mental health professional at your school or workplace.

Managing Your Advisor

Advisor styles and methods are as varied as advisors themselves. Some advisors are extraverted, gregarious, social animals. Others are shy, moody, and some even socially awkward individuals. Results from a 2000 national study (Mabrouk and Peters) of undergraduate research students revealed that no matter their personality, a good advisor is someone who is knowledgeable about the research project, enthusiastic, available, and patient.

Effective communication with your advisor is an essential skill. You may be the best research student in the world but if you never tell your advisor what you have been able to achieve in the lab then he/she is not likely to be able to form that same positive opinion of you and your abilities. The principles discussed in this section are ones you will find useful in the long term no matter what type of career you ultimately pursue.

Frequent Communication is Normal, Important and Expected
It is really important to meet frequently and regularly with your research advisor as you begin your undergraduate research experience. Don’t avoid speaking with your advisor because you are afraid that he/she will think you are “bothering” them too much. Be assured that your advisor expects you to have a lot of questions and to need more assistance at the start of your project. If you are experiencing difficulties making progress on your research project, it is perhaps more important to make an effort to communicate regularly with your advisor about your work.

Although this depends somewhat on your advisor’s approach to group management, he/she will likely want to schedule regular weekly meetings with you when you first start your project. This is likely because he/she wants to be able to give you his/her full and undivided attention. Take it as a positive sign and make every effort to arrive on-time and prepared to discuss your progress. Bring your lab notebook and recent data with you and be prepared to open the discussion with a summary of your recent activities and accomplishments in the lab.

What Should I Tell My Advisor?

Be sure to let your advisor know your schedule, any difficult classes you may be taking, any health concerns, and any other information that might help them to understand you, your abilities, and time constraints on your availability in the lab.

Don’t feel that you must confine your conversations simply to what happens in the research laboratory however remember no matter your advisor’s age, personality, or interests, your advisor is your boss. Keep your conversations professional.

  • Do make sure that your advisor knows your career goals and interests. He/she may have knowledge of certain programs and/or other opportunities for which you may qualify. If your advisor isn’t aware of your interests and abilities, they may not think to inform you concerning these opportunities.
  • Don’t share details about your personal life – dating activities, etc. Sharing personal information is generally regarded as unprofessional and inappropriate for the workplace. While you may feel that your research advisor is your friend and mentor, remember that he/she is also your supervisor/employer. If you are experiencing personal problems that are impacting or may impact your ability to carry out your research project and you need a sounding board do approach your advisor and seek his/her assistance.

Understand Your Advisor’s Goals

To be successful it is important to understand what makes your advisor “tick.”

Why do faculty work with undergraduate students? In 2001, Jared Pelligrini and Patricia Mabrouk conducted an unpublished study of chemistry faculty across the U.S. involved in undergraduate research. The researchers found that faculty participate in undergraduate research for a variety of reasons including:

  • Faculty enjoy research;
  • Faculty enjoy working with students;
  • Faculty like solving important problems; and
  • Faculty participation may be required for tenure, and/or promotion, and/or merit raises.

This study also found that a significant number of faculty are motivated because of their own highly positive undergraduate research experiences. So, the bottom line is that your faculty mentor may have very altruistic, idealistic reasons but they may also have very practical, pragmatic reasons for working with you in the laboratory.

Since most faculty support their research efforts in the laboratory through externally acquired research grants, it is important for you as a student to appreciate the pressures and time constraints under which your advisor may work. The duration of a typical federally funded research grant is three years. Each year, the principal investigator, the individual leading the research project, must file a progress report summarizing the work that has been accomplished, describe the plans for the next year, and list the publications that have been submitted and/or which have been published since the previous progress report. Most federal grant programs expect the investigator to submit a list of at least five peer-reviewed publications.

Industrial research grants are typically awarded on a year-by-year basis. The principal investigator may have to submit not only a written report of research productivity for the time period of the award but may also be required to make a formal presentation to the company. Because of concerns related to intellectual property rights, productivity is not normally measured in terms of peer-reviewed publications and meeting presentations.

Understand Your Advisor’s Management Style

Some research advisors are focused on the big picture while others are very detail oriented. Some advisors run their groups using a democratic, non-hierarchical approach while others are authoritarian and may even seem dictatorial in their management style. Some faculty advisors work alongside their students in the lab while others prefer to manage their groups from their offices. To be successful as a research student, it is important to know your advisor’s management style and be able to work with it.

Faculty may place different emphasis on different aspects of the research process depending on their strengths and weaknesses. Overall, as a manager of people and resources your advisor’s focus is likely on the “big picture.” This means that your advisor ensure that the people working in the lab are making good progress on their respective research problems.

In general students are given problems that haven’t heretofore been studied in the past. This means that your advisor will attempt to match each research problem to each student – career goals, research interests, skills, and abilities – to the best of his/her ability. You can maximize your likelihood of success by communicating clearly and accurately to your advisor what your career goals are, time constraints (courses you are taking or plan to take while working on your research problem, any outside job commitments, student activities, etc.), the nature of your technical expertise (coursework, grades, and research experiences), etc. If you find that your research problem is too easy, too difficult, or simply uninteresting, be sure to let your advisor know as soon as possible so that they can modify or change the project and/or resources in order to ensure you make good progress.

Advice on Dealing with Difficult Bosses

If you understand what faculty don’t like, it may help you to understand when your advisor seems to be a difficult boss and why. Like students, faculty have limited time and resources with which to accomplish their goals. So, naturally faculty aren’t happy when students quit unexpectedly, without notice, or fail to meet project deadlines and when precious research resources such as equipment and reagents are wasted or broken. If you encounter difficulties with your advisor, it may be due to a failure to communicate on your end or you may simply have a difficult boss (smile).

Strive to be positive, enthusiastic about your project, and not argumentative when you speak with your advisor. Think about your own experiences. When are you most likely to assist someone who asks you for help? In general, people are more likely to assent to a request when the requestor is friendly and positive.

Expect to receive some criticism. Hopefully this will be balanced with constructive criticism and honest praise. As a student learner, you will be doing things you have never done before and it may take you several attempts before you are successful in mastering some skills, etc. If you advisor reacts negatively, it may be that your boss is frustrated with your actions and/or with the outcome of the experiment. It is also possible, that your advisor may not be sure what the problem is or how to fix it. Some people get upset and react badly when they are faced with situations over which they don’t feel that they have knowledge and/or control. Keep cool and try not to take any criticism personally. Ask for suggestions. If you have a thin skin and find it difficult to accept any criticism, you will find it difficult to be successful in the long term in your career so work hard now to develop healthy, positive coping skills that will allow you to accept and learn from any criticism you may receive.

Don’t be afraid of conflict. Conflict is inevitable in any human relationship. The most important thing is how you react when conflict occurs. If at all possible, don’t attack the person, instead focus on the facts. Depending on the situation, it may make sense to look for a compromise, an action/activity that will meet the needs of both parties involved in the conflict. If compromise doesn’t appear possible, consider bringing in a third party or mediator.

Special Situations: Younger Faculty

If you work with a young faculty member it is useful to know that faculty learn how to be research mentors “on the job.” Most faculty are hired directly upon completing several years of postdoctoral study in which the main focus of their work is demonstrating independent research productivity. This means that normally a new Assistant Professor is not likely to have completed any management training classes or to have any real practical experience in running an independent research group. It also means that most young faculty are likely to model their own management practices for better or worse on those of their (undergraduate – if they did undergraduate research themselves), graduate or postgraduate research groups.

Last Things: Keep in Touch

Important to keep in touch even after your formal research relationship ends as your advisor can provide you with useful career mentoring and may be useful as a reference for future jobs, graduate and/or professional school. Don’t be afraid to send an occasional e-mail message or holiday card or to telephone or stop by to say hello.


Mabrouk, P.A.; Peters, K. CUR Quarterly 2000, 21, 25-33. “Student Perspectives on Undergraduate Research (UR) Experiences in Chemistry and Biology.”

Working Independently

One of the abilities that most faculty mentors (and employers, folks!) desire to cultivate in their undergraduate charges is independence. In this section, we’ll discuss some strategies that will help you learn how to become a self-motivated, self-regulating independent scientist. You will find that the principles you learn here are foundational to lifelong learning, professional growth, development, and long term career satisfaction. They will stand you in good stead in your life no matter your specific choice of career or career path.

A good place to begin is by carefully thinking about your own learning style. Useful questions to think about include:

  • Do you like to work independently or do you need a more structured environment?
  • Are you self-motivated or do you need regular feedback in order to make progress?
  • Do you work best at your own pace or when prodded by others?

What does it mean to be independent?

It means:

  • Becoming self-aware, self-monitoring and self-correcting;
  • Knowing what you need to do;
  • Taking the initiative rather than waiting to be told what to do;
  • Doing what is asked to the best of your ability, without the need for external prodding, and working until the job is completed;
  • Learning to work at a pace that you can sustain;
  • Taking ownership of your mistakes without looking for excuses; and
  • Refusing to let self-doubt or negative emotions due to negative past experiences take you off course.

Key to being independent is your:

  • Self-awareness,
  • Self-motivation, and
  • Self-regulation.

We will consider each of these characteristics below.


Self-awareness refers to your knowledge and understanding of yourself – your emotions, beliefs, assumptions, biases, knowledge base, abilities, motivations, interests, etc. As you carry out your undergraduate research project, make a conscious effort to learn about yourself – your abilities, beliefs, likes and dislikes.

Some useful questions to think about in this regard are the following:

  • What kind of science do you enjoy doing? Fundamental or applied?
  • Do you enjoy working in the lab or in an office?
  • Do you enjoy explaining your work? How? Orally? In Writing? Both?
  • Do you like working with others as a member of a team or do you prefer to work by yourself?
  • Are you a good listener?
  • Can you handle personal conflict?
  • Do you prefer delving into a problem deeply?
  • Do you see the “big picture”?
  • Do you prefer to work on short term projects (6 months or less) or long term projects?
  • Do you enjoy using instrumentation? What kinds?
  • Do you enjoy using computers and/or software?
  • Do you enjoy travel? Can you speak one or more foreign languages conversationally? Can you read in another language?
  • Are you self-motivated? Do you require external prompts in order to meet deadlines and/or achieve results?

Your answers to these questions will help you identify your skill set, interests, career path, and motivators.

Personality assessment can also be very useful in helping you gain insight into yourself, your strengths, weaknesses, motivators and provide you with insights into how to grow personally and professionally. Examples of frequently used personality assessment tools include the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBPI), the Caliper Profile, and the Kiersey Temperament Sorter. It is useful to be aware of these tools as private industry often uses these in making hiring, performance appraisal, and team building. A number of these personality assessment tools are available on the world-wide web. The MBPI is used widely. If you ask around, it is highly likely that you will be able to find an office at your academic institution where you can complete the MBPI and obtain your personality profile at no cost.


Self-motivation refers to your ability to identify effective methods of getting yourself to move from thought to action. Everyone is different. Some individuals are highly self-motivated while others require the imposition of external deadlines or some type of reward or penalty in order to move from thought to action. Identifying your specific needs in this area is the first step.

A common barrier to action is often the perception that a task is too large or too complex to accomplish. If that is an issue for you, then a useful practice is to break down the job into several smaller, more “doable” tasks each of which you can envision accomplishing in a set time period.


Self-regulation focuses on your ability to affect personal and professional growth based on your self-awareness and motivation.

Useful questions you should ask yourself in an effort to self-regulate are the following:

  • Who will provide direct supervision or oversight on my project? With what frequency (daily, weekly, etc.)?
  • What are the deadlines, if any, relevant to my research project?
  • What are the formal requirements, if any, for my research? These might include progress reports, oral presentations, a final written report or thesis?
  • What are the outcomes that I desire from my participation in this project? What, if anything, do I need to do in order to achieve these outcomes?

Day planners can be extremely tools facilitating self-regulation. There are a number of commercial companies such as Day Timer and Franklin Covey that sell day planner products and services (books, magazines, and seminars) in support of their planner products. Today a growing number of colleges and universities are providing their students with planners and offer free seminars on how to use them effectively (time management).

Reflective journaling is another tool that can be extremely useful in developing greater self-awareness and becoming self-regulating. You will find more information on reflective journaling here.

