I receive lots of requests every day: requests to give extensions on homework, requests to serve on committees of all sorts, requests to review papers or grants, requests to consider unsolicited grad school and postdoc applications... People ask for my time or my expertise, and often both.
But today I received two requests that were fairly unusual. The first one explores the issue of sharing in science, and the second the issue of caring for students and when our duty to care ends.
Request 1, or "On Sharing": I received an email from a student I don't know, who is in a foreign country and at a university I have never heard of. I am paraphrasing the email:
Dear Prof GMP, I want to work on Interesting Physical System. I want to simulate it using Cool Technique and I have seen that you wrote papers on simulation of the System using Cool Technique. I do not know how to write this code, so can you send me yours?
Huh? Send you my code?
I don't blame the student for asking, I actually replied politely, thanking him/her for the interest and stating that regrettably I cannot share the code. My group develops detailed microscopic simulations of certain physical phenomena. These codes can have wonderful predictive power and take years to develop. Sharing the codes is absolutely not the norm in my field, and there is no way in hell I would share any of my research codes with anyone other than close collaborators and colleagues. (There are plenty of simpler codes I use for teaching and these are free to use.)
The Cool Technique for the simulation of Interesting System, which the student mentioned, is actually one my group pioneered. It was one student's PhD to develop it and there is plenty of our work published, so that someone could develop the code on their own if they so desire. I am also happy to share my student's thesis but I am not giving the source codes. It's like an experimentalist having developed a unique technique or built a unique piece of equipment; you do want to keep the edge that it gives you and not let everyone use it. I suppose with new experimental techniques, once you develop it and publish it others are free to copy it, but it's not like you hand them over your actual tool/apparatus.
But this got me thinking about how much we should really share in good faith. Is dissemination of information in journals, out there for everyone to repeat, all that is required of us? How much of a duty -- ethically -- do we have to the public (nationally or internationally) to enable others to benefit directly from our work? It is important to remember that federal funding does not preclude claiming intellectual property: some people copyright and sell their codes, experimentalists often patent their work and some start companies based on their federally funded, patented work.
Request 2, or "On Caring": A former student, who just started his graduate school at Awesome University emailed me to help him with his fellowship application. I have known him for a couple of years, first through classes, and then as he worked with me this past summer before starting grad school. I have a high opinion of his abilities and consider him a smart and focused person. At Awesome U, he now has their fellowship (common for 1st year students); after that, he's expected to have research funding. I advised him to apply for several fellowships with federal agencies in order to ensure funding and give himself more freedom in choosing an advisor.
Now, he writes that he's approaching a deadline for the NSF fellowship and wants to apply but basically doesn't know what to write about. He said that he had asked some professors at Awesome U, but they are all busy and only have time for their graduate students. So he's asking me to give him ideas and help him write the fellowship application.
I was fairly amused by the fact that he apparently thinks I have oodles of time (unlike the apparently very important profs at Awesome U), and that I am endlessly selfless to spend this time on developing a project for him so he would go and work for someone else at another school.
Still, I feel a perhaps misplaced duty to help him. I told him he was free to use the project he did over the summer and build on it using anything that he has learned in my group, I sent him several of my group's related papers, and told him to draft a paragraph on each of a few possible topics, that I would give him feedback once he has something written, and we set a date for his first draft.
What I am pondering here is whether our duty to help our trainees ever ends. I think the bond between grad students and their PhD advisors is fairly deep and often means a lifetime of mutual support. I think similar holds for postdocs and advisors. Probably not so much for a short-term advising relationships such as with undergrads. How many of the readers would just blow off the student once he's gone elsewhere to grad school, and how many would decide to help?