Vignette 1: Trading Techniques as a Commodity

Alice and Bob are graduate students at different institutions studying morphogenesis of the optic-cup.  Alice, as part of EBICS, an NSF Science and Technology Center, has developed a cell culture protocol to induce differentiation of embryonic stem (ES) cells into retinal photoreceptors.  Bob has developed a 3D matrix suitable for morphogenesis studies as part of a separate research project.  Alice and Bob meet at a conference, and see immediate potential for collaboration.  Thrilled to learn each other’s techniques and apply them to their own projects, Alice trains Bob on her differentiation protocol, and Bob provides Alice with samples of his three-dimensional scaffold.  In their excitement, they neglect to make arrangements regarding acknowledgement or authorship of subsequent results.  To date, neither the protocol nor the gel formulation have been published.  Additionally, Alice and Bob did not include their advisors in the exchange.

Alice discovers that Bob's 3D gel can also be used to study cardiac morphogenesis.  She runs several experiments, observing differentiation and self-organization of cardiac progenitor cells, and immediately prepares a manuscript for submission.  Bob, upon learning of Alice's intentions, requests that Alice delay publication of her findings until he has a chance to finalize his study and publish his findings.  Alice feels that she has “acquired rights” to the technique by trading a technique of similar value, and consequentially should be able to do what she pleases with it.

Bob has modified Alice's protocol to induce differentiation of retinal pigment epithelium in addition to photoreceptors.  Access to the original protocol was a critical enabling factor in the development of the modified protocol.  Bob prepares a manuscript focused on the modified protocol and makes plans for submission.

Given that EBICS promotes collaboration and innovation, how would you respond to the following questions?

Questions:

  1. Should Alice delay publication of her manuscript in consideration of Bob's request?
  2. Should Alice be included as an author on Bob's manuscript?  At what point is the protocol modified to an extent that it should not be considered Alice's technique?  What if Alice had already published the technique?
  3. Both Alice and Bob shared their expertise without consulting with their advisors.  What adverse effects could this have?
  4. George, Alice's advisor, is concerned about disseminating techniques outside the STC prior to publication.  He believes that allowing other research groups to publish results using his lab's techniques might reduce the perceived effectiveness of the STC, and, as a result, reduce the odds of grant renewal.  Are these concerns valid?  Should Alice and George have limited disclosure of the technique to other members of their STC prior to publication?
  5. In consideration of the previous dilemmas, and other potential conflicts, Bob and Alice should have discussed and made arrangements regarding authorship and utilization of the shared techniques.  What specific agreements, in addition to those already discussed, should have been established?