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Lost data - who is resposible?


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Hi,

I worked on my PhD dissertation this summer. My travel was funded by the director of a site. I used a laptop owned by my university to collect this data. Throughout the course of the summer, the computer took a dive and would no longer turn on. This happened through no fault of my own or any other user failure. It wasn't until this happened that I realized I had not backed up all of the data. I am not back in the states and took the computer to IT, they told me that they would need to replace the hard drive, but were unsure of the underlying issue. I took the computer back and started looking into companies that could retrieve the data. I found that if it's a serious problem it could cost upwards of $1000. I, of course, don't have this kind of money. My advisory is now saying that I am responsible for recovering the data no matter what cost, up to the price of the airline ticket bought for me to collect the data. 

Is this ethical? 

Yes, I did not back up the data and that is completely my fault, however, the computer was not in great condition before I used it and the malfunction of it is not due to my negligence. Any thoughts would be appreciated. I have more details about the circumstances of the paid-for ticket as well as the type of data if that makes a difference.

 

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Oh no, I'm sorry to hear this! It's definitely on the top list of nightmare scenarios :(

To be clear, was the data lost while you were still away, or after you got back? And, were there special requirements to back up this data / store it in a certain way (e.g. were you prevented from using conventional backup methods for some reason or another [policy, confidentiality etc.])

In terms of your question about ethics, that is pretty subjective and hard to answer. So, I'll separate my answer into two parts: what "should" happen and what is practical.

First, "ideal world". I would say that as long as you followed all instructions, you should not be financially responsible for any loss or damage in any way. Your advisor should not be able to force you to pay to restore the data. Instead, if the advisor wants to have the data, they need to pay for it to be restored, or they might choose to abandon that data. This might have other ramifications for you, for example, you might need that data to complete your dissertation. However, I would still say it's your advisor's responsibility to either get that data back or assign you to a different dissertation project / change the focus of your research.

The analogy is what if a grad student through regular use and following all protocols, had an accident in the lab or broke a piece of machinery. It would not be right for the school or advisor to go after the student for damages. In cases where I do know of accidents happening, the cost has always been absorbed by the advisor or by the department through funds set aside for unforeseen circumstances like this.

But a lot of this does depend on whether you were within policy when the data loss happened. Did you and your advisor have expectations laid out in terms of data collection and storage and backup? Were you able to use cloud storage (e.g. Dropbox) as backup devices or did it require special hard drives that you were not given access to? If you were not provided such training or if you did everything you could to have backups but were not able to, then that's a different story! Or, if it was the advisor's responsibility to purchase insurance for the data along with funding your trip, then I would say it is not your fault.

On the other hand, I think that if you were trained on how to keep data backed up but failed to do so, then unfortunately, I think it's not the same as the above scenarios where the students followed protocol and something unforeseen happened. Still, unless there is something weird in the funding agreement, typically, it would still be very wrong for the school to make you pay the money to retrieve the data because they paid for your plane ticket. The worst they should be able to do to you (if you are fully responsible for the loss) is to fail you because you were not able to make satisfactory progress on your thesis.

Okay, now for more practical, less-idealized advice. I think you should immediately seek help from someone you trust at your school. You should also consider student advocacy groups on campus or something like an ombudsperson. At my PhD school, the Graduate Dean's Office is exactly the right place for this as they would help you navigate the discussion with your advisor on the next steps and/or provide emergency loans/bursaries to help cover costs if you end up choosing to repay.

Unfortunately, in the less idealized world, even if you are in the right and/or even if the advisor is acting unethically, there is not too much you can do about it. Ultimately, I think most students end up valuing their ability to finish their program more than this type of expense/cost (even though it is quite steep) and the advisors likely know this. There is also the consideration of what will happen to your relationship with your advisor if you fight them and even if you win, there is still other harm to you and your career.

So, I think it is important for you to reach out to people you trust and/or people whose job it is to help students in your situation. See if there is some compromise or solution that can be worked out through discussions. Find out whether or not you would be considered financially responsible for recovering the data. And determine what are valuable to you and what you can afford to lose (e.g. money, progress towards your degree, your status in the degree program, your relationship with your advisor). Something like this probably happened at your school before and it's important to get advice before deciding.

 

Sorry to hear about this, again. Hope you are able to find a way to get it to work out.

 

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Just to add, I think the difference here hinges on not your training from your advisor, but what the travel grant required. 

If the travel funds were contingent on you collecting data, then I think it's within rights to require you to either get the data or reimburse the travel funds (basically what they're asking you to do). 

I know most granting agencies are pretty strict about data management.