Advisor/Student Relationship

Mutual respect, honesty, and fairness are critical in any collaborative scientific efforts involving two or more people but perhaps no place is it more important than in the student-teacher relationship. Recognizing the uniqueness and importance of this relationship, many professional organizations even discuss it in their creeds. For example, the American Chemical Society’s Chemist’s Code of Conduct states:

“Associates. Chemists should treat associates with respect, regardless of the level of their formal education, encourage them, learn with them, share ideas honestly, and give credit for their contributions.”In part this is due to the status and power differentials in the relationship. Clear communication on both sides of the advising relationship is key to minimizing difficulties – advisors and their students often are from different cultures, generations, and family backgrounds. Significant problems don’t arise very often but when they do, they are often graphic and extreme. Examples of abuses of the faculty-student relationship might include advisors asking students to do personal work such as baby-sitting, mowing lawns or raking leaves, photocopying exams, etc. (exploitation) or advisors imposing unwanted emotional or physical demands on students in the form of unwanted physical contact (e.g., touching), sexual or racial jokes, sexual comments about your body or physical appearance, social or sexual requests, etc. (sexual harassment)

Harassment and Exploitation

Harassment, exploitation and sexual harassment are unethical and illegal. If you are not sure but are concerned that you may have been exploited, physically or sexually harassed by a faculty member, supervisor or other personnel at your workplace, it is important to seek help as you may experience severe emotions and serious physical problems if you attempt to ignore the situation. It is also important to speak with someone as others may also unwittingly become victims as well if the harassment or exploitation goes unreported. If you believe that you have been the victim of exploitation or sexual harassment, you should bring the matter as soon as possible after the alleged incident to the attention of the sexual harassment officer at your workplace. The harassment officer will listen, respecting your privacy and confidentiality, help you sort out your thoughts, inform you concerning the available options if you want to resolve the situation, and can act as a third-party intervenor, if you wish, with the alleged harasser. They are also in the best position to protect you, if you feel it is needed, against retaliation and/or reprisals and can assist you in obtaining any psychological, medical or religious help you may need in order to deal with the situation.

Less extreme problems are more commonplace and often arise from differences in personal style, for example, some advisors may be moody, mean, thoughtless, and simply unpleasant people to work for. Differences can also arise due to differences in expectations including work schedule (duration of employment, hours per week, etc.), nature of the project, specific research tasks and outcomes, the form of payment, project evaluation criteria, or assignment of credit. Consequently, it is a wise idea to craft a research learning contract detailing your expectations and requirements for the relationship at the outset of your research project. This can go a long way to circumventing misunderstandings and problems on both sides of the working relationship.


  • Be scrupulous in your dealings with others. You will never regret it.
  • Keep your relationship with your advisor professional. Romantic and/or sexual relationships between teachers and students, even when consensual, are problematic at best.
  • Always try to identify shared values when trying to deal with conflict.
  • Be selective in waging any battles. Fighting whether physically or figuratively takes time and energy from you. Recognize that it may be a losing battle as there are some things you may not be able to change – affecting institutional change is one of them and getting other people to change their behavior is another. The effort you expend fighting may simply exhaust you unnecessarily, diverting your focus from the things you could be doing that are positive. Be sure you count the cost.
  • Life isn’t always fair. Move on. Don’t try to get revenge. Such efforts often backfire and may cost you more than they will the other person – personally, emotionally, and/or professionally.

Dealing With Difficult People

In this section we will explore strategies for dealing constructively with those difficult people with whom you may find yourself laboring at school or work. They are everywhere if you haven’t noticed. On a more serious note, it really is critical to master this life skill early in your career as you will encounter difficult people in the workplace. Both your short term and long term career success and satisfaction will depend to a significant extent on your ability to successfully interact with these people.

The take home messages in this section are:

  1. People are difficult so it is helpful to be able to identify them and understand why they are difficult; and
  2. There are techniques that may be useful in dealing with the difficult people in your life; and practicing them now will make your life and future career much more pleasant and successful!

People ARE Difficult

Most people in the workplace are quite normal and nice ordinarily but may become difficult under special circumstances aka Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It should make sense then that if we can begin to identify some of the common potential stressors, situations that bring out the worst in people, this might allow you to better deal with these folks as will help you identify options and to act rather than react to any unpleasant situations that may arise with your difficult people.

Difficult People May Be Difficult for a Reason or Well… Difficult People May Simply Be Difficult

Some otherwise nice, normal people can become difficult people under certain circumstances. Common triggers are feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. The root of their problems may be a lack of social, self-efficacy, or even technical skills. There are others however who are simply, well, difficult. They are downright loud, mean, and contrary to everyone they meet in every situation that arises and yes, everyone knows this but that doesn’t prevent them from wreaking havoc wherever they go.

Some difficult people are aggressive while others may be passive in their aggression. Sounds funny doesn’t it? The aggressive difficult people are perhaps the easiest to identify. They are loud, intimidating, argumentative, even hostile in their demeanor. Not all aggressives are openly aggressive. Some difficult people appear quite pleasant on the surface but be covertly hostile behind the scenes taking verbal pot shots, delivering backhanded compliments. This may make these folks even more dangerous than the difficult people who are openly hostile-aggressive. Others are more passive in their aggression. They may be pleasant, cooperative on the surface but just never able to make a decision, take a risk, or complete an assignment. From their perspective, the problems are always external. Their behavior can be as toxic to you, your success, and happiness as those who are aggressively difficult.

Tips on dealing with difficult people

First, recognize that it isn’t helpful or healthful to take the behavior of difficult people personally.

Second and perhaps more importantly, what you need to realize is that you aren’t going to change or fix them. It isn’t your job and I don’t think you really want that job anyway. No one – and I repeat no one – changes their behavior unless and until they want to change their behavior. So, what can you do? The only person you can change is yourself. So, focus on changing your pattern of emotional and behavioral response to the difficult people in your life so that you make healthy and productive emotional and behavioral choices that benefit you now and in the long term!

Third, manage your emotions in your dealings with these people. Learn to depersonalize their behavior. This is what I suggested at the outset and is perhaps the most important piece of advice I can offer. Don’t become defensive with your difficult person. This will only fan the fire. Don’t play their game (it may be a game in their mind by the way even if it is not a game to you). Recognize that they act the way they do because this strategy believe it or not has worked well for them before in similar situations. This doesn’t mean that their behavior is positive, healthy, or that it produces the results that you or I would consider productive but rather that it meets their needs, emotional or behavioral, not necessarily in a rational or productive way that you or I would understand. Don’t expect or try to understand them as this isn’t going to change these people or their pattern of behavior.

Do seek support from others. Depending on the seriousness of the situation, you may find it useful, for example, to keep a dated written record of your interactions with your difficult person. Depending on who the difficult person is it may be useful to discuss the situation with your advisor, a trusted friend and/or colleague. Consider seeking professional support through your Human Resource Management department.

Finally, as with anything in life, recognize that dealing with difficult people is a skill worth learning and that as a skill it is one you can cultivate with practice. Commit to assess past incidents and learn from them: Who was involved? What happened? How did you feel? How did you respond? How do you wish you had responded? What could you do differently in the future to affect a positive outcome to a similar incident?

Dealing with aggressive, difficult people

Be clear with aggressive difficult people about how you want or don’t want to be treated and don’t allow them to treat you otherwise. If you are upset by something that your aggressive difficult person says, you can respond with a comment like: “That wasn’t nice. Please do not speak to me like that.”

If you anticipate unpleasantness in meeting with your aggressive difficult person, meet them in a neutral location, one in which you feel safe. If your aggressive person uses indirect or covert tactics, bring them out into the open, name the offending comments or actions and directly question your aggressive difficult person about their verbal attacks. If appropriate, consider asking a colleague or supervisor to be present when you meet with this person. If the difficult person is your supervisor, consider inviting their supervisor to be present or invite a mutually respected third party.

If your difficult person becomes angry, don’t allow them to make you angry or upset. If you do become upset, try counting to ten before you say anything. If you feel you are going to cry or say something you will regret, excuse yourself, go to the restroom or step outside and compose yourself. Don’t let your difficult person’s poor behavior harm or eat away at you: Consider doing something physical like vigorous exercise, cleaning, or a relaxing, calming activity like yoga or painting. You may also find it therapeutic to vent your anger and frustration on paper or on your computer. However, if you choose to do this, be sure to delete, if an electronic document, or shred it, if on paper, least your words take on an unwanted life of their own, which will only exacerbate the situation with your difficult person and/or backfire on you.

Once your anger and frustration have subsided, pat yourself on the back for handling a difficult situation well, process the situation, and plan (time, location, script) your next conversation with the difficult person.

Dealing with passive difficult people

Passive difficult people crave approval but feel unqualified and therefore are unable to take the actions they need to in order to earn the approval and respect they seek. Since they feel that they are unable to meet expectations and they can’t admit that they may be noncommittal or feign agreement when asked to perform a task or work with others on a project but will likely be among the first to blame other people when things don’t work out. The best strategy for dealing with passive difficult people is to meet their misbehavior head on and bring it out into the open. For example if your passive difficult person misses an important deadline, offer to meet with them and inquire why. They may feel unable to perform the task assigned and unable to acknowledge that openly. If this turns out to be the case, offer to provide them assistance in order to complete the assigned task.

Switching Research Groups

Sometimes problems arise in the undergraduate research experience that may make it wise to consider either leaving the research group or joining another lab. Sometimes the problem may involve your relationship with your advisor: it may become too personal (unwanted physical contact, e-mail messages, etc.) or abusive (students expected to perform personal work for the advisor, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality). Other problems may also arise – you may suddenly realize that the research area simply isn’t interesting to you or that it is too challenging. It may also be that the opportunity for gaining hands on experience or exerting independence may be too limited or that you would prefer more assistance and/or direction. Finally, you may simply realize that the timing isn’t right (course load too difficult, too many other obligations). In this section we’ll discuss some of the pros and cons of switching research groups and suggest some approaches to leaving on good terms with your advisor.

If you are having difficulties it is important for you to be honest with yourself and your advisor. Consider whether the difficulties may be on your end of the relationship: exhaustion, lack of interest in the project, dislike of your advisor and/or other group members, or the project may be too challenging. Sometimes students expect their advisor to serve as a friend and mentor. Some students are lucky enough to find an advisor who becomes their mentor over time but that isn’t the norm.

If you are thinking about leaving the group or switching labs, it is important that you discuss your concerns first with your advisor as sometimes the problems are due to misunderstandings, unarticulated expectations, etc. and the relationship may be repaired. Even if you have already made up your mind to leave (hopefully you will keep an open mind), it is important to speak face to face with your advisor and explain your concerns. This is especially important if you plan to later solicit a letter of recommendation from your advisor. Depending on the seriousness of the problems between you and your advisor you may alternately wish to discuss the situation with another trusted faculty member and/or ask him/her to serve as a mediator between you and your advisor. Some departments have an ombudsman for this specific purpose.

Last words: If you do decide to leave the laboratory or switch research groups, it is important to be professional when you make your move. Be sure to cooperate with your advisor in all ways, leaving all research materials (lab notebooks, etc.) behind and assisting him/her in the transition of your project, if required, and not to badmouth your advisor or research group to others when you leave. Although it may be therapeutic, this behavior is unprofessional and won’t win you any friends.


Being an Effective Team Member

Increasingly due to the complexity of today’s research problems, science and engineering research projects both in industry and academe are being accomplished through group rather than individual investigator efforts. Single investigators may not have the time, skills, and/or expertise to accomplish the various tasks that must be carried out successfully in order to successfully tackle the problem of interest. Working with a team requires a different skill set from that required in traditional single-investigator based research efforts. To be an effective team member it is essential to have good people skills and effective communication skills in addition to a strong technical skill set.

Some useful guidelines for being an effective team member include:

Respect Your Colleagues

If you are new to team-based projects, it is important to understand that everyone on the team brings with them unique technical expertise, knowledge, and experience that should be valued by all of the team members if the team is to be successful. This means that you should make a good effort to listen to other people’s ideas and suggestions respectfully. In turn, you should expect the same from your colleagues. Note that this doesn’t mean that you must become “best friends” with everyone on your team, i.e., you don’t have to eat together, socialize together, and/or share any personal information with your colleagues unless you choose to. However, it is important that you are personable and that you make a good effort to pleasant when interacting with everyone.

Be Responsible

Be proactive. If you notice that there is a task that needs to be done and you have the skills to accomplish it, speak up and take on that task. Be dependable – do your fair share of the work and strive to accomplish any assignments in a timely fashion so that the team can meet any deadlines. Be accountable. If you agree to take on a specific task, it is important for you to follow through on your promise and if you encounter technical difficulties in meeting your obligations to bring this information to the attention of your group as soon as possible so alternatives can be explored and any goals met.

Communicate Effectively

Good communication skills are essential in teamwork. This means you should strive to be open to other people’s ideas. Listen thoughtfully and be enthusiastic in your support of their ideas if warranted. Take the initiative to share your own ideas and do so respectfully. A good guideline to follow in dealing with others is the “Golden Rule”: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” Bottom line: Assume the best of your teammates and in turn give your teammates your personal best.

Conflict is Inevitable

Whenever you work with people, conflict is inevitable. Each of us brings with us different views on just about everything. So, it should make sense to you that if the team is to be successful, members cannot simply ignore or complain about problems that threaten the accomplishment of the team’s goals. Team members need to identify roadblocks to productivity and bring these in a helpful, positive way to the attention of the team to ensure its success. Being able to deal with emotions and emotional issues in a productive way for all involved or emotional intelligence is a critical skill in team-based work. Managed poorly, conflict can stymie creativity, impede teamwork, and even cause the team to fail to meets its goals and/or deadlines. If members have problems, it is important for them to bring these problems out in the open for discussion by the group without assigning blame, which does little if anything to solve a problem. Although tempting, gossiping with colleagues about difficult team members only creates tension, may get back to them (creating more tension), and erects barriers that won’t get the work done. In concluding this section, it is useful to recognize that conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Conflict, managed productively, can lead to new ideas, more thoughtful decisions, and superior results.

Give Credit Where Credit is Due

Team efforts are also different in terms of how credit is apportioned. Consequently, it is important to support good ideas, to give credit where credit is due, and to assertively speak up when you have made a significant contribution that merits recognition.

