Columns Conversations

On the ethics of choosing a research question: PhD-Postdoc transition

Hari Sridhar

In Part 1 of a two-part interview, Hari Sridhar talks to Renee Borges,senior ecologist and Chairperson of CES, IISc, on issues of research ethics in the context of the choice of research questions, especially for students making the transition from a PhD to a postdoc.

Renee Borges
Renee Borges   (Photo: Renee Borges)

Hari: For a graduated PhD student about to embark on a postdoc, there is, of course, the temptation of continuing to work on a familiar topic, which one has become more and more interested in. But, if a student obtained a PhD by working within an already ongoing research programme in a lab, is it okay for him/her to continue working on the same topic after moving to a new lab? What are your views on this? Do you think that students need to think of issues of research propriety in such cases?
Renee: As you rightly framed the question, the lab in which the student has done a PhD has developed a framework of a particular system or a particular type of investigation and has plans to continue those investigations with subsequent students. The lab has a story and has invested time and effort in that story and so it is often assumed that that story will continue within that particular lab. And this is world-wide. I wouldn’t call it a research territory, because territoriality has negative connotations. It is an issue of investment by a particular lab. Because, when you invest in a system, there could be many offshoots that come up resulting from the investigation. Offshoots or “direct descending hypotheses”. Obviously, then, that particular lab would like to continue working on those questions because of the prior investment in time, connections, the network, etc. that has been built up.
The issue is slightly different when a student comes into a lab with his or her own idea, is able to independently generate his or her own funding to pursue such an idea, and if the mentor doesn’t mind hosting such a student. I have seen this happen quite frequently in the US system, for example, where graduate students have the opportunities for applying independently for grants such as from the NSF (National Science Foundation); these are sizable grants and can support all the research that a student might want to do without in any way impinging on research funds or priorities of the mentor. If the mentor feels that the student is bright and can independently pursue his or her own research trajectory, in such cases, it is usually an unwritten rule that the project really belongs to the student. In such cases, when the student leaves the lab, the investigator ideally should have no problem with that student continuing to pursue that particular project.
The other comment I would like to make—because you spoke about the transition from a PhD to a postdoc—is this: it is important to think of a PhD merely as a passport. A PhD is just to give you sufficient training and to teach you the fundamentals before you launch out on your own. It is to give you basic skills in thinking, formulating a problem, writing about a problem, and the discipline involved in bringing all this together. So that, at the end of your PhD, you have your passport and the world is now your oyster, in a certain sense. In fact, in some countries—France for example—students are actively discouraged from working on the same topic for a PhD and their postdoc work. This is ideally how a PhD–postdoc transition should be thought of — it is just a set of steps in training, steps in exposure, widening your perspective, which is very important, and then giving you the opportunity to make your ultimate choice as to what do you really want to focus or specialise on. Now, if you want to do [for a postdoc] exactly what you did as a PhD student, obviously, there will be a conflict of interest. If you want to work on exactly the same system and exactly the same aspect that somebody has put a lot of time or effort into, it would count as a conflict of interest. Problems require their space. If you have to keep looking over your shoulder all the time, that will affect the quality of the research. It also depends on the kind of question. For example, there is no conflict of interest if two groups are studying tigers in Bandipur and Bandhavgarh if there is no one fundamental question about tigers they are trying to understand. Information on tigers from different places is useful independently. But if there is one fundamental question that is being addressed on the same system, then there is a conflict of interest if different groups are studying the same question.

Hari: Let’s try to understand the contours of some potential conflicts of interest. The problem is clear when two groups want to work on exactly the same specific problem on the same taxon. But what if the same question is addressed using a different taxon? Or, if the question is not exactly the same but closely-related? How does one draw the boundaries of this conflict area? Do you think there is a need for general guidelines or should it be worked out on a case-by-case basis?
Renee: Case-by-case, because so many factors are at play—novelty of idea, how did the idea come about? Was it a joint discussion? In many cases a student might be the “originator” of the idea but it may have been the environment that facilitated the idea, i.e. the student might never have had the idea without that enabling environment. Or the idea might have been simmering for a long time and required some nurturing for it to emerge fully. The period of gestation of an idea is very important. It is possible that many people are at the same gestational stage and require just that one spark to take it forward. But if that priming hasn’t happened, the spark will be ineffective. To use a biblical reference, it would be like casting pearls before swine. Therefore it is very important to take the ontogeny of an idea into consideration.

