Difficult situation with PhD student, collaborative project and data

(26 Posts)
BrianRobson Mon 15-Oct-18 10:19:29

I'm in a complicated and tricky situation and would appreciate some advice. I've NC because this is very outing (though changed some details).

I'm a humanities academic. Over the last couple of years I've been working with a physicist on a particular topic area. We both tinker in our own areas of this topic but come together for various projects/papers which we do collaboratively.

We applied for a grant to give us one PhD student each. PhDs would work in their own discipline but projects would be related and we would all publish as a team (two PhDs and two PIs) with different people taking turns as first author.

We didn't get the grant but this was a good model so we decided to go ahead and recruit PhDs to work on the project anyway. He managed to get some funding for his PhD student and I had a fairly decent self-funded student who worked on the humanities side.

Both students were well aware of the project set-up, the fact their PhDs were linked and that we'd publish as a team and look to get follow-on funding using their data. Both were okay with this and we were meeting as a whole team regularly to discuss progress.

Now my PhD student has decided to leave two years in. She's collected data and done some perfunctory analysis. Given her project was part of a wider collaboration and was linking on to new work and new grants, this created quite a bit of chaos.

I contacted the departed PhD student and asked her if she would send her raw data to me, which would address some of the chaos she'd left behind.

She didn't get back to me and I didn't chase her up on it although my colleague was keen to do so. She did, though, lodge a formal complaint with the HOD about me, accusing me of academic misconduct for asking her for her data.

I've talked to a couple of people but I'm getting very mixed advice.

My hard science colleagues are of the opinion that I was completely in the right and that I have a right to see and use all data generated under my supervision. As long as any publications coming from the data had her listed as an author then that's fine. But they have a different set-up in the hard sciences and I think this is easier to argue for them as PhDs in their discipline have consumables etc. whereas in my discipline for self-funded students, it's just my time I've invested.

Other colleagues from the humanities are more sympathetic to the students complaint and a couple have said they can see the students point. One colleague from another university did the whole head-tilt thing as if my public execution formal warning was a foregone conclusion.

I've got a formal meeting about this next week. Just after some advice if anyone has any, please.

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rutnoast Mon 15-Oct-18 12:19:36

I am in sciences, so not sure if my experience is relevant, but back when I did my PhD there was definitely an agreement that all data, IP, copyright etc belonged to the university (I guess in reality, to the supervisor) rather than the student, unless specifically negotiated otherwise. That said, it could have been an agreement with the funding body, not the university.

I certainly wouldn't expect it to be misconduct to ask though! It's a very reasonable request.

BrianRobson Mon 15-Oct-18 13:22:23

Thanks @rutnoast

I think the situation is slightly complicated by the fact she's a self-funded student.

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Orchiddingme Mon 15-Oct-18 14:42:07

In the social sciences/humanities, I've never heard of anyone essentially taking over their PhD student's data, also it would be problematic to try to publish without her consent and without her reading the final manuscript as usually this is required when you submit.

I don't know the answer, and I don't think you have committed misconduct by asking for it as it may have been the case that with the correct authorship she would have been happy to hand it over and to continue to write together, presumably you outlined this as an option.

I don't know the legal answer, there was some move a while back for the university to claim ownership of all our data but there was huge push-back from many academics, as it would make moving institution impossible for starters. It's a bit different if funded by an external organization but even then they are just usually given copies of publications/not the power of veto depending on who it is, otherwise again, there is an independence issue.

This doesn't help you as your data rides off into the sunset...

BrianRobson Mon 15-Oct-18 15:18:20

Thanks @Orchiddingme

I wasn't planning on publishing it without her consent or her veto, I'd have kept her in the loop with any publications. Ideally we'd work together on these even if she wasn't pursuing her PhD but I guess that's out of the window now.

The main way the data would be useful is for future grant applications. Ideally this would have been as published papers but we also discussed (as a whole team) using the PhD data in grant applications as 'unpublished data'. This is common in the sciences apparently. It's hard to narrate our successful inter-disciplinary working so far in grant applications if we've got no data from the humanities side sad

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BrianRobson Mon 15-Oct-18 15:20:59

Sorry, my other question about this is how much trouble I can get into here.

I should've put this in my OP.