Research Integrity

Integrity is the cornerstone of scientific research. Without it, the complex interweave of the delicate fabric that is scientific research begins to fall apart in often unanticipated and undesirable ways. What we do as individual scientists in terms of the experimental protocols and materials we use, the “facts” on which we base our work, the quality of the materials we produce (software, drugs and reagents, materials, and technical data), the communications we have with others about our work and theirs affects untold others every day. To advance and innovate individually and as a community, we rely strongly on the delicate bond of trust and honesty that exists between us, as members of the greater scientific community.

In this section, we will look at some of the key issues of which you should be aware as an apprentice in the greater scientific research community. Our goal here isn’t to tell you what to think, what to do, or to provide you with any magical algorithms or formulas for reaching a decision regarding right and wrong in any situation. You will quickly find that the landscape in scientific research by virtue of its unexplored and often unanticipated nature is fraught with complex, multi-faceted issues. Such issues require thought and may need to be revisited as new data become available. You will find that prior experience, family, culture, and religious beliefs may lead you to at times to a consensus with your peers but at other times to a different viewpoint and/or action than those around you. Consequently, the point is to equip you to think first, ask second, and act third when faced with new, unfamiliar, and often complex ideas and situations. This will enable you to sidestep problems when possible/practical, make wise decisions when challenges arise (and they will), and in the long term equip you to act with moral leadership when called upon to adjudicate the complex challenges of modern research with wisdom, compassion, and personal integrity.

Why Is Research Integrity So Important?

Research integrity is the commitment – sometimes in the face of adversity – to the trustworthiness of the research process by the greater scientific community. It is important – even critical – because the greater scientific community can only innovate and flourish when its members function together as a body to ensure a climate that promotes confidence and trust in our research findings, encourages free and open exchange of research materials and new ideas, upholds personal and corporate accountability, and acknowledges and respects the intellectual contributions of others in the greater community.


Articles on Research Integrity

Count the Cost – Whistleblowers

Each of us as a member of the scientific community shares the responsibility for upholding the integrity of the research process and of the scholarship that results from this effort. It is important that we don’t ignore or tolerate misconduct when it occurs and that we take action when necessary to correct problems. Research integrity calls each of us, as members of the greater scientific community, to responsible action not indifference when research misconduct occurs. Speaking up however about ethical concerns though emotionally and morally satisfying often brings with it some negative consequences. So, it is really important to count the cost before you speak out. Don’t assume that your privacy will or can be protected. That is not to say that you shouldn’t speak out for fear of possible personal penalty or reprisal but that you should make sure that you are prepared to deal with the possible consequences of your actions. At a minimum, those who bring to light misconduct are often branded “whistleblowers.” There may also be significant personal and professional costs including the advent of adverse and hostile working conditions, loss of job or demotion, etc. The bottom line is that it takes courage and conviction to speak out.

When should you speak out? When:

  • Criminal action is involved;
  • Research misconduct has occurred;
  • Physical injury or loss of life could result; and/or
  • Facilities, equipment or materials and resources are at risk

If you wish to report an allegation, you should report the incident in writing and provide as much information as possible including the nature of the alleged misconduct, the name of the individual(s) involved and their role(s) in the incident, the date and location of the incident, and a detailed description of the incident. Any written documentation supporting your concerns should be cited and provided as well. Depending on the severity of the situation, your college and/or university may act quickly to form a committee to investigate the alleged misconduct. Since serious allegations are not encountered routinely in academe, it is difficult to describe here the specifics of the investigation process but you should expect it to be protracted and likely contentious by virtue of the seriousness of the allegations involved. The Office of Research Integrity has published model procedures that should be used when allegations of research misconduct are made in laboratories receiving federal support.

Documented examples of genuine research misconduct are rare. The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research Integrity (NIH ORI) publishes on ORI’s website summaries of recent closed cases that concluded that misconduct had occurred or that resulted in administrative action but did not conclude that misconduct had occurred.

Fundamental Types of Research Dilemmas

Research presents a unique set of ethical challenges. Being aware of these challenges and being prepared to deal with them are vital to your success as a researcher. Do you think you are prepared? Can you can answer all of the following questions?

  • Who owns the laboratory notebook?
  • With whom can you discuss your research? What can you tell these individuals about your research?
  • Who owns the creative findings that will result from your work in the laboratory?
  • What is required for authorship in your laboratory? Will your name go on the by-line of any papers or presentations that result from your work?
  • What is required for inventorship in your laboratory? Will you be listed as an inventor or any new intellectual property that results from your work this summer?
  • Is it ever “OK” to copy something you read in print? What information should you cite (credit) when you write up your work? Do you know how to properly cite the work of others in any presentations and/or publications you will create?
  • Is it ever “OK” to “modify” data, omit data, or make up data?
  • What relationships if any do you have that might bias you or appear to bias you in the conduct or reporting of your research?
  • What, if any, are the hazards that are presented by your research project (reagents, products) to you, your colleagues, your institution, and the world? How will you minimize these dangers to yourself and others?


Falsification/Fabrication of Data

Falsification/Fabrication of Data

The integrity of research depends on the integrity of the data and the data record. As falsification and fabrication call into question the integrity of data and the data record, they represent serious issues in scientific ethics. Falsification is the practice of omitting or altering research materials, equipment, data, or processes in such a way that the results of the research are no longer accurately reflected in the research record. Fabrication is the practice of inventing data or results and recording and/or reporting them in the research record. Both of these schemes are probably among the most serious offenses in scientific research as they challenge the credibility of everyone and everything involved in a research effort. These offenses make it very difficult for scientists to move forward as it is unclear to anyone what if anything is true and can be trusted– can lead students and colleagues to waste precious time, effort, and resources investigating dead ends. Our interconnectedness makes us all vulnerable when one member acts irresponsibly.

A prime example of this is the case of wunderkind physicist Dr. Jan Hendrick Schon of Bell Laboratories. Allegations of fabrication and falsification of published data first came to light in 2002 when researchers presented Bells Laboratories with evidence that data presented in five papers published over a two year period were suspicious. Noise, which is usually random in pattern, on data in two of the figures looked identical. Only a short time later, the authenticity of data appearing in nine more figures published in eight additional papers were also called into question by the physics community. Ultimately, Bell Laboratories concluded that Dr. Schon either falsified or fabricated data appearing in publications between 1998 and 2001 and terminated his employment. Co-authors retracted seven articles published in Nature and eight articles appearing in Science. Independent efforts by scientists at IBM and Delft University (Netherlands) failed to reproduce data from several studies. Lucent Technologies’ executive summary and report of the investigation can be found here. Since Schon and colleagues had published a large body of work in recent years and since the work was considered to be revolutionary, the impact of his malfeasance on research in the field of field effect transistors (FETs) has been said to be enormous. Govert Schilling in an article appearing in Science magazine in 2002 (G. Schilling. (2002) Science 296, 1584-1585) estimated that over 100 groups worldwide were working on related projects when the misconduct came to light. In a number of these laboratories postdoctoral and graduate students had been unsuccessfully working on efforts to replicate and build on Schon’s work.

Ownership of Research Materials and Data

Ownership of Research Materials and Data

Normally research materials such as chemical reagents, solvents, etc. and miscellaneous supplies including notebooks, pens, zip disks, CDs, paper, etc. are provided by your research advisor and workplace for your use in carrying out your research project. These materials are purchased using internal or external funds specifically designated to support the project on which you are working. This means that these materials are the property of the research laboratory and/or institution where you are carrying out your research. Perhaps the most important of these materials is the laboratory notebook. Since it is a record of all of the work that has been performed on a specific project, it has immense value in terms of the intellectual property (research ideas, evidence of reduction to practice, etc.) for your advisor and your workplace. For this reason, it is not acceptable to remove laboratory notebooks or any other materials and supplies from the research lab without your advisor’s express permission nor is it acceptable to remove pages from the notebook or to photocopy pages without obtaining express permission to do so. Note that many laboratory notebooks, particularly those that you may be required to purchase for your science and engineering laboratory courses, are designed to allow the user to make a copy of the contents of the notebook. Don’t assume that simply because the notebook design allows you to make a copy that you have your advisor and/or your workplace’s permission to make and retain photocopies of the notebook contents.

It is also not acceptable to borrow and use research materials for demonstrations, science fairs or any other projects and/or activities outside the workplace without first obtaining the express permission of your advisor and workplace. There are two potential issues here: intellectual property rights and laboratory safety (liability issues), too. In some cases, the materials you may use in your work may have been acquired from other research groups and/or companies through legal signed “transfer of materials” agreements that limit their use. Even if there are no signed agreements, unanticipated problems resulting from the use of misuse of the research materials may pose health risks that could pose serious legal liability issues for you and your employer.


  • As a student working in someone else’s research laboratory, it is important for you to find out what your advisor’s policies are regarding the ownership of research materials and data and follow
  • Always ask first and obtain written permission from your advisor to use or remove any materials outside the laboratory


If there is one issue with which you are likely at least somewhat familiar, it is plagiarism. That said, although many students have heard the term “plagiarism” most are unclear exactly what plagiarism really is and why the issue is taken so seriously in academe and the scientific profession as whole. In this section, we’ll discuss plagiarism and outline some useful strategies you can implement today in order to prevent problems now and in the future.

Stories of incidents involving plagiarism abound on most college campuses. The development of the internet and the ability afforded by computers and computer technology to copy and paste from written documents has no doubt exascerbated the problem of plagiarism. At the same time however, computer technology has proven useful in facilitating the detection of plagiarism, too. A good example of this was described in 2000 in the Chronicle of Higher Education in an article written by Julianne Basinger. Then freshman Seth Weitberg was doing research on the internet about education. Seth noticed that the text of a paper allegedly written by Mr. Scott D. Miller, President of Wesley College (Delaware), was markedly similar in content and form to that of a speech written eight years earlier by Claire Gaudiani, President of Connecticut College and e-mailed both Mr. Miller and Ms. Gaudiani concerning his observation. Subsequently, irregularities were also observed in a biography of Mr. Miller that appeared on the Wesley College website. Links to the original papers and a side-by-side comparison of a number of excerpts from the two papers can be found in the Chronicle of Higher Education article.

In a more recent article appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Assistant Professor of Political Science Kim Lanegran describes her own poignant brush with plagiarism from the perspective of the victim. Shortly after defending her dissertation, Dr. Lanegran received a telephone call from a doctoral student at another university who had read one of her publications and was interested in whether Dr. Lanegran had written any other papers on the same topic. Excited by the interest of a fellow student in her work, Dr. Lanegran copied her dissertation onto a diskette and mailed it to the student. Three years later, she obtained a copy of the student’s dissertation through interlibrary loan and was shocked to discover that much of it was taken word for word from her dissertation and that her work was not credited anywhere in the volume. Subsequently, Dr. Lanegran contacted the student’s graduate school with evidence that the dissertation was plagiarized and the student’s Ph.D. was quietly withdrawn. The incident shook her to her core. She describes the impact of it in her Chronicle of Higher Education article as having “nearly defeated me, shaking my faith in academe’s core values as well as my ability to turn my students into honest scholars.”

Plagiarism is defined by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Science and Technology as “the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit, including those obtained through confidential review of others’ research proposals and manuscripts.” Plagiarism is fundamentally an issue relating to intellectual property and is grounded in the fundamental idea that words represent ideas which are a form of intellectual property and that the unique expression of those ideas in written format belongs to and is owned by the person who expressed them. Consequently, it isn’t acceptable to copy phrases (short groups of words), sentences, paragraphs, or whole articles written by another person or group of people.

If indeed someone believes it is necessary to use that person’s words in order to accurately and adequately convey the ideas involved, then it is necessary to do two things:

  1. Place all of the words taken from the original work within quotation marks;
  2. Cite the original published work(s) in your bibliography.

There is a specific format to use when citing other people’s original work, no matter the form (technical report, communication, journal article, meeting abstract, etc.) or medium of the communication (book, journal, webpage, personal communication, etc.). The specific format requirements are unique to each scientific/engineering field or discipline and/or technical journal and vary widely even within a field. Today, there are many computer programs available today to assist you in preparing correctly formatted bibliographies. Examples of some of the more commonly used programs are:

Many colleges, universities, and companies provide students and employees with access to one or more of these bibliographic programs on their computer networks. Consult your Information Systems and/or college/university library personnel to find out whether or not you may have access to one or more of these programs. If not, as a student you may be able to purchase the software either at your bookstore or on-line at a reduced academic rate (with proof that you are currently enrolled full-time as a student in a degree-granting program).

Ignorance Is Not A Valid Excuse for Plagiarism

Sometimes students unwittingly plagiarize. A common mistake many people make when they read something and don’t understand what they have read is that they copy down the writer’s words with the intent of later changing the language. Unfortunately, later never arrives. Most people simply forget that the words jotted in their notes aren’t their own. In this case ignorance is not bliss nor is it a legitimate excuse for plagiarizing. A better idea is to simply commit to always use your own words when you write anything. If you don’t understand something and feel compelled to copy the author’s words down, then place them within quotation marks so you know that these words aren’t your own and be sure to include the citation for the original work so you won’t have to struggle later to try to identify the original source.