Hari: You said that if a student brings his/her own ideas and money into a PhD then it is fine for him/her to continue the project into a postdoc. Such a student, you feel, is clearly the owner of the project and ideas that come out of it. But even in a situation where a student joins an existing research programme, doesn’t the student have some ownership over the ideas that develop during the course of the PhD? After all, these ideas are likely to reflect the intellectual inputs of both student and supervisor. Shouldn’t ownership issues be negotiated between student–supervisor or student–institute?
Renee: There is an unwritten law or rule. Even in terms of the authorship sequence on papers, the supervisor is usually the corresponding author or the senior author who is ultimately responsible for the study—flaws, faults, good things, bad things— the buck stops at the supervisor. If there is a case of fraud, the student is not going to bear the major brunt. Yes, he or she might get punished but it is the supervisor who will be hounded and maybe even suspended. So the major responsibility lies at the supervisor’s door. If you turn this thing around, then since the supervisor is holding the responsibility for the entire project or idea, it is natural that the supervisor also has greater ownership over it. Of course, there is always this cross talk going on between student and supervisor, the idea develops all the time. Every problem is in that sense a joint problem. How much is the supervisor’s idea, how much the student’s, becomes a little murky after a while. It is very hard to say 50-50 or 80-20; it becomes difficult. In cases where the student comes with an independent idea into the lab and the student has brought in funding then, ideally, it is the student who should be the corresponding author or there should be joint corresponding authors. And then the responsibility lies with the student, both for the good aspects of the work and for mistakes, fraud etc., if any. This is the most straightforward way in which to decide ownership, based on responsibility.

Hari: So though the intellectual contributions of student and supervisor are difficult to separate, the lab and the supervisor have greater ownership over ideas coming out of a PhD?
Renee: You must remember that it is a dual-growth process. Both student and supervisor grow during the course of a PhD, and the supervisor grows not only through what the student contributes but because of other factors also, like interacting with other individuals. In other words, the supervisor’s understanding of a problem also grows independent of a student’s contribution. That’s why I say it is quite hard to separate the contribution of student and supervisor. It is really hard to say I own 40% or 50%. It is just not possible.

Hari: The student–supervisor relationship is inherently unequal, and the problem is exacerbated because students feel that way, and don’t feel empowered enough to speak up. In such a situation, do you think there is value to these issues being discussed and agreed upon right at the start of the PhD? Maybe, even formalised through a set of guidelines in student handbooks?
Renee: It is important but much of it depends on the lab culture. I would hate to feel that students feel powerless because, in my opinion, students can do a lot collectively. At least in my lab, just speaking personally, we really talk about the collective. We even have a term for it —”syncephalon”, and we— my students and I—are the “syncephalites”. Everything is bounced off many minds, so it is no longer just the student and supervisor; it is the whole lab, and the student and supervisor are embedded in this syncephalon. In such a situation, it is even more difficult to separate contributions. A bright idea, which a student has, might have come from the combined ideas of many others in the lab, who have created the environment where such an idea can be born. So, that’s why I am always disturbed when I hear about students feeling powerless or that there is a lot of asymmetry. Yes, there will be some amount of asymmetry because the supervisor has to sign on the thesis. But there are mechanisms to deal even with that in an institute like ours, where if the relationship between student and supervisor breaks down, there is a mechanism to bypass the supervisor, if necessary. A student really should not feel unempowered and if he or she does feel so, then there is a problem with the lab/labs that the student is embedded in. I agree with you, entirely, that this is something that should be discussed. It is a little bit of a sensitive issue. When I gave a talk on ethical practices in science in CES a year ago, the same question was posed to me and I remember responding that both students and mentors have responsibilities towards each other; an equal responsibility.

Hari: What about issues of authorship, data and sample ownership, etc.; do you think these should be discussed and agreed upon at the start of a PhD?
Renee: I think so, I agree. Data from a lab-initiated, lab-funded project really belongs to the lab; and so do specimens. If there is a unique situation, it should be negotiated by the student, e.g. if a student specialises in a group of organisms on which the lab has no expertise and the lab is providing only conceptual backing, the student could say “I would like to take my specimens when I leave”. But, like I said earlier, there is the issue of funding; if the lab contributes funds, the lab has ownership. These issues can be tricky if the student does not have a clear-cut idea of what he or she is coming into the lab with. If a student comes into the lab as an apprentice—and most students do come into the lab to learn, as apprentices—then only under some very unusual circumstances will he/she become the owner of a project. But if you come in as an expert, then you do have more negotiating power. Then it is up to you to use that negotiating power if you think it is appropriate, and if the lab is willing to allow you to use it.

In Part 2, Hari Sridhar and Renee Borges expand this discussion to research labs pursuing the same ideas, and open science.