Also, to be clear, since @TakeruK and I seem to be interpreting it differently- is it your advisor that's requiring this, or the director of the site where you worked this summer?

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Based upon the OP, the advisor may be (cynically) thinking that @lightballsdeep didn't collect all or part of the data and is deploying a "digital dog ate my homework" line of defense. Such an interpretation could account for the person's cold response.

Before following the guidance provided by @TakeruK, I would do the following. 

  1. Read the fine print on all agreements you've signed related to the travel grant, your status as a graduate student, and as an end user of school-owned technology. There may be clear cut language indicating what you're on the hook for. (Also, the IT policy fine print may put you on shaky ground if you used the lap top for unapproved purposes.)
  2. Find out if your school's IT department has the resources/budget/authority to address the issue as it is school property. The IT department may have a relationship with a vendor that could do the data recovery at a reduced cost to you.
  3. Have an additional conversation with the data recovery vendor you already contacted. It seems that $1k is the worst case scenario. What are the other scenarios and how much do they cost? What would you want to do if up to x% of the data could be recovered for, say, $200? Would you be willing to pay the other $800 to get the rest of the data?
  4. Get a second opinion on the IT recovery scenarios and price points.
  5. Figure out what is the least painful worst case scenario. Is combination of paying $1k and not getting all of the data better or worse for you in the long run than getting into a scrum with your advisor, the grant director, and your department? You could follow TakeruK's guidance and be right back where you are now, minus the time and energy you spent.
Edited by Sigaba
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12 minutes ago, Eigen said:

Just to add, I think the difference here hinges on not your training from your advisor, but what the travel grant required. 

If the travel funds were contingent on you collecting data, then I think it's within rights to require you to either get the data or reimburse the travel funds (basically what they're asking you to do). 

I know most granting agencies are pretty strict about data management.

Also, to be clear, since @TakeruK and I seem to be interpreting it differently- is it your advisor that's requiring this, or the director of the site where you worked this summer?

Indeed, I thought the OP wrote that their advisor is requiring them to pay the costs. Usually grants are in the name of the advisor, so that's why I said (in the ideal-world answer) that the advisor should not be going after the student for the costs---unless the student knowingly broke protocol, the advisor needs to be responsible for actions of their team. In addition, since students generally do not have this type of money lying around, I don't think it is the right thing for the advisor to go after the student, even if the advisor has the right to do so. This is definitely just my subjective opinion because I feel that advisors should be responsible for their students beyond simply being their boss. But that's why I also said (in the practical real-world answer) that seeking further help from others at the school/department is a really good idea.

However, if I misunderstood and this was all between the OP and an external agency that granted the money to your school/dept for data collection and the advisor is not involved then that's a different story. If you were a student at my PhD school, my advice would be to seek legal help from your school (probably through the people in charge of grad students). First find out if your school will protect you because you were doing work in your role as a student while on this grant. The other agency should be going after the school, not you directly.

But if I still misunderstood and this was due to a grant directly awarded to the OP from the external agency and no money went through the school, then I think it would come down to what the agreement was when you signed and accepted the grant. I think you'd be acting as an individual here and would not have any protections. But you can still seek advice from other at your school on how to best proceed.

Sorry for any confusion, didn't realise I made a big assumption reading one of the sentences until Eigen pointed this out.

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Others have given you very good advice on how you should deal with that. I am sharing my experiences here.

Do you have any friends who is good at computing? At the start of my PhD, my personal desktop decided to break down when I was writing my literature review. I saved backups of my drafts consistently but still I had pages unsaved when that happened. I called a friend who is an expert in computing. He brought a device (forget what it is sorry) and connected to my broken desktop, so I managed to make a copy of everything from the hard drive into my laptop. When my new desktop arrived, I transferred everything back in. To my limited knowledge, you don't need that device if you are transferring data from your laptop hard drive. 

Anyway, from now on, you should always remember doing regular backups. From my personal experiences, computers work against you when you need them! I have got 3 computers with me, one desktop and one laptop at home, and one desktop in my office. I always save copies of important data and documents (esp. my thesis drafts) to all 3 computers. Don't forget doing regular antiviral software updates too. You know, ransomwares like wannacry are going viral these days. I also use Google drive and an external hard drive. That said, external hard drive alone is not a "safe" backup method. I have friends whose external hard drives got broken when they were writing their thesis! My school also has a server but I don't use it (It's still in trial stage and not sure whether it is reliable). So I usually have 4 copies of my data and documents in various backup methods. I hope this advice is helpful to you. 

Edited by Hope.for.the.best
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