If you find that you are having a difficult time expressing your thoughts clearly using your own words, then this is likely a sign that you really don’t understand the concept as well as you think that you do. If you don’t understand something you are reading, discuss it with your advisor, other teachers, or peers. When you think you understand the concept, write it down in your own words and again consult your advisor, teachers, etc. if you are concerned whether you have expressed the new ideas accurately or not.


Sometimes people will substitute one or more words in a sentence or longer section of another person’s work which retains the original author’s sentence structure, organization of thoughts and ideas without proper attribution of the work borrowed. This is called paraphrasing and is widely regarded as a form of plagiarism. It is not an acceptable practice in the science and engineering professions.

Summary of Useful Guidelines for Writing

  • Always use your own words when you write;
  • If you must use someone else’s words, place them within quotation marks and cite the original work in your bibliography; and
  • When you write about facts that are the ideas or work of others, cite, cite, cite!


J. Basinger. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. May 19. “The Similarities of 2 Presidents’ Papers.” Avail. URL:
K. Lanegran. (2003) Chronicle of Higher Education. July 2. “Fending Off a Plagiarist.” Avail. URL:

Authorship/Assignment of Credit

Authorship is an important method of identifying those individuals who have been responsible for the ideas, experimental work, interpretation, and written expression of the work submitted for presentation at professional conferences and/or publication in a technical journal. As such there is great responsibility attached to authorship both for the authors named on the paper, the institutions with which they are affiliated, and the publisher or professional organization associated with the conference or technical journal. Authorship is important to the professional reputation of all involved. Criteria for authorship do vary somewhat between disciplines, institutions, and individual laboratories. However, criteria generally require that an individual:

  • Made a significant, identifiable, original intellectual contribution to the project. This means that the person must have done more than merely serve as a pair of hands (following SOPs, recording data, doing data entry, performing data analysis, typing, etc.) in executing a series of experiments;
  • Understands the study reported in the paper as a whole; and that he/she
  • Participated in the writing of the technical paper

As such, the author is capable of and responsible for defending the quality of the study, the technical interpretation of the data, and the written expression of the work as articulated in the paper.

The order of authorship is also an important issue in science and engineering. In general, the order of the names indicates the relative contributions that each person made to the paper. The first person named on the by-line of a paper is the person who is credited with having made the most significant contributions to that study. Often the last name on the paper is that of the principal investigator, in academics, the professor in whose work the research study was carried out.

The requirements apply to all involved in the research project – supervisors as well as to researchers in other words, simply providing mentorship doesn’t qualify someone for authorship on a paper any more than being a laboratory technician does. For the same reasons, being a member of a team working on a research problem doesn’t automatically translate into authorship on a paper. Authorship is awarded to all contributors based on their professional contributions to the work described in the manuscript in question. Another important point is that age is not a criterion for authorship. High school students and undergraduates have been authors – even first authors – on technical papers published in high quality journals. Nor is the length of time spent or the extent of effort made on work a legitimate argument for authorship. It is the quality of the contributions that determines authorship. Employment status, whether you work on a project as a volunteer, receive academic credit, or money, is also not a consideration in determining authorship. Finally, it is important to realize that even if authorship is initially offered to you on a paper by your advisor, the offer may later be withdrawn if your intellectual contributions to the work, for whatever reason, don’t turn out to be those originally anticipated.


  • Make sure that you understand what it takes to be an author on a paper in the lab where you work.
  • Discuss the criteria for authorship with your advisor at the outset of your research project or as soon as possible thereafter to avoid any misunderstandings.
  • Keep detailed notes and document your contributions to the project in writing in your laboratory notebook.


Another idea that you may not be familiar with is confidentiality. If your research project is funded by private industry, your institution and your advisor may have signed some sort of written, legally binding agreement called a confidentiality agreement that may limit or prohibit some or any oral and/or written communication with others outside the financial/research relationship concerning the project. These agreements also often limit presentation and/or publication of project findings to those outside of the confidentiality agreement. Thus, you may not be able to present your findings at professional conferences or publish your findings in the peer-reviewed literature. Consequently, it is important to inquire about any restrictive requirements that could affect your project and/or your ability to discuss your work at the beginning of your research project.


  • Make sure that you understand what your advisor’s policies are regarding confidentiality.
  • Do not share information about your research with anyone outside your research group without first obtaining permission to do so from your research advisor.
  • If someone shares a research grant application, unpublished manuscript, or unpublished research results, be sure to keep this information confidential unless the person gives you permission otherwise.


Clearly, as a community, researchers will be able to affect the greatest progress when they have access to all the information currently known relevant to their research problem. The more information we have the greater the likelihood that we will innovate, collaborate, share and make progress. Thus, openness is an important issue affecting everyone in science.

Important issues in regard to openness include:

Conflict Of Interest

A conflict of interest occurs whenever you have personal interests that conflict, could affect even compromise the judgments you need to make as an impartial, objective scientist. For example, it would likely be very difficult to read and impartially review a technical paper written by a hostile competitor or by a very dear friend and mentor. In the same it would be difficult to publish the results of a biomedical study you conducted with funding provided by private industry that demonstrated that the company’s flagship drug had no more efficacy than a placebo in treating disease. Consequently, colleges and universities, granting agencies, publishers, and private industry require applicants, reviewers and other evaluators to disclose any financial, educational, employment, or other relationships that could threaten objectivity via written disclosures of conflicts of interest. These documents protect the integrity of the individuals, institutions and of science overall.

The following are useful questions to ask in order to ascertain if there is a conflict of interest present.

  • Do I or anyone affiliated closely with me have any potential to financially or professionally benefit from the relationship?
  • Could our relationship improperly advantage or disadvantage my employer or anyone else improperly?


  • Report to your advisor as soon as possible any relationships or circumstances that may represent conflicts of interest relevant to your research project so he/she can figure out how to properly manage the situation.

Sharing of Research Materials

On the face of it, it might seem as if it is a mute point to discuss the sharing of research materials including biological organisms, data, even ideas. After all, how can science and engineering thrive and grow if scientists don’t share needed materials with each other in the greater scientific community? In fact, in some fields, it is standard practice to deposit materials and data in national repositories in order to speed discovery and innovation. Examples of such national data repositories include The Protein Data Bank, a repository for protein crystallographic and nuclear magnetic resonance structural data, the BioMedResBank (BMRB), a biological NMR data repository, the Yeast Resource Center Public Data Repository (YRC PDR), repository for experimental data from baker’s yeast, and the Central Aspergillus Data Repository (CADRE), a repository for genomic data from Aspergillus. However, as discussed above, ideas are a form of intellectual property and as such have significant potential commercial value (patents, trade secrets, etc.) In order to realize this value, it may be necessary to restrict communication of ideas and materials outside the research team as, for example, in the early stages of the patent process or in the early stages of the scientific publication process for which novelty is an important review criterion. Some repositories sensitive to the researcher’s need to protect the novelty of their work will allow researchers to deposit data and agree not to release it until it has been published. Concerns have driven the NIH to issue a policy statement regarding the sharing of research materials for biomedical research (see: NIH Policy on Sharing of Model Organisms for Biomedical Research.) The point here being that this is a good example of an area in which there is ongoing active debate.


  • As a student working in someone else’s research laboratory, it is important for you to find out what your advisor’s policies are regarding the sharing of research materials and follow them.
  • It isn’t a wise idea to discuss unpublished results whether they are yours or those of a lab mate with anyone outside your research group without first obtaining your advisor’s permission.

Industrial Sponsorship of Academic Research

Industrial sponsorship of research is increasingly commonplace in colleges and universities. Such sponsorship can be invaluable for all involved – providing students not only financial support but also firsthand insights into industry. Such sponsorship though often comes at a cost, the relationship may result in conflicts of interest that can impact you as a student. For example, presentation and/or publication of research findings may be delayed for an extended period of time – months even years – or may be prohibited by the company in an effort to protect, develop, and commercialize the technologies involved.

Personal Misrepresentation

Personal misrepresentation is a form of misconduct in which an individual misrepresents his/her qualifications, technical skills, and/or professional or educational achievements. The issue arises most frequently on resumes or curriculum vitae (academic version of a resume). Examples of personal misrepresentation include:

  • Inflating one’s grade-point average (GPA), class rank, honors;
  • Claiming expertise in a technical skill when one has only a superficial acquaintance with the technique or instrument; and/or
  • Listing publications that have not yet even been written as “in preparation” or even more serious “submitted” or “in press.”

There are several important issues here. First, the fundamental problem with doing any of the above is that it is willful, considered, and dishonest as such it calls into question your moral character. Second, when an employer looks to hire someone with a specific skill, it is because they need someone with the expertise now to solve existing problems. If you don’t have the skills required, then you won’t be able to perform competently and most likely won’t have the job very long even if you were to be successful in getting hired. Consequently, the bottom line is that it is critical to accurately convey your qualifications. Don’t overstate your skills and/or accomplishments.

Perhaps no case is more gut-wrenching than the story told in 2000 by Joel Hardi in the Chronicle of Higher Education of Mr. Puneet Bhandari, a then Columbia University undergraduate, who in fall 1998 went to his anthropology professor Dr.Greg Downey with a story about why he was falling behind in his course. Mr. Bhandari told Dr. Downey that he and his twin brother, Parag, had been in a car accident and that his twin was on life support. Over the semester, as Mr. Bhandari fell behind, the story grew more grim with Parag eventually dying. Later, Mr. Bhandari asked Dr. Downey for a letter of recommendation for medical school in which Dr. Downey of course praised Mr. Bhandari’s courage in the face of his twin’s death. Apparently, Mr. Bhandari when asked about his brother in a medical school interviewer, told the interviewer his twin, an investment banker, was doing well. Confused, the interviewer contacted Columbia which initiated an investigation that revealed that Mr. Bhandari had told the same story in at least two other courses and which led to Mr. Bhandari’s dismissal from Columbia. Tragically one week after a story appeared in a local newspaper: Mr. Bhandari committed suicide by jumping in front of a train.


J. Hardi. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. April 14. “Student Who Was Suspended for Fabricating Twin’s Death Loses Suit Against Columbia U.”
J. Hardi. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. April 25. “Columbia U. Is Shaken by Suicide of Student Suspended for Fabricating Brother’s Death.”

General Guidelines for Ethical Decision Making

General Guidelines for Ethical Decision Making

It is useful when making ethical decisions to understand that different considerations enter the picture for each of us. Nonetheless, there are some overarching principles we can use in approaching ethical decision making. The effect of the actions on

  • the decision maker (egoism);
  • everyone potentially involved (utilitarianism); and
  • the fundamental principles (deontology)

represent three major systems of theoretical ethical systems.

One approach to ethical decision making is to consider the effect of your decision on yourself as the decision maker, anyone else potentially involved, and the bigger picture – the impact of your actions on your institution, your profession, and the world. Once you understand the potential impact of your decision on yourself and others then you will be in a better position to make a decision. Before making a decision, make sure that you first get all the facts about the situation, identify as all the alternative actions as possible, evaluate each possible decision, consult others, if at all possible, and then make a decision.

It is always a wise idea to seek the counsel of others around you who may have more and/or a wider array of experiences and/or who may be better able to be impartial about the issue or event. Do you know to whom you can go if something goes wrong? Do you have someone with whom you can discuss sensitive issues in confidence? Whenever possible try to work through those in your organization and work up the organizational ladder. For example, for issues relating to your group, consider consulting your research advisor first.

When faced with an ethical dilemma, the following are some useful questions to consider:

  • What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?
  • Who or what may be affected?
  • How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)
  • Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?
  • What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?
  • Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
–poet and philosopher George Santayana

After you have made a decision, make it a point to reflect on the outcome of your decision. The only way you can change the future is by actively affecting change in how you think/reason and how you act: Are you satisfied with how your decision turned out? What lessons did you learn?


Human Subjects Research

If your research project involves the use of human beings as research subjects then your project must be designed skillfully to protect the health and well-being of your human subjects and it must be reviewed by your institution before you begin your experimental work. The review system we use today in conducting research involving human subjects is the direct outcome of the 1976 Belmont Report which identified three basic principles

  • Respect for persons
  • Beneficence; and
  • Justice

as foundational to the ethical conduct of research involving people as subjects. Making these judgments, the Committee determined that the conduct of studies using human subjects must therefore address certain requirements:

  • informed consent – the human subject must be competent to consent and informed concerning what will happen to them so that they can, if they choose to, (voluntary) consent;
  • systematic assessment of risks and benefits; and
  • equitable selection of subjects both socially and individually.

A good example of the importance of our review system is provided by a now classic study designed by Dr. Wendell Johnson, a well known and highly regarded speech pathologist ((2001). Boston Globe. June 12, p. A20. “Secret Experiment Created Stutterers.”) In the late 1930’s Dr. Johnson, ironically himself a chronic stutterer, hypothesized that stuttering arose not from genetic predisposition but from environmental conditioning. Children at a small private orphanage were separated into two groups – a control group, who received positive reinforcement, and the experimental group, who were harangued about their speech. The majority of the latter group became chronic stutterers. While the study findings eventually led to the development of a theory that has helped many children overcome childhood stuttering, it unwittingly condemned many uninformed, vulnerable study participants to a life of pain and suffering with a serious speech impediment. If you wish to learn more about this incident, often referred to as the Tutor Study, here is a link to a thoughtful web-based resource that discusses the case as well as a number of other questionable human subjects studies:

If your research project will involve studying people (observation, survey, medical records, blood or tissue samples, etc.) whether the work is funded or unfunded, then you will need to submit your research protocol for approval to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) before you can begin work to determine whether or not your work adequately addresses these important issues. This is a federal requirement mandated by the United States Department of Health & Human Services’ Office for Human Research Protections (HSS – OHRP) intended to protect the safety and rights of the human subjects involved in federally funded research studies.

