Handeling Research Data, Materials, and Proprietary Information

This section deals with proprietary rights to the information and materials that serve as fundamental elements of research activity. Scientists have long assumed that they had proprietary rights over materials produced through their own labor and genius. It is not uncommon for scientists to take with them their notebooks and many of their original research materials when they move from one academic position to the next. Yet, most institutions assert that all laboratory materials developed on the institution's time with the institution's resources belong to the institution -- not to the investigator. The federal funding agencies, too, support the position that primary research materials developed under federal grants belong to the awardee, which is almost always the institution, not the investigator.

Institutions have more than a proprietary interest in maintaining control over these materials. If a researcher's work is called into question, the institution will be expected to respond and will be held ultimately accountable. The institution clearly cannot fulfill its obligation to assess the integrity of the investigator's work if the original materials and notebooks are no longer accessible.

Another consideration is the desirability for openness and for sharing research materials. The free exchange of research materials and ideas, which is generally encouraged in the scientific culture, clearly benefits the scientific endeavor as a whole. Yet, in Case D1 a trainee learns that he may not freely transport his original materials to another lab. Through the questions, the reader understands that the trainee is trying to balance this policy of proprietary control against the need for access to materials. The discussion of this case can be enhanced by diverse participants (e.g., faculty, students, technicians) who may hold different ideas about this issue.

Another fundamental element of research that can be shared voluntarily or involuntarily is information. A description of a novel assay technique or newly discovered biochemical pathway can permit a researcher to leap a seemingly insurmountable roadblock. Of course, a researcher who has struggled long and hard to develop this information may feel disinclined to share it openly, at least not without being fully credited with the finding. In Case D2, a trainee discusses the work of one lab with the head of another lab in the same field. After exchanging a fair amount of information, the specter of competition occurs to the individual and he feels suddenly conflicted. Case D3 deals with the responsibility of two individuals with regard to valued, possibly confidential information. One individual is perhaps indiscreet in sharing the information, while another, who inadvertently becomes privy to it, treats the development as an opportunity to be capitalized upon.


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