Help! My adviser won’t stop looking for my data!

Dear Alice,

Q: I’ve just joined a new lab for my second postdoc. It’s a good lab. I’m happy with my project and I got a paper in Science. My adviser is a good scientist, and he seems like a nice guy. Here’s the problem: Whenever we meet in his office, I catch him trying to look at my data. Not that this matters, but he’s a co-author on the paper.

What should I do?

—Bothered

Dear Bothered,

A: Imagine what life would be like if there were no individuals of the opposite—or preferred—ethical standards. It would be pretty dull, eh? Well, like it or not, the workplace is a part of life.

It’s true that, in principle, we’re all supposed to be honest while working. But the kind of behavior you mention is common in the workplace. Once, a friend told me that he was so distracted by an attractive set of results that he could not concentrate on the fact that he hadn’t ever seen the raw data. Your adviser may not even be aware of what he is doing.

Some definitions of ‘data harassment’ do include inappropriate looking or questioning, especially when it’s repeated to the point where the workplace becomes inhospitable. Has it reached that point? I don’t mean to suggest that repeatedly requesting to see the data is inappropriate workplace behavior—it isn’t—but it is human and up to a point, I think, forgivable. Certainly there are worse things, including citing the IRB as the reason for not inspecting the data. No one should ever use a position of authority to claim co-authorship of a paper when they can’t vouch for the data.

As long as your adviser does not move on to other inquiries, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can. Just make sure that he is listening to you and your ideas, being taken in by the results you are presenting, and taking your science seriously. His attention on your data may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his reputation to shield you from further scrutiny.

—Alice

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3 responses to “Help! My adviser won’t stop looking for my data!

  1. Sorry why can’t your advisor look at your data?

  2. Yeah, good question. Your data is your advisor’s data too.

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