First, you should obtain a written copy of your institution’s human subjects policies and procedures and make sure that you understand them. You will likely be required to complete some form of training. Many institutions require anyone involved in human subjects research to complete the online National Institutes of Health (NIH) course entitled “Protecting Human Research Participants” which is available at URL:
(note: you will be required to register online in order to access the course materials). Next, you will need to file an application for study approval through your local IRB (see below). Once your application is approved, you can begin your study.

Typical IRB Application

Although the details may vary somewhat from institution to institution, an application for IRB approval usually requires the following information:

  • Goals and objectives of the research study;
  • Description of the methods including any written materials that will be used to recruit human subjects to the study. Note that special considerations may come into play if you plan to use minors, prisoners, incompetent patients, or other vulnerable populations as research subjects. Important issues include a discussion of any criteria that will be used either to include or exclude potential subjects such as age, gender, race or ethnicity;
  • Thoughtful analysis of the potential risks and discomforts that might arise from participation in the study. This is particularly important when working with vulnerable populations such as younger children or mentally-disabled persons. Be sure to clearly describe the special safeguards that you will use in order to protect the rights and safety of vulnerable human subjects. These risks should be weighed against the potential benefits that are anticipated to result from the study and you should be prepared to demonstrate that your work will not harm your subjects or that it mill minimize the possible harm and maximize the possible benefits;
  • Identification of the experimental procedures, including examples of all forms, scripts, etc. that will be used to obtain and demonstrate informed consent; and
  • Discussion of the research methods that you will use to acquire your human subjects’ data and to safeguard it (privacy).

Expedited Review

If you are carrying out certain types of research which are generally viewed as posing a minimal risk to participants, the IRB may carry out an expedited review of your application. Examples of the types of research that fall into this category include:

  • Data collection via survey, interview, focus group, etc. for educational or psychological research; and
  • Non-invasive biological specimen collection of for example, excreta, saliva, skin cells, hair or fur, etc.

Useful Advice

  • It usually takes time for the IRB to review and approve applications. Depending on the number and nature of human subjects research studies at your institution, the review board may meet very infrequently, e.g., monthly. Call and find out what the IRB meeting schedule is at your institution and make appropriate allowance for this in designing your research plan.
  • If you make any changes to your research protocol after obtaining approval, you should notify the IRB board of the changes you would like to make and wait for their approval before implementing them.
  • If your study will be carried out over several years, you will need to renew your IRB approval at least once each year.
  • Performing research on human subjects without obtaining IRB approval is illegal and can jeopardize your institution’s ability to secure federal funding in support of its research programs. Also, note that research protocols cannot be approved retroactively. You must secure written approval for your study from the local IRB before you begin your project.


Pressures In Research

As in any profession there must be measures of success. Universal forms of currency in science and engineering include publications, patents, and research grants. For example, authorship on peer-reviewed technical papers is often used as a measure of a scientist’s research ability and productivity – “more” publications published in “better” quality journals. Grant applications may explicitly require a list of five-to-ten recent (this means within the past five years) publications in the area of the proposed research study. Job applications, job reviews, and professional advancement are also based at least in part on one’s publication record. It is important to at least be aware of these pressures since even if you don’t feel they relate to you directly they may exert a very real albeit indirect effect on you and your work through those around you including your colleagues, your supervisor, and/or the culture and climate of your workplace. A good example of the indirect effect that these pressures exert is the unconscious alignment of many academic researchers’ interests and research programs to conform to those of federal granting agencies or to the needs of industrial research and development, which represent current or potential funding sources, or away from cutting edge research problems such as stem cell research that may challenge social norms.

“Publish or perish.” This is a frequently spoken adage that speaks to the importance of publication in building a successful academic career. Tenure and promotion are often awarded at least in part based on research accomplishments. The pressure tends to be strongest at graduate research universities but is also increasingly strong at primarily undergraduate institutions (colleges). As an undergraduate, you may feel pressure, too. Your advisor may unconsciously communicate the need to write up your work. You may unconsciously put pressure on yourself because you may want to present or publish your research work or perhaps obtain a satisfactory letter of recommendation for graduate or pre-professional school or for permanent employment from your advisor. The important point to be made here is that no matter how strong the pressure may be, it doesn’t justify or ameliorate unethical behavior.

Research Involving Laboratory Animals

Biomedical researchers are in general agreement that the most accurate and useful information about biological systems is best derived from in vivo study. Potential health risks may make the study of human beings risky at best and there may be no non-animal alteratives. In these cases biomedical researchers must turn to the study of animals as model systems. As animals are generally regarded as sentient beings (Peter Singer – utilitarianism) capable of feeling hunger, pain, stress, etc., and possess “inherent value” (Tom Regan – deontology) researchers recognize that if animal research is to be done it must be carried out ethically and as humanely as possible.

Therefore there are standards that must be met by researchers whose projects involve the use of laboratory animals. The standards are similar to those used in research involving human subjects. The program must have:

  • A clear scientific purpose and objective that will benefit the health of other animals and/or humans;
  • be carried out using well designed, humane procedures by personnel who are knowledgeable concerning the proper care and handling of the species being studied.

Institutions carrying out biomedical research using laboratory animals generally have a program overseen by a committee identified as the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) in place to review research protocols involving animals, train researchers in the proper care and handling of laboratory animals and the possible risks and hazards associated with working with laboratory animals; and to oversee the health of researchers working with laboratory animals.

The standards outlined in the National Research Council’s Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals are generally regarded as the gold standard for animal care in research studies. The Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals describes the standards required of researchers and institutions whose research programs receive grant support from the National Institutes of Health. On an international level, the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC), oversees the voluntary accreditation and assessment of research institutions committed to responsible animal care and use.

You are strongly encouraged to contact your institution’s IACUC for specific information regarding animal care and use training and information on animal research protocol review. Legally, your research advisor will be responsible for any animal research protocols you use in your research. The following information is provided however to give you insight into the legal requirements for animal research protocols and their institutional review.

Typical Animal Research Protocol Application

Although the details may vary somewhat from institution to institution, an application to use animals in your research usually includes the following information:

  • Goals and objectives of the research study;
  • Identification of all of the individuals who will be involved in the study and the extent and nature of their experiences in working with the specific species you will use using the protocols you plan to employ;
  • Identification of the species you will study including the number of laboratory animals you will require, where and how they will be housed, fed, and exercised;
  • Evidence that you have sought alternatives and information as to how you will minimize the pain and discomfort of your research animals (e.g., sedation, anesthesia), if your research protocol will cause the research animals pain and/or discomfort; and
  • Detailed description of your experimental protocols involving research animals.

Useful Advice

  • It usually takes time for the IACUC to review and approve animal research protocols. Depending on the number and nature of animal research activity at your institution, the review committee may meet infrequently, e.g., monthly. Call and find out what meeting schedule is for the IACUC at your institution and make appropriate allowance for this in designing your research plans.
  • If you make any changes to your research protocol after obtaining approval, you should notify the IACUC of the changes you would like to make and wait for their approval before implementing them.
  • IACUC approval must be renewed every six months.
  • Performing research on animals without obtaining IACUC approval is illegal and can jeopardize your institution’s ability to secure federal funding in support of its animal research programs. Research protocols cannot be approved retroactively so be sure to secure written approval for your study from the IACUC before you begin your research project.

Where to Go for Help in Research Integrity Disputes

Where to Go for Help in Research Integrity Disputes
It is inevitable that you will encounter ethical challenges in the process of carrying out your research project. The most important thing to do when these situations arise is not to blindly react but to take time out to think through the issues as dispassionately as possible so you can make an informed decision with which you will be able to live now and in the future. In order to do this, it is important to know where you can go for information. Your first source should be your research advisor as he/she is most likely to understand not only the issues but the unique nature of the situation involved and therefore he/she should be in the best position to give you accurate information and thoughtful advice. However, if your issue involves your advisor, it is important to know where else you can go for help. Some departments have an ombudsman specifically for this purpose. In other departments, your undergraduate majors advisor may perform this function. If neither of these individuals can provide assistance, then you should consider consulting the Chair or Department Head.

Your Advisers

The first place you should go if at all possible is to your direct supervisor. He/she is likely in the best position to understand the problem and to provide direct assistance if you need it.

Sometimes students are uncertain about whether to and how to approach their research advisors when they have questions about ethics and research conduct. If you need help, then the best advice is to seek it out. So, if you see or have a problem, it is wise to consult your advisor, who likely has more experience and can at least advise you concerning where you should go for assistance.

That said be sure to think through the situation before you approach your advisor. It is important to understand that depending on the nature of the problem (if it involves criminal activity, harassment, etc.), your advisor may be obligated to take certain actions based on the information you provide him/her. Don’t assume that your advisor can or will keep your information confidential. Legal (his/her employer) and moral obligations may supersede his/her ability to keep your discussion confidential.


It is always wisest to try to work within the system at your workplace before going outside for help. If you are working at a college or university, start your discussions with your research advisor (discussed above), be sure to document all your conversations in writing. If you are not satisfied with your advisor’s response or if your dispute is with your advisor then consult someone in your department. Some departments have an ombudsman to whom you can go when disputes concerning research integrity arise. If you aren’t able to resolve the issues within your department, then consider bringing your case to your college or university’s committee on scientific integrity or the Dean of your college (at a graduate research university). You should be able to identify the appropriate person by consulting your college, university, or company’s website. As a last resort, if your research is federally funded by either the National Institutes of Health or by the National Science Foundation you can contact the Office of Research Integrity or the Office of the Inspector General, respectively.

Ethics Training

Your workplace should provide clear written statements, policies and procedures, and training about scientific integrity and accepted research laboratory practices which are periodically discussed and reassessed regularly to determine their effectiveness. Ethics training should be provided to all members of the greater research community at your workplace and/or academic institution in order to inform and educate all members. However, ethics training occurs today primarily informally through discussions with advisors, group meetings, and tutorials. Many departments provide explicit training in scientific integrity to new and entering graduate students, postdoctoral students and advanced undergraduates. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a formal ethics training requirement for departments and programs administering NIH training grants. If you are working on an NIH grant, speak to your advisor to find out whether there is a formal training program available to you on scientific ethics. If your institution doesn’t provide formal training there are several good resources available through the internet:

Ethics Case Studies

In evaluating ethical dilemmas sometimes there are moral principles that lead to clear-cut courses of action. More often, however, there are several possible solutions each of which is morally acceptable. Our values and experiences, unique to each of us, will influence our views when considering ethical problems and identifying solutions. Since we must live with the decisions we make perhaps the most critical element of ethical decision making is being able to explain/justify the reasons behind our decisions. To help you in learning to do this, you will find a series of nine brief case studies in this section.:

Each brief case is based loosely on one or more real life incidents. Following each case references to articles about the real incidents on which these cases has been designed appear so you can learn more about the people and the incidents themselves.

You will find it most useful to discuss these case studies with your friends, other research group members, and/or your research advisor. If however, you are working alone, you can click on each question and view suggestions for possible answers that identify some of the many relevant issues.

Case Studies

It Only Takes a Second

Shortly after Christmas during the holiday break, Elise, a relatively new graduate student in Professor X’s group, with experience in “scale-up process safety” attempts to carry out a chemical reaction known by the greater research community to be dangerous as the reagent required can catch fire spontaneously upon contact with air. Specialized training is required to handle this reagent properly. Available to supervise Elise are two postdoctoral students both of whom have limited proficiency in English. Elise, wearing a sweater, dons safety goggles and nitrile gloves and eager to prove her worth, sets about to transfer two ounces of the reagent from one sealed container to another using a plastic syringe…

As a group, discuss each of the following questions:

1. As a new graduate student working in a new research environment and performing an unfamiliar procedure, are there any things that you think Elise should think about, plan for, or do before attempting to carry out this experiment?

2. Reading the above scenario, in light of your answers to question 1, do you think that Elise has adequately covered all her bases? What, if any, problems do you see here?

3. Would your concerns change if Elise were a postdoctoral student? An undergraduate student? A high school student?

Basis for the Case

Regrettably this story ended quite tragically for this talented young researcher. In the process of attempting to transfer 2-oz of t-butyl lithium, the plunger came out of the plastic syringe, splashing the young researcher’s gloves and sweater with the reagent, which burst into flames. The died 18-days later of second and third degree burns over forty-percent of her body. Five months later, the California division of the Occupational Safety and Health Admiinistration (OSHA) fined UCLA for 3 “serious” violations of workplace safety laws finding that the university had not properly addressed previous outstanding safety violations in that research group, that student had not been adequately trained and that she was not wearing the appropriate protective clothing (flame resistant lab coat) at the time of the fatal incident.

