here. The following is my modified version that is similar to one of my experiences:
Cynthia is an ambitious post-doc having a problem with one of her laboratory techniques--extracting an enzyme from plant tissue containing lots of phenolic compounds (which bind proteins). She's been trying for weeks to resolve this, but has been unsuccessful. She is at her wit's end and finally goes to her PI to ask for help. After listening to her tale of woe, he tells Cynthia not to worry--that he'll have a solution for her tomorrow. The next day, she finds a manuscript on her desk with a note from the PI. It says, "Check out the methods section...it has the solution to your problem. However, don't make a copy of this or give it to anyone else. Also, don't tell anyone that I gave this to you." She tries the method described in the paper and lo and behold, it works! When she excitedly reports this to her PI, she says, "I've scoured the literature and can find no mention of this technique. Where did you get this paper?" The PI smiles mysteriously and says, "I've got dozens of them in my files."
I asked if the PI's actions were unethical. The answer is, it depends. Here is a summary of the expert's opinion (see the link above for the full version):
The moral dilemma hinges on the source of the paper. Was it one of the PI's old, unpublished papers? One of his student's unpublished papers? Or was it a manuscript he got for review?
1. If the paper was written by the PI (and based on work done in his lab), then the PI is free to give the information and data to the post-doc to use.
2. What may be less clear is why the former student's paper might also be given by the PI to the post-doc. In this example, the student never published the paper and has left the university. The post-doc can be given access to the contents because the PI's university likely owns the student's work as intellectual property. According to the expert, the only way the student can claim the work is if s/he had previously gotten university permission to copyright the material. Contrary to what many people think, the work conducted by a researcher (including their ideas) at an organization such as a university becomes the intellectual property of that organization. In this case, the former student had no such copyright, so the PI, acting as the university's representative, has the authority to give the post-doc access to the contents of the paper. It would be appropriate to contact the student to notify them that their unpublished information is to be used--and then cite them as the source in the acknowledgments section. Unless the student makes a substantial contribution to the writing of the paper and a major intellectual contribution to the current work, then it is not appropriate to make them an author (the post-doc and the PI could potentially offer this option to the former student).
3. If the paper is one that the PI received for review, then giving it to the post-doc without the permission of the journal or the author is unethical. The PI may be conflicted over his desire to help his stressed-out post-doc--and this may take precedence in his decision. However, doing so is a breach of the confidentiality agreement that he entered into in accepting the role of reviewer. In other words, the confidentiality agreement takes precedence over the PI's "moral" obligation to help the post-doc. Furthermore, the PI is not exercising good judgment about how they will eventually use the information in their own publication and how to acknowledge the source of the information. Giving the paper and the method to the post-doc may solve her immediate problem, but has created an even bigger problem for her in the future. Unauthorized use of intellectual property obtained by privileged communication (review process) in another paper or proposal is plagiarism. If they publish based on this method, they would be representing these ideas as their own, but which were taken from someone else's work. If caught, both the PI and the post-doc could be subject to severe sanctions.
The expert opinion goes on to point out the likelihood that the plagiarism will be uncovered eventually. If you think about it, any future paper by this PI and post-doc containing the plagiarized material will likely be read by the author of the original paper. The author and the PI clearly work in the same specialized field, which is why the PI got the paper for review. Isn't it just as likely that the author will get the PI's future paper for review? In any case, the author will eventually see it when it is published. This outcome is especially likely in a highly specialized field in which there are few experts.
My take on this scenario is that it is probably more common than you think. I'm aware of colleagues who pass around papers they are reviewing or discuss the contents with others. When confronted, they may admit they shouldn't do it, but then act as if it is nothing of great consequence. Some pass on papers to students or post-docs (e.g., as exercises). They may remove the author's name and affiliation, but the content of the manuscript is still confidential and should not be shown to anyone else or copied. What if your student copies something from that paper without your knowledge, and it eventually ends up in a proposal or paper--where it is later recognized by the original author?
Sometimes you hear about reviewers asking journals for permission to have their post-doc or students review a manuscript (or maybe even do so without asking). I don't think this is a good idea either. If you don't have time to do a review, then decline and provide a list of people to substitute for you (you can suggest your post-doc); then, the journal can decide if your recommendation is a suitable reviewer, and the review will occur without your direct involvement.
The ethical situation described above and the hypothetical actions of the PI (#3) illustrate how easy it is for someone to get into deep trouble if they fail to take the time to consider the consequences of their actions. I can easily imagine a PI who might make such a decision hastily and/or without thinking--but with no real malicious intent to injure the author. However, such a decision commits at least two ethical transgressions--passing along confidential information without permission and putting another person into a tenuous and potentially liable situation (plagiarism would be the third, if they take the final step and publish). The PI's moral obligation to "help" his post-doc clouds the larger ethical issues, and in the end, his action could instead seriously harm his post-doc's reputation and career.
Perhaps you have done something similar to this--we all make mistakes at some point, especially when we are inexperienced or under pressure. Most people, though, would likely have a nagging feeling in their gut that such an action is wrong. If you have this feeling about something you are facing or that someone else is telling you, pay attention. Your gut is probably right.
Image Credit (modified from http://www.uwo.ca/nca/education/images/student_3.jpg)