Case study 1: A conflict between stakeholders


Read the following case study, then type in a list of factors that you believe created problems for this student and her supervisor. Don’t worry about thinking up solutions yet – just try to identify the source of the problems.

Submit your thoughts. You can then compare your own list of factors with those identified by workshop participants who have used this case study.

 Case study: A conflict between stakeholders

The disciplinary area is one of the University’s research strengths. Staff in the research unit have secured a large government grant with matching industry funds and have recruited a number of students on scholarships partly funded by industry. The research for all students involves some lab work and some fieldwork in industry. The supervisor of one student is very keen to engage the student in the broader research project, believing that the student will gain a great deal of experience and develop research skills and attributes of the kind that have been encouraged by the University. The supervisor negotiates with the student a program of activities and tasks for the first year of candidature. Most of the tasks are related to the broader project but are in keeping with the research topic that the student has chosen. The student is a little unhappy with the scope and volume of the work but does not say anything. The supervisor and student meet regularly through their work in a larger team, and they have a good understanding of what needs to be done.

Concurrently, the student is working on her particular project, which involves research with the industry partner that provided the scholarship funds. The supervisor is only marginally familiar with what the student is doing with the industry partner. At the end of the first year the supervisor and the industry partner meet to discuss the student’s progress. The academic supervisor is very pleased with the student’s progress but the industry partner is not, believing that the student is spending too much time on lab work at the university and too little time on the industry problems that need to be researched, and for which the scholarship funds were provided. The academic supervisor reports satisfactory progress to the university even though the industry partner disagrees. They both talk about how to overcome this issue and they meet with the student to discuss plans for the second year.

In the second year, despite good intentions to redress the imbalance in the student’s workload, nothing much changes. The student is still busy on lab work and has insufficient time for the kind of fieldwork expected by the industry partner. The dissatisfaction of the industry partner comes to a head when an article written by the student is accepted for publication in an international journal, an article which uses data obtained from the industry partner. The industry partner is furious that such commercially sensitive information may be available in the public domain, and demands that the article be withdrawn from the journal prior to publication. The supervisor, not knowing of the student’s article because she has been away on two months’ leave, was also angry with the student for not involving him as a co-author. The three meet to resolve a very tense situation. The meeting does not go well – claims, counter claims and accusations are freely exchanged. The student, quite rightly, points out that her publication does not breach the terms of the contract with the industry partner. The industry partner says it is a matter of trust and that any co-operative project that resorts to legal documentation is a failure. The supervisor, on advice from the legal branch, believes that the article infringes the intellectual property of the university. The student disagrees and is not willing to withdraw the article or include the supervisor as a co-author. The immediate outcome is that the industry partner withdraws funding for the remainder of the scholarship (and threatens to withdraw funds from the broader project), the supervisor reports unsatisfactory progress for the student, and the student requests a change of supervisor on the grounds that their relationship is now dysfunctional. The Dean of the Graduate School receives an appeal from the student against both the cessation of the scholarship and the unsatisfactory report, a letter of complaint from the industry partner, a recommendation for disciplinary action against the student for publishing an article which infringes the intellectual property of the university, and a letter from the Dean of the Faculty complaining that the withdrawal of scholarship funds by the industry partner breaches the terms of the funding contract.

You can enter your thoughts in the reply box below.

Formulating your own recommendations for case study one

Responses to the above were

Lack of communication, in all directions.

As a preamble, this situation (except for the journal article) is typical of academic-industrial agreements hammered out by senior officials at both entities, with little participation from the people who have to do the work. The academic side does not seem to have a clear idea of what the industrial partner needs to get out of the collaboration. The industrial side does not seem to realize that “workers” paid for with project money are in reality students who need to get training and publications. After that, everything else is asking for trouble. The supervisor can’t simply be “marginally familiar” with the student’s activities at the company. The student can’t simultaneously develop supervised activities plus a presumably unsupervised “particular project” at the collaborating industrial partner. Academic and industrial supervisors can’t meet only once a year to discuss progress. Before sending her out for field work, the student should have been minimally briefed on IP issues and the proper use of company data, etc, etc.
If the student is the only author in the article, the only thing left to do is refuse authorisation to use the university’s byline and inform the journal that data in the paper has been obtained form a source (the company) which does not approve publication. If there is common agreement that there was no bad faith from any party, and there is a will to continue the collaboration (sounds unlikely in this case), go back to square one.

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