K. Christensen. (2009) Los Angeles Times May 5. “State Fines UCLA in Fatal Lab Fire.” Avail. URL:,0,6665233.story
Mitch. (2009) “Tert-Butyllithium Claims Fellow Chemist at UCLA.” Avail. URL:

Pinocchio’s Nose

Tom, a pre-med. student, works two part-time jobs while attending Prestigious University. Tom finds his course load for the spring semester very challenging and he struggles to keep up with the assignments in his anthropology course. Tom knows anthropology instructor, Dr. B., thinks highly of him and that Dr. B has a reputation of being somewhat of a softy when it comes to “good” students. So, having missed the deadline for submission of an important paper, Tom goes to Dr. B with the story that he and his twin brother were in a serious car accident over the weekend. Tom explains that he didn’t hand in the assignment because he has been at the hospital sitting at his brother’s bedside in the intensive care unit where his brother is now on life support. Dr. B is of course very sympathetic and grants Tom an extension on the assignment. Later in the semester Tom once again finds himself behind the eight ball on an assignment…

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

The cause for concern is that Tom finds himself for the second time this semester behind the eight-ball in completing an assignment for his anthropology course.

2. Who or what may be affected?

Tom’s course grade, GPA, and taking a long term view likelihood of acceptance to medical school could potentially be affected.

3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

If Tom does nothing, he will likely do poorly on the assignment and this could deleteriously affect his course grade and therefore lower his GPA which could hurt his chances of getting to medical school.

If Tom speaks to Dr. B and asks for help, Tom could receive an extension which would give him time to turn in a good paper and earn a good grade. Dr. B. might also be able to help Tom figure out how to manage his time better so Tom will not fall behind in the future.

If he lies to Dr. B which is what he did the first time, he could get more sympathy and another bailout but he could also get caught. In this case, he could get in serious trouble, fail the course and perhaps even be thrown out of college. So, depending on what he does the consequences could be severe.

4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

The unwritten rule “honesty is the best policy” applies here. Tom is more likely to receive the help he needs if he is honest with Dr. B. Dr. B may be able to help Tom better manage his limited time and he may be able to give Tom time to complete the assignment. Today many faculty include a policy on honesty in coursework in their course syllabi so if Tom lies again to Dr. B and gets caught in his lie, Tom could suffer severe consequences including failing the assignment and failing the course.

5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

Tom could tell Dr. B that he has fallen behind. If he does this Dr. B could either give him an extension, help Tom learn how to better manage his time, or he may not give Tom an extension.

6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Tom needs to find some way to better manage his time. Tom may not be able to see any options so it is important for him to discuss his problem with someone he trusts who can help him. Even if the person can’t solve the problem, sometimes simply by discussing a problem out loud we are better able to identify possible solutions and even if solutions don’t come to light immediately simply sharing a burden can provide needed perspective and lessen the intensity of our emotions. The person who can likely best help Tom with his immediate problem, the impending assignment, is Dr. B. However, Tom could also consult his parents, his academic advisor, a trusted teacher or a close friend.

Basis for Case Study 1
In 2000, tragically a Columbia University pre-med student committed suicide when his alleged dishonesty came to light. This case is based on a series of articles that appeared about the case in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2000:

J. Hardi. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. April 14. “Student Who Was Suspended for Fabricating Twin’s Death Loses Suit Against Columbia U.”J. Hardi. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. April 25. “Columbia U. Is Shaken by Suicide of Student Suspended for Fabricating Brother’s Death.”


The Cost of Integrity

Dr. X, a distinguished structural engineer, received a phone call from an engineering student at a nearby college. The student expressed concern that Dr. X’s famous skyscraper had a serious technical design flaw. At first, Dr. X dismissed the student’s concerns outright but the conversation gets him thinking. Over the weekend, Dr. X sifts through his data and realizes the student is indeed correct – strong winds could cause this famous landmark to topple and in the process kill thousands of innocent people. Rectifying the problem would be no small task and would require notifying the building’s owners, city officials, and the press and might negatively impact Dr. X’s professional reputation.

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

The cause for concern is that the building Dr. X designed could potentially topple in strong winds.


2. Who or what may be affected?

The building’s owners and occupants of whom there are thousands (large number).


3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

The building occupants could be maimed or killed. The building’s owners would be ruined. Dr. X’s professional reputation and career would certainly be ruined and he could also face imprisonment and civil lawsuits.


4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Certainly if the building collapsed and people died, Dr. X would be guilty of many counts of murder. There are likely many laws and regulations that would also apply. Likely the code of ethics for Dr. X’s profession holds its members responsible for ensuring public safety.


5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

Dr. X can go to the building owners and inform them of the problem and of what needs to be done in order to fix the skyscraper.


6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Certainly by informing the owners as soon as possible Dr. X will minimize the severity of the consequences. Dr. X should also carefully review his calculations to determine how/why he made the error in the first place. This will allow him to make sure that he doesn’t make the same mistake again in the future.


Basis for Case Study 2

This case is based on the true life story of Dr. William LeMessurier, a famous structural engineer who consulted on the construction of the 59-story N.Y.C. CitiCorp Tower and was confronted with the possibility that he had made a serious error that had the potential to not only possibly bring down the tower but also irreversibly harm his professional reputation and career:

E. Karagianis. (1999) MIT Spectrum: 11, p. 3. “The Right Stuff. A Question of Ethics.”


“Borrowing” Without Permission

Lisa, a postdoctoral student in Prof. X’s lab is told that she will not be re-appointed when her current 1-year contract expires. Lisa feels that Prof. X has the funds to support her but that he simply doesn’t like her and that is why he is not reappointing her. Angry with Prof. X and determined to get back at him, Lisa decides that she will take her lab notebooks, some lab supplies, and several critical laboratory reagents when she leaves. Lisa is surprised a month later when armed policemen show up at her parents’ home to arrest her…

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

Lisa has stolen laboratory notebooks, supplies, and reagents that are university property.


2. Who or what may be affected?

Lisa will certainly be affected by her own actions. By taking the notebooks, supplies, and reagents from the lab she has deprived Prof. X and the other members of her research group of access to the information in the notebooks and of the ability to use the reagents and supplies. The reagents and supplies Lisa took may present potential biological, chemical, radioactivity, and/or laser safety hazards. So, depending on where Lisa has stored these reagents and supplies they may present safety hazards to others in their vicinity as well.


3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

Lisa’s research advisor and the other members of her research group may be unable to continue their research projects and/or publish their work. Any individuals in the vicinity of the reagents and supplies including Lisa could be in danger due to the safety hazards represented by the stolen materials.


4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Yes, by removing the notebooks, reagents, and supplies which are not her property from the laboratory, Lisa has committed theft. Lisa has certainly also violated the creed of her profession which likely holds its members to high standards of integrity in all aspects of conduct.


5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

Certainly, it looks like Lisa is going to be arrested. If it were in doubt, Lisa will certainly not be reappointed and she may be fired as versus simply not being reappointed. If the work is funded by NIH, she could be censured by the NIH. Likely her career as a scientist will be over. Depending on the circumstances, she may be imprisoned or face fines. If anyone is injured due to their exposure to the reagents, Lisa could face very serious charges, prison, and civil lawsuit.


6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Lisa’s actions were rash. Lisa would have been wise to stop and consider the consequences of the actions she intended to take. When you are angry or tired or frustrated, confiding your concerns with trusted individuals is therapeutic and wise. Often others see things that we ourselves simply can’t see in the heat of the moment. Sometimes simply the act of saying our concerns out loud to another human being gives us much needed perspective on the situation. At this point, there may be little that Lisa can do to mitigate the damage but certainly admitting that what she did was wrong, expressing a sincere willingness to do anything she could to rectify things, and facing the consequences of her actions would be good first steps in minimizing the severity of the consequences she will no doubt face.


Basis for Case Study 3

This case is based on two incidents and a series of articles that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002 and 2006 describing several incidents in which students allegedly removed research materials from the academic laboratories in which they worked and the consequences of their actions on all involved:

C.E. Shoichet. (2002) Chronicle of Higher Education, July 31. “Former Research Assistant at Cornell U. Accused of Stealing Biological Materials to Take to China.”


A.M. Borrego. (2002) Chronicle of Higher Education. June 20. “2 Scientists Who Worked in Harvard Professor’s Lab Are Accused of Stealing Secrets.”

A.K. Walters. (2006) Chronicle of Higher Education. April 17. “2 Scientists Admit They Stole Research Material from Harvard Lab.”

It’s All About Sharing…

Xian, a summer undergraduate research student at Big University, was flattered when a graduate student, Pingwei, at another university emailed him inquiring about his research. Since Xian had just finished writing a progress report for his research advisor, Xian sent it as an attachment to his email reply to Pingwei. Throughout the summer, Pingwei emails Xian several times asking very specific questions about Xian’s work. Xian happily answers every question. The following spring Xian is surprised to see Pingwei’s name on the by-line of a technical article in a leading scientific journal. Xian is even more surprised when he reads the article and sees text, figures and tables that were clearly taken word-for-word from Xian’s summer progress report.

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

Xian’s concern is the apparent theft of his research by Pingwei as evidenced in the published paper..


2. Who or what may be affected?

Certainly Xian, Pingwei, Pingwei’s advisor, Xian’s advisor and possibly the other members of Xian’s former laboratory may be affected by the publication of Xian’s work. Depending on the source of the funding for Xian’s project the funder may also be affected by the publication of the research.


3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

Since Pingwei has published work that is not his own, Pingwei’s academic progress and career prospects will likely be negatively impacted if his crime becomes known. The reputation of Pingwei’s research advisor may also be harmed since this took place while Pingwei was a graduate student in his group. Xian’s advisor will likely not be able to publish Xian’s work since it has already been published. If Xian was collaborating with other students in the laboratory then the theft of the research will likely also negatively impact their ability to publish as well.


4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?>

Certainly Pingwei has violated the creed of his profession – integrity is a core element of most creeds. He has also certainly violated the ethical standards for his academic program.


5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

If Pingwei’s misappropriation of the research became public, the paper would likely be retracted by his research advisor and Pingwei would likely be dismissed from his graduate program.


6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

In hindsight, Xian could have forwarded Pingwei’s original email of inquiry to Xian’s research advisor and he could have spoken with his research advisor and asked him what if any information he could share with Pingwei. It would also have been a good idea to copy or blind copy all correspondence to his research advisor so his advisor would know what exactly Pingwei was requesting and what information Xian had shared. As a general rule, you should not disclose any information about your research without your advisor’s prior permission. If the research is proprietary this can be a critical point.
At this point, Xian should go to his former advisor and give him all the emails that he sent to Pingwei so his advisor can decide what the best course of action is. Should Xian call or email Pingwei? Probably not a good idea. It is not likely that Pingwei is going confess and there is nothing that Xian is likely to say that is going to get Pingwei to confess.
What about Pingwei? At this point there is likely little that Pingwei can do to minimize the severity of the consequences of his actions. Certainly, going to his advisor and telling him what he has done, formally apologizing to Xian and his advisor, and accepting the consequences of his actions with good grace would represent steps in the right direction.


Basis for Case Study 4
It isn’t always students who are naive about sharing their information. Recently in a first-person account detailed in the Chronicle of Higher Education a young assistant professor detailed the unexpected results of sharing her dissertation with a graduate student from another university who was doing related work on the same topic:

Copy and Paste…

Late in the afternoon, Lisa finally had a chance to Google for information on “problem-based learning” for her course assignment due the next morning. Though she was tired, she couldn’t help but wonder when she noticed the same article appearing on the first two websites was almost identical word-for-word. Both websites were for education courses being taught by two different faculty at two different academic institutions located in different states. Curious, she emailed the authors of both papers concerning her observation and printed out a copy of both pages to bring with her to class the next morning.

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

The cause for concern is that Lisa believes she has discovered a case of plagiarism involving a webpage for a course.


2. Who or what may be affected?

The professor whose work has been plagiarized has been affected and of course, the alleged plagiarist. The college or university where the plagiarist is employed may also be affected by the alleged plagiarist’s actions.


3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

It is difficult to gauge the significance of the alleged plagiarism. Certainly, the alleged victim has not received credit for his/her work. The college or university where the alleged plagiarist is employed may receive negative press and their reputation may be negatively impacted as a result of the plagiarist’s actions.


4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Yes, any printed material that you post on a webpage is automatically protected by U.S. copyright.


5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

Certainly universities and colleges take plagiarism and other acts of professional misconduct by faculty very seriously. Depending on the rank and tenure-status of the alleged plagiarist, he/she might be censured or could even be fired if it indeed turns out that he/she plagiarized the webpage.


6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Aside from education, it appears that there is little that can be done to prevent plagiarism. Certainly by the time one becomes a degreed professional, you are expected to know what plagiarism is. It is for this reason that the consequences of plagiarism are so severe.


Basis for Case Study 5
There are many examples of alleged plagiarism. Harvard undergraduate author, Ms. Kaavya Viswanathan was accused of plagiarism and copyright infringement. The resulting publicity uncovered multiple offenses and ultimately led to the withdrawal of her first novel from the market by her publisher, Little Brown & Company.


Zhou, David. (2006) Harvard Crimson. April 23. “Student’s Novel Faces Plagiarism Controversy.”

