At its fundamental level, scientific research and discovery is a model for collaborative effort. Each new discovery is built upon the blocks of earlier discoveries. Each researcher is dependent upon the work of researchers who have come before. Increasingly, individual research projects require skill sets and knowledge bases from a variety of different disciplines.
Yet, at an equally fundamental level, research is competitive. Researchers compete with one another for funding from a limited pool of resources; labs that are working on similar questions compete to be the first to confirm and publish particular results. Institutions and labs compete for researchers, post-docs, and students. Certainly, within a lab, students often feel that they are in competition for projects, credit, even mentoring time and attention.
The tension between collaboration and competition in research creates automatic conflicts of commitment. A conflict of commitment, unlike a conflict of interest, is a conflict based on non-complementary duties or expectations, rather than the self-interest of financial or personal gain. The researcher is expected both to share data with other researchers and to be the first, when possible, to publish accurate results. It is clear that these two expectations cannot be equal in value. The researcher must continually choose between these, and among a multitude of other expectations, in determining how to organize his or her work.
Principal Investigators can create an atmosphere that eases the tension between collaboration and competition. A highly competitive atmosphere within a research group can create a dearth of trust.
There are a few clear guidelines that describe the boundaries of acceptable collaboration and competition and large areas where the conventions are less than clear. For example, it is never acceptable to publish false information to keep others from duplicating work, yet few journal articles include anything that would serve as an actual recipe to follow for replication purposes. It is not acceptable for a researcher to give credit to individuals for work that that person did not personally complete. How order of authorship is determined and how credit is divided among a research team are matters of convention and negotiation.
The primary tool in avoiding ethical problems among individual researchers is communication. Clarity and openness will not solve all ethical problems; it is entirely possible that someone in a powerful position will communicate his intent to act in ways that seem ethically questionable, just because he is the person with the power to make such decisions. For usual ethical considerations -- what most people confront when they are working hard to do the right thing -- being transparent about one's intent, motives, and reasons for a chosen action provide good protection against unethical action.