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Ownership of supervised or funded research

Where is the balance between owning the work myself, as the student's PhD supervisor*, sharing it and giving full ownership to the student or funding body?

The ownership of research is becoming an increasingly significant issue in higher education. No longer is ownership a matter of the generosity of the supervisor, the norms of the department where the research is conducted, or even goodwill all round. On some occasions these may suffice, but they may nevertheless backfire later.

True stories keep coming up in my discussions with supervisors. The details may be different, but the stories are essentially the same. They all concern uncertainty over ownership in research:

Example: Tool can't be patented due to multiple and uncertain ownership

This example is in connection with a computing application, although it could equally apply to any tool developed over the years by successive research students. The application had been developed and refined by research students individually to support their own work. Eventually the department realised that the tool had become quite far-reaching and could be marketed. Yet no-one really knew who had developed what or who owned what, so the marketing opportunity was lost.

Example: Lead in the field lost due to faltering of students who 'morally' own the work

The supervisors had an idea for a piece of research that they saw as an important contribution to their fields, presumably also with certain associated acclaim for themselves, their students and their departments. They gave the topics to their students; then the students faltered by the proverbial wayside. If they had given up, the topics could readily have been transferred to other students, but they gradually ceased to engage with the research while still remaining registered - which meant that they could still, in the supervisorsí views of fairness, be entitled to keep the topics. The supervisors felt, however, that morally they, themselves, owned the topics and that, through no fault of their own, other researchers might be taking them up elsewhere or that the relevance was being overtaken by time.

Example: Old samples can't used without establishing ownership

This example concerns samples that had been stored on a shelf in a storeroom and forgotten. A new investigative technique was devised, for which the samples would have been ideal testing material, but they could not be used because no-one knew who owned them. The result was delay while other suitable samples were sought.

How to avoid ownership problems happening to you

The one clear piece of advice seems to be to contact the expert in your institution at the first consideration of work that could have implications for ownership, because intellectual property rights and the implications of the Data Protection Act are a minefield. Most, if not all, institutions have such experts, and they should be able to advise on the relevant legal points. Quite apart from the statutory law of the land, each institution may have its own additional regulations, and these can vary considerably in the rights given to the student, the supervisor and the institution.

In particular there is the obvious need for clarification on the ownership of work of potential commercial value, and supervisors would be well advised to negotiate a written and signed ownership contract or agreement with their students at the outset of such work. However, as all research should have the potential for being publishable, such agreements are equally appropriate for all supervisor-student partnerships. Although supervisors will want to base their own agreements on the nature of the work involved, the norms of their departments and disciplines and their own personal preferences, they may like to include provision for such eventualities as what to do about publication and authorship if the student does not take the initiative and what to do about naming the supervisor as an author if the student does take the initiative.

Unfortunately ownership in research is not a simple matter. Ideally institutions should take a lead and provide information and support to their staff. With or without this, the best advice for supervisors is try to foresee possible problems; to check institutional and legal regulations on ownership; to draw up agreements with their own students and/or funding bodies; to be ever vigilant; and finally to take each emerging concern to management in the hope that institutional regulations will be developed to cover similar eventualities in the future.

edited extract from no 2 in the Guides series

Resolving Common Dilemmas in Supervision
by Pat Cryer

© Pat Cryer


* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.