Students aren’t the only ones who commit plagiarism. In 2000 a college student doing research on the internet discovered marked similarities between speeches given by two college presidents, one speech having been delivered more than ten years earlier. The alleged plagiarist ultimately acknowledged the close similarities between the speeches but argued that someone else had prepared his speech for him. Interestingly, the same individual came under fire subsequently for alleged plagiarism.

J. Basinger. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. May 19. “The Similarities of 2 Presidents’ Papers.”


Honesty’s Always the Best Policy

Raj knew he was smart. His classmates always turned to him for help on assignments and he always knew the answers to the questions his teachers asked in class. Raj just didn’t study for tests so his grades were often mediocre. He knew he could do better in school, it was just that school was so… well, boring.
School was coming to an end for the year and Raj needed to get a good job this summer, after all this was the end of his junior year. He desperately wanted to work at the famous Research Institute. Raj felt that if he got a job there as a summer intern, it would really boost his chances of getting admitted to the graduate engineering program of his choice. He knew the institute hired very few summer interns and generally these were students from private schools who had excellent academic records and high standardized test scores. So, Raj decided to “tweak” his resume. He rounded his GPA up from 3.0 to a more respectable 3.5 and listed his SAT scores as 700 verbal and 820 math (in reality they were 600 verbal and 720 math). Raj reasoned that these changes really didn’t matter because he would show them who he really was through the quality of the work he did for the Institute once he was hired…

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

The cause for concern is Raj’s dishonesty in misrepresenting his academic record and accomplishments on his resume.


2. Who or what may be affected?

Raj is likely to be affected. If Raj is hired instead of someone else, he has affected that person as well.


3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

Raj could be hired and his personal misrepresentation might never be discovered or it could be uncovered in which case Raj would likely be terminated. If Raj is hired and another deserving candidate is turned away that person will likely be deprived of the opportunity to work at the Institute.


4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Yes, when you complete an application for most jobs you sign a form stating that everything you have said is true so if Raj does this he will be violating hiring law. He is also certainly violating the code of ethics for his profession as in most codes integrity is a core principle.


5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

If Raj’s dishonesty is uncovered, he would likely be fired and his actions might be reported back to his college/university.


6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Yes, Raj should think through the consequences of misrepresenting himself and discuss his situation with a trusted friend or advisor before he makes a terrible mistake. While Raj’s GPA may not be high enough, certainly he should be able to obtain a summer internship. By sharing his concerns with a trusted friend or advisor, Raj may be able to identify unique skills and strengths that he can showcase, without embellishment, on his resume. Since Raj is a college student there is no value in reporting his SAT scores, which are not all that bad and certainly do not need to be inflated.


Basis for Case Study 6
In spring of 2007, Marilee Jones, the MIT Director of Undergraduate Admissions, was forced to resign after it came to light that she misrepresented her own educational history – claiming to have earned degrees from several well known universities at the start of her career in an effort to boost what she felt was an inadequate resume and get the job.


E. Hoover and S. Millman. (2007) Chronicle of Higher Education. May 11. “Shocking Admission. A Popular Dean at MIT Lied About Her Credentials, But Her Message Resonated With Many Supporters.”


There have actually been quite a few similar incidents. Another one you might also have heard about was the highly publicized case of Dr. Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize winning history professor at Mt. Holyoke College (eventually fired) who for years misrepresented himself to students as a Vietnam veteran in a course he taught on the Vietnam war.

A. M. Cox. (2001) Chronicle of Higher Education. June 29. “Noted Historian Misled Students That He Was Vietnam Veteran.”


Sometimes Silence is Golden

Tom was working with supervision provided by a graduate student Mr. Li on a proprietary summer research project in Professor Zhou’s lab which enjoyed private financial support. The project which was nearing completion was an exciting one on a currently hot topic in nanoscience and the results were so exciting that the university and the company had jointly filed for an international patent. As the project involved significant intellectual property everyone working on the project including Tom had been required to sign a confidentiality agreement at the outset. One day Tom overheard Mr. Li discussing the research project with a friend who is a graduate student from another research group in the department at the university.

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

The source of concern is that Tom believes that Mr. Li, another member of his group may have violated the confidentiality agreement.


2. Who or what may be affected?

Since the project is a team-based project, Prof. Zhou and the whole team may be negatively affected by Mr. Li’s violation.


3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

It is really difficult to know what the significance is at this point. The seriousness of the situation will depend on 1) what Mr. Li discussed with his friend; 2) how many times he discussed the project with his friend; 3) whether or not Mr. Li has discussed the project with any other people, and; 4) how much information he shared with them about the project.


4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Since everyone signed a confidentiality agreement, which is a legally binding contract, there are laws that will apply here. Breaking them opens the university up to legal prosecution by the funder, should they choose to take legal action.


5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

It is difficult to know what actions might be taken at this point and what the consequences might be.
Likely if Prof. Zhou determined that there was a significant breach of contract, he would have to inform the university and the company. Professor Zhou could lose his research funding for the project and the company could sue the university for breach of contract. Mr. Li could lose his graduate assistantship and he could be terminated from the graduate program depending on what information and how much information he has shared with others about the project.


6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

Certainly Tom should go to his advisor and tell him of his concerns. Tom may be reluctant to do so for fear that his advisor and/or team mates may question Tom’s loyalty. He could be labeled a “whistle blower” by his teammates.
When working on proprietary projects, it is much safer and easier simply to refrain from telling anyone anything about the project instead of trying to decide what if any information you can safely share about it. If you are uncomfortable not being able to discuss your work then do not work on proprietary projects.


Basis for Case Study 7
The basis for this case study is a patent dispute between a former faculty member at the University of Connecticut and a private company, Sequoia Sciences, Inc. with whom the professor had a confidentiality agreement. When the company refused to share inventorship of a potentially valuable patent with the professor, the professor allegedly violated a signed confidentiality agreement disclosing the name of the compound on which he had been working in a footnote to a paper he presented at an international conference.


K.S. Mangan. (2006). Chronicle of Higher Education. January 27. “Professor Sued for Revealing Data.”


It’s All the Same…

Lisa was puzzled by the image of the gel featured in the research article in the current issue of Cell that she was reading. The bands in the two critical lanes on the gel that established the success of the pulse-chase experiment seemed virtually identical. Increasing the magnification of the image Lisa could see that the two lanes were indeed the same down to the size, shape, and tailing of each and every band. Increasing the magnification still further showed discontinuities in the background on one lane suggesting the image of that lane had been digitally copied and pasted onto the gel image. Confused she wasn’t sure exactly what to think. She was a summer undergraduate research student and admittedly a novice in this field of research. Lisa reasoned that the article had been peer-reviewed and was published in one of the top journals in the field so it didn’t seem possible that the data could have been fabricated or manipulated in any way. She was concerned that if she showed the article and shared her concerns with her research mentor that her research mentor might either think she was incredibly stupid or incredibly narcissistic.

Consider each of the following questions and evaluate the case study:

1. What is the action or inaction that is the cause for concern?

Lisa thinks that she has found an instance of scientific misconduct, specifically, fabrication or falsification of data in a published technical article.


2. Who or what may be affected?

All the authors on the paper since they are responsible for the integrity of the publications bearing their names will certainly be affected. Other members of the research laboratories in which the research was done may also be affected. Finally anyone in the field who is depending on the authenticity of the work on which to base their own scientific inquiries or findings is likely to be affected.


3. How will they be affected? (i.e., what are the possible consequences?)

Since all authors are responsible for the quality of their published work, the authors’ professional reputation may suffer. The quality of their other publications may also be questioned. Remember the old adage “guilt by association”? Well, as unfair as it may seem the integrity of the work of other members of the laboratories involved in the fraudulent research may also be questioned. If the study turns out to be fraudulent, then advancements in the field might be delayed until researchers discover the fraud. This would cost those researchers unnecessary time, money, and effort.


4. Are there any laws, regulations written or unwritten that may apply?

Universities usually investigate alleged instances of scientific misconduct very carefully. In general, the university will identify an inquiry team consisting of senior researchers who have no past or current research ties with the principal investigator to investigate the alleged misconduct. The team will interview all of the individuals involved in the incident, review all of the written records including laboratory notebooks, reports and publications, and prepare a written report summarizing their findings within a finite time period. If the research was funded by the U.S. Government, then The Office of the Inspector General might investigate.


5. What actions might be taken and what would the consequences of these actions be?

Consequences would likely be quite severe and could include censure, loss of professional credibility, loss of research funding, termination of employment, fines, and even imprisonment.


6. Can anything be done to prevent this from reoccurring or to minimize the severity of the consequences?

This is certainly the so-called “million dollar question.” Can a principal investigator detect and pre-empt a skillful individual determined to perpetrate scientific fraud? Certainly, a principal investigator can go a long way toward preventing problems by providing hands-on training, encouraging good science, and maintaining a healthy, open, positive spirit of inquiry in the laboratory and by insisting that work be replicated independently in the lab before publication. One thing is clear fraud does happen even in the laboratories of the most highly respected scientists.


Basis for Case Study 8

In this case, a postdoctoral student allegedly “edited” a series of gel images in an article submitted for publication. A spot check by a journal editor caught the image manipulation and ultimately led to the discovery that the young scientist had done this on three other publications as well. The student lost her job but more importantly because the research impacted had been support by funding from the National Institutes of Health, the major source of financial support for biomedical research, the postdoctoral student was censured and prohibited from receiving NIH support for 5 years.

J.R. Young. (2008) Chronicle of Higher Education, May 29. “Journals Find Fakery in Many Images Submitted to Support Research.”


What Does Research Integrity Require of You?

Research integrity requires a lot from all of us in the greater scientific community. As a student researcher, you will find that it means:

  • Making thoughtful use of research time by coming to lab on time, prepared to work, being engaged in your work while you are there (not fooling around), and not leaving early;
  • Learning to use equipment properly and following the standard operating procedures for the equipment to ensure that the results you obtain are meaningful, that the instrument is maximized, and to ensure the safety of those working around you in the laboratory;
  • Carefully recording all your work in your laboratory notebook;
  • Asking questions about anything you don’t understand about the procedures you use in lab not just for your own sake but for the safety of others working in the lab around you;
  • Sharing and not withholding your research results from other group members so everyone can grow in collective wisdom and understanding and so advance the research mission of your research group;
  • Respect all research group members by listening to their ideas, accepting their help when you need it and helping them in turn when they need help with their experiments, and sharing credit with them when it is due;
  • Acknowledging and owning up to your personal limitations when you encounter challenges in the research laboratory by not creating, manipulating, erasing, or in any manner altering laboratory data and reporting all of your results to your research advisor; and
  • Confronting and not ignoring acts of suspected research misconduct that occur around you.

Intellectual Property

Inherently research involves the creation of new ideas, processes, and/or designs. Often these literary, artistic or scientific inventions may have significant commercial value if developed and are generally viewed as intellectual property. In view of their economic value, their inventor has the right to limit access to and use of these materials. Copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets are examples of different legal mechanisms for protecting intellectual property. Today colleges and universities as well as corporations are increasingly concerned about intellectual property and intellectual properties issues such as patents, licensing, and nondisclosure agreements.

This section is intended to provide a primer on this subject focused on primarily on patents, copyrights, and issues related to these forms of intellectual property about which you should be informed as you work on your undergraduate research project. Note that even if you don’t believe you will invent anything as part of your undergraduate research project, it is a good idea to become familiar with your college, university or employer’s policies regarding intellectual property at the outset of your working relationship.

Articles on Intellectual Property

Copyright Basics

A copyright is a form of legal protection provided by the U.S. Government to anyone who creates an original artistic, dramatic, literary, or musical work in a “fixed” medium. Examples of materials that you can copyright include articles, books, webpages and webpage graphics, software, e-mail, photographs, dramatic presentations, lyrics, and movies. Copyright grants the creator the right to reproduce the work, prepare derivatives of it, and to lend, rent, lease, or sell copies of the work to others. If the work was created on or after January 1, 1978, the rights of copyright automatic at the time the work is created. The work doesn’t have to be published in order for it to be protected. Copyrights do have a finite lifetime and are normally valid seventy years beyond the life of the author.

Copyright doesn’t protect the ideas, the intellectual content of a copyrighted work. That protection is afforded by patents. It doesn’t protect names, familiar symbols, “works for hire,” or anything that is viewed as common property. Works for hire are materials created by employees as part of the normal scope of their employment. If you create something as a work for hire then normally your employer becomes the “author” of the work created. The life of a copyright from a work for hire is different from that of the normal copyright and last 95 years from publication/presentation of the work or 120 years from its creation, whichever period is shorter.

It is useful to know that you can’t always identify copyrighted materials as no notice is currently required by U.S. law. So don’t assume that you can freely copy something simply because it doesn’t contain a copyright notice. Only materials copyrighted on or before March 1, 1989 must be marked with a copyright notice. The format is easy to recognize. It begins with the copyright symbol “©,” the word “Copyright” or the abbreviation “Copr.,” followed by the year of first publication and the name of the copyright holder. For example: “© 2005 Ay Dot Student”

Although not required by law, it may be useful to register your copyright with the Library of Congress’ Copyright Office. Registration is particularly important if you feel it is likely that someone may attempt to infringe on your copyright. Registration serves as a public record of your copyright and is required if you wish to file an infringement suit in a U.S. court. The website for the U.S. Copyright Office provides more detailed information regarding registration, its benefits, and the registration process.