Have I actually, at this point, done anything wrong? I mean I get that it might not look great and might be a bit misjudged (to some, not to others!) but I haven't actually used her data for anything, I haven't actually published it behind her back, I haven't actually used it in any grant applications. So, have I actually committed misconduct, or anything approaching it, here?

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GreyCloudsToday Mon 15-Oct-18 15:31:48

Hmm, that is tricky. Who set out the research topic / question? Did the student approach you, or did you recruit them with the question already in mind?

Honestly, I'd consider self-funded data to belong to the student. It's an incredible sacrifice to basically work for free on a topic. Do you know why the student left? There's stuff in your post about the student letting you down. Could you have come across as entitled if you conveyed this to the student without an equal regard for their wellbeing? Maybe the complaint stems from that?

BrianRobson Mon 15-Oct-18 15:43:14

Who set out the research topic / question?
I did initially but the student brought her own ideas about how to adapt it and I guess the eventual work was a meet-in-the-middle.

Did the student approach you, or did you recruit them with the question already in mind?
I had the rough question in mind and advertised to final year and MA students in our department. As above, she came along with ideas about how to grow/develop the project which we did.

Honestly, I'd consider self-funded data to belong to the student. It's an incredible sacrifice to basically work for free on a topic
That's good to know, thank you.

Do you know why the student left?
She had a lot of family stuff going on, she'd been through a horrible break-up and was struggling with her accommodation. I think everything was just getting on top of her. She suspended her studies for a while on my suggestion which seemed to help but when she came back she didn't have the same passion for the work (e.g. I had to do a lot more chasing up and the work just wasn't to the same standard). I did suggest another break but she didn't want to, she said she just wanted to get her head down and finish. It was quite a shock when she said she wanted to walk away. I tried to talk to her and give her some options but she'd made up her mind.

There's stuff in your post about the student letting you down. Could you have come across as entitled if you conveyed this to the student without an equal regard for their wellbeing?
I'm not sure where I've said she let me down. I mean, she did let me down, yes. As I said just above, I think I've shown a lot of regard for her wellbeing (e.g. supporting her suspension, being very patient and understanding when she came back much less on her game). She's explicitly said that she's found me supportive and a great supervisor.

Maybe the complaint stems from that?
When we (me and PhD director) were communicating with her after she decided to leave, she said explicitly that she found me to be a supportive supervisor so I don't think so.

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GreyCloudsToday Mon 15-Oct-18 16:37:23

That's good.

I think you could make a strong case against any complaint given the different traditions in this area. For example I've seen supervisors present entirely on their students' self-defined work in the US and as you say, different disciplines manage collaboration very differently.

BrianRobson Mon 15-Oct-18 16:54:19

That's a good point, actually, thanks I hadn't thought of that.

It's just such a weird situation where I feel like there's a complaint for something which I haven't actually done (as I said, it's not like I've actually used her data without consent for anything) and which is thought of so differently depending on who you talk to.

I'm just not sure how to approach the meeting really - humble and apologetic or all-guns-blazing. A bit of both I guess but that's difficult. Mostly, TBH, I just feel a bit sad that our relationship (which was good) has come to this sad

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MedSchoolRat Mon 15-Oct-18 18:52:53

When you asked for her data, was it with menaces?
Assuming not, your stbX-student is a weirdo. No right to accuse you of any sort of misconduct. Esp. without even answering a polite request directly.

Deffo have to hand the whole thing to your PG-office now, though. They will decide what's allowed wrt data access. Assemble all your documents, email exchanges & make your own factual account of interaction history (with actions done on what dates).

Years ago a colleague's student died very suddenly, but on verge of submitting thesis; colleague published her research posthumously. The deceased would have like that. Different days.

Orchiddingme Mon 15-Oct-18 19:09:12

I don't think you have done anything wrong whatsoever to date, you asked if she would share the data with you as the project was now collapsing and going to yield no publications, and you would have included her as an author if that's what she wanted to do. She didn't and the sensible thing would have been to have said no (I do believe it is her data) politely and nicely. Now she has a record of a complaint and a pile of data she'll never publish. Just say you are mystified by her complaining and let them come to their own conclusions. You were sensible to ask her for the data as it would have been her best chance of publication.

BrianRobson Tue 16-Oct-18 08:46:21

@MedSchoolRat No, it wasn't with menaces at all. Prior to asking for the data, there'd been a few emails (from me, the physics professor, and the PhD director) asking if she was sure, if there was anything we could do to support her, suggesting some more time off etc. So all supportive, I think.

When she'd been clear that she'd reached the end and was most definitely leaving, I emailed and said I was really sad about it and would she send over her raw data so we could do something with the work she'd worked so hard at. I was really transparent saying we'd be looking at using it in future grants and potentially publications and would keep her in the loop about it if she wanted to.

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Veterinari Tue 16-Oct-18 08:53:18

Universities will generally have a standard regulation that all research product is IP of the university unless there is a specific contract in place eg with an external funding body, that agrees otherwise. This protects against exactly this situation.
Her data will likely be university IP unless there's a specific agreement otherwise. As she’s quit her PhD, I assume she’s given up on academia anyway? I’d ask your university lawyers to contact her asking for return of all data relating to the project.

NoUnicornsToSeeHere Tue 16-Oct-18 09:03:37

Have a look st your unversuty’s IP policy. A friendly research librarian may also be useful on this matter. I would suspect that what ever the moral position of working for free, the data may belong to the university anyway. I don’t think you’ve find anything wrong (my job is the sort of one where this might get escalated) from what you’ve said.

MissMatchedClaws Tue 16-Oct-18 09:08:29

Our university regulations are very clear that IP belongs to the University for all PhD students. They have to sign something agreeing to that when they start. Your PGR student office should have details?

bibliomania Tue 16-Oct-18 09:48:20

I don't think you've done anything wrong by asking her to consent to providing her data. Sounds like you have to accept that she does have a veto in this regard, but you didn't do anything underhand or without her knowledge. You asked her to consent, she said no, case closed, no grounds for complaint by anyone.

I agree with pps that the University should have a policy on attribution of intellectual property. You shouldn't all be groping in the dark with regard to ownership of the data.

AnElderlyLadyOfMediumHeight Tue 16-Oct-18 11:35:19

Did you, in the original request, tell her very clearly that she would be acknowledged in any publication resulting from/including her data? You've said you promised to 'keep her in the loop', but that isn't the same as acknowledging her contribution. Given you say you've been very supportive (though your OP twice mentions her causing 'chaos' - I wonder if or how that was conveyed to her?), I can't really see another explanation for her accusing you specifically of academic misconduct.

BrianRobson Tue 16-Oct-18 12:13:10

Yes, I said she'd be down as an author on any publications. What I meant about her being kept in the loop was that we'd keep her informed of where we're sending funding applications or submitting papers. I made this clear.

I have been incredibly supportive of her. She has acknowledged that in her emails.

I talked about chaos in the OP because she has caused chaos. I don't think I've conveyed this to her though. I framed it along the lines of 'you're integral to a great collaborative project, we're nearly there, there's lots more scope to do great work in the future, and we'd love to have you involved in all of that'.

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AnElderlyLadyOfMediumHeight Tue 16-Oct-18 12:26:54

Hmm - then I think she may either have misunderstood the concept of academic misconduct or have an axe to grind. It doesn't sound as if you've been anything other than ethical and professional.

AnElderlyLadyOfMediumHeight Tue 16-Oct-18 12:27:48

Of course it's possible that a third party has said something to her that has upset her in regard to you?

NotDavidTennant Tue 16-Oct-18 12:42:44

But they have a different set-up in the hard sciences and I think this is easier to argue for them as PhDs in their discipline have consumables etc. whereas in my discipline for self-funded students, it's just my time I've invested.

To be honest I don't see the relevance of this. Ownership of data will be governed by the University's policy, not by how much it has been 'earned'.

BrianRobson Tue 16-Oct-18 12:48:40

Our university policy says that IP is the students.

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BrianRobson Tue 16-Oct-18 12:49:22

Yes it's very possible that someone else has said something to upset her.

I guess I'll find out everything at the meeting.

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Veterinari Tue 16-Oct-18 19:57:03

If IP is the students then you can’t ask her to hand over the data and it makes any collaborative research involving students VERY risky - how can the university deliver on funded PhDs if the students can walk away with the data at any point? might be worth mentioning that.

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