If you want to use copyrighted materials, it is important to obtain written permission from the copyright holder first. If you do obtain permission, the copyright holder has the right to charge you a fee. In addition, if you make use of copyrighted written materials, you will also be required to credit the source. For example, if you obtain permission from the American Chemical Society (ACS) to make copies of an ACS technical article for distribution in a classroom, you will be asked to mark each copy with the statement “Reprinted with permission from … Copyright [Year] American Chemical Society.” Permission is also usually granted to make the requisite number of photocopies for a finite period of time that you must specify at the time that you originally contact the copyright holder with your request.

If you wish to make use of very limited pieces of a copyrighted work such as quotes, you may be able to use these under the doctrine of so-called “fair use.” Under the concept of “fair use” you are permitted to make one photocopy of any article for your private, scholarly use. Unfortunately there aren’t any hard and fast rules regarding how much of a copyrighted work one can use under “fair use” before the action becomes one of copyright infringement. Therefore, it is always best to err on the side of caution and seek permission first from the copyright holder before you make use of someone else’s copyrighted work.


United States Copyright Office. Avail. URL:
The U.S. Copyright Office has a nice article that introduce the fundamental issues surrounding copyrights:
“Copyright Basics” (U.S. Copyright Office) Avail. URL:

The American Chemical Society has produced several excellent resources on copyrights which are available at URL:
These include html materials suitable for classroom use on copyrights:

Several Universities have created and manage excellent websites to assist their faculty and students involved in scholarly publishing. These include:
“University of Michigan Copyright Website.” Avail. URL:

Fair Use

The Indiana University Purdue University Indiannapolis has created a printable checklist entitled “Checklist for Fair Use” that is useful in determining whether or not a specific situation represents an example of fair use or not available at URL:

Copyright Issues and the Internet

NC State University has created an excellent resource focused on copyright issues as they pertain to the internet and the 2002 Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization Act (TEACH Act). “The TEACH Toolkit: An Online Resource for Understanding Copyright and Distance Education.” Avail. URL:


Here are three kinds of patents that can be filed in the United States:

  • Utility
  • Design, and
  • Plant

Utility patents describe inventions for new processes, new instruments and machines that carry out processes, and new types of materials including bio-materials. Design patents cover the ornamental appearance of manufactured materials such as cell phone covers. Plant patents are not very common and describe new varieties of asexually reproduced plants like strawberries.

What Can and Cannot Be Patented?

An invention must be novel, non-obvious, and useful in order to qualify for consideration of grant of a patent. The invention is considered novel as long as it has not been previously patented by you or anyone else anywhere in the world and as long as it has not been published in any written format prior to the claimed date of invention anywhere in the world. An invention is considered to be non-obvious if it would not have been obvious to another person working in the field of the invention. The last criterion for patentability is utility. To be patented the invention must perform some function that is useful to mankind. Utility might seem to be a silly criterion but consider the fact that without it, every new chemical compound synthesized somewhere in the world could potentially be viewed as a possible candidate for a utility patent simply because it was a new type of material!

Patent Rights

It is important to understand what rights patents do and don’t grant the inventor(s). Patents are a constitutionally protected entitlement (U.S. Constitution article 1 section 8) granting the inventor the right to exclude others from making, using, selling or importing the invention. Patents do not grant the inventor affirmative rights.

Your Laboratory Notebook – Evidence of Inventorship and Reduction to Practice

The best evidence in support of a patent application is a witnessed, permanently bound, consecutively numbered laboratory notebook. This is one example of why it is important to keep a laboratory notebook and to develop good record keeping skills. The one idea that may be new and unfamiliar to you here is that of “witnessing” a notebook record. Witnessing means that someone else has read and signed your lab notebook confirming that you wrote what you wrote in the notebook on the date indicated in the notebook. Note that the witness doesn’t have to be a technical expert in the type of work described in your lab notebook. Another important point about witnessing is that this doesn’t have to be done every day but it is important that your witness do this regularly as dates can become very important when interference occurs.


The first person or group of people to conceive of the idea and who can provide evidence of this fact (dates are very important) are identified as the inventors. Performing physical labor on the project for which the patent application is filed doesn’t qualify an individual for inventorship. It is also important to understand that inventorship is not the same concept as authorship on a technical paper. Therefore, authorship on a paper doesn’t qualify an individual as an inventor on a patent application nor does a supervisory position of any kind entitle an individual to inventorship.

Invention Disclosure Form

As soon as possible after you have come up with an idea for an invention, it is a wise idea to contact the office in your workplace that handles intellectual property and complete an invention disclosure form. If you are working in a college or university, you should contact the technology transfer office. If you are working at a company, you should contact the in-house patent attorney. This form will typically request information on the invention including a description of the invention, its purpose, advantages, and possible applications, names of the inventors, and information on any information you may have provided anyone in the course of your work regarding the invention including names and dates.


Sometimes when a patent is filed another individual or group of individuals may come forward to contest the patent. This can be done at any time before or after patent filed and the practice is referred to as interference. The key to successfully defending a patent is evidence of the dates of conception and reduction to practice. The individual or individuals who can successfully demonstrate that they in fact came up with the invention first will ultimately be viewed by the law as the rightful owners of the patent.


Inventions are viewed by the law as personal property and as such can be sold or mortgaged to other individuals or companies. When an inventor transfers his/her legal rights to another individual or group of individuals, the recipient is referred to as the assignee. As student working on a research project in someone else’s laboratory, you may be under an obligation to assign ownership of an invention to your employer, likely either a college or university or a corporation.


The whole idea behind obtaining a patent is to realize profit from the commercialization of the invention. Inventors will typically sell their inventions to companies which are able to commercialize their inventions. This practice is referred to as licensing. Once the technology from a patent is licensed and commercialized, the patent’s inventors may receive a share of the licensing royalties if the invention is profitable. At colleges and universities, patents and patent royalties benefit not only the inventors but their academic departments or units, support the institution’s educational, research, and public service missions, and enhance the institution’s reputation.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office

In the United States, patent applications must be filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The USPTO maintains a full-text, keyword searchable database of all U.S. patent applications and granted patents that may be accessed by the public at no cost on-line.

Types of Patents

There are several types of patents. We will consider three here. Provisional patents are the easiest to obtain and are generally good for 1 year from the date of filing. These patents require little more than a basic description of the invention, the identity of the inventors and the claims do not need to be specified. Provisional applications are often filed by inventors to obtain the necessary time with which to reduce to practice their inventions in support of U.S. utility or a Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) applications. U.S. utility patents provide patent protection within the United States while PCT applications provide international protection in over 100 countries.

Patent Classification

The USPTO breaks patent applications and patents into three main categories: Mechanical, electrical, and chemical. Each of these three classifications is broken down into hundreds of classes and subclasses. This information is useful whenever performing patent literature searches. For more information, see the USPTO website.

The General Format of a Patent

The major sections of a patent are as follows:

  • Field of invention
  • Background of invention
  • Summary of invention
  • Figures, if any, of invention
  • Detailed description of invention
  • Claims of invention

We will discuss each of these briefly below.

Field of Invention

The field of invention usually consists of a sentence or two that provide information useful in classifying the patent.

Background of invention

The background section of a patent is very similar to the introduction section of a technical paper. This section provides background on the invention, specifically, information concerning what had been done previously that prompted the inventor to pursue their invention. As such this section will provide references to other relevant patents, technical journal articles, conference proceedings, etc. which can provide readers with invaluable information concerning successful inventors in this area, the names of companies that have licensed similar technologies, etc.


This section defines what the invention is, what its applications are, and what its advantages are over existing technologies.


Figures are not a required element of patent applications. However, sketches and drawings are often found in patent applications as they provide an extremely effective visual aid that can help readers appreciate the unique features and/or advantages of an invention.

Detailed Description

This section of the patent describes the theory behind the invention, how the invention works, as well as specific details regarding how the invention can be used. These statements are referred to as “preferred embodiments.”


Claims are statements that define the scope of the invention – what the invention is and what it is not.

Standard Format of a Patent Abstract

The following is the standard format of a patent abstract:

Volume Number: Abstract # Title of Patent. List of Names of All Inventors of Patent (Affiliation or Assignees) U.S. Patent #,###,### (Patent Classification) Date of Publication for Patent, Application #, Date of Application for Patent; # of pages. Text of the patent abstract.


Q: Can students be inventors?

A: Of course! Anyone can be an inventor. There is no age limit. You don’t need to have a college degree in order to be an inventor. You simply need to have a good idea, to be able to present the appropriate evidence supporting the fact you are the inventor and that the invention works to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.


  • M. H. Jester (2004) Patents and Trademarks Plain & Simple. Franklin Lakes, Career Press.
  • United States Patent and Trademark Office. Definitive resource on patents and trademarks. Site provides free search engine and free accesss to tiff files of patents. Avail. URL:
  • Patent Cooperation Treaty System (World Intellectual Property Organization). Avail. URL:
  • Free Patents Online. Free internet search engine (registration required) providing free access to pdf files of patents. Avail. URL:


Trademark is a distinctive logo, phrase, or design such as “Dunkin’ Donuts®” or “Microsoft®” that uniquely identifies a particular commercial product or series of products with a specific commercial supplier. The symbols ™ or ® are often used to alert the public to the trademark. Anyone claiming ownership of a trademark can use ™ to alert others to their ownership of a trademark. The ® symbol on the other hand indicates that the trademark has been officially registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Federal registration of a trademark is useful in preventing foreign infringement on the trademark and in obtaining registration rights to the trademark outside the United States.


“Trademarks.” Avail. URL: (Accessed June 14, 2005)>

Technology Transfer

Technology Transfer

Technology transfer is the process of taking intellectual property (IP) including inventions, trade secrets, and copyrighted materials, from the research laboratory to the commercial marketplace.

As soon as you realize that your idea(s) might be valuable it is important to contact the Office of Technology Transfer as their staff are trained experts in intellectual property who can assist you in the technology transfer process. Steps in the technology transfer process typically include filing of an invention disclosure form, value assessment of the invention, legal protection of the intellectual property usually by copyright or patent, marketing, licensing or creation of a start-up in order to commercialize the IP.

The Office of Technology Transfer

Today most colleges and universities have an office that helps students, faculty, and staff take their intellectual property (IP) and realize commercialization of it. These offices provide a wide range of support services relevant to intellectual property issues including: help identify promising technologies worthy of patenting, provide the financial resources needed to patent and even market inventions, license university-owned IP to interested companies, and assist students and faculty in forming start-up companies based on patented inventions or copyrighted materials.


Florida State University Office of Research. Avail. URL:
(Note: This site features several stories on the successful commercialization of university developed intellectual property including the anticancer drug taxol).

Techtransfer (U. Michigan). Avail. URL:

Trade Secrets

Trade secrets are economically valuable, non-obvious information about a process, method, or design that enjoy legal protection by virtue of the fact that their inventor makes a concerted effort to keep the information confidential. The best known example of a trade secret is the formula for Coca Cola®. The Coca Cola company keeps the formula a closely guarded secret by limiting access to the formula, requiring those who have this information to sign confidentiality agreements (see below) and by selling the flavor as a syrup to independent bottlers.

Copyright doesn’t protect the ideas, the intellectual content of a copyrighted work. That protection is afforded by patents. It doesn’t protect names, familiar symbols, “works for hire,” or anything that is viewed as common property. Works for hire are materials created by employees as part of the normal scope of their employment. If you create something as a work for hire then normally your employer becomes the “author” of the work created. The life of a copyright from a work for hire is different from that of the normal copyright and last 95 years from publication/presentation of the work or 120 years from its creation, whichever period is shorter.

Confidentiality or Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA’s)

The key to maintaining a trade secret rests with the inventor’s ability to keep the trade secret confidential. This is typically done by requiring employees and others with whom the inventor has business dealings to sign confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements (NDA’s). These are legally binding agreements in which the recipient, either an individual or a business, of the confidential information obtains permission to use the information for the agreed upon purposes which are outlined upfront for a set time period without disclosing the information to anyone outside of the arrangement. These agreements are usually carefully crafted to protect the inventor from unintentionally forfeiting his/her patent rights as a result of the disclosure of any valuable propriety information.

Trade secrets are attractive because they can have an indefinite lifetime unlike patents which provide protection for a finite period of time but this is at the same time their downside – there is no minimum period of legal protection enjoyed by trade secrets and it is much more challenging to protect these by virtue of the fact that it is their very secrecy that safeguards them.

What can you do with IP?

A lot! For example:

  • Sell it to interested individuals and/or companies (this is referred to as assignment)
  • License the technology to an interested company; or
  • Form a start-up company based on the invention or copyrighted material

If you believe that you have invented something useful, you are strongly encouraged to contact the Technology Transfer Office or entrepreneurial business center at your college or university to learn more about the business opportunities available in support of your IP and its commercialization.


Florida State University Office of Research. Avail. URL:
(Note: This site features several stories on the successful commercialization of university developed intellectual property including the anticancer drug taxol).

Techtransfer (U. Michigan). Avail. URL: