Texas Tech University
Scholarly Messenger
Data Ownership
By Marianne Evola

Who owns the data? A data set is often generated by the combined sweat and ingenuity of multiple parties. Each party has contributed to research ideas and/or data collection and as such, each party has a vested interest and claim to the dataset. In the best cases, the involved parties negotiate and come to an agreement on a system of responsibility and credit. However, in too many cases, collaborative projects can result in confusion over who owns the data and this confusion can get ugly, fraught with accusations, anger, distrust, allegations of misconduct, disappearing data notebooks or data files, etc. Furthermore, this confusion and conflict can have catastrophic effects on professional relationships, career development and reputation.

The answer to the question “Who owns the data” is as simple as it is difficult. The easy answer is the data belongs to the institution. If you work, or conduct research on a university campus or in any private industry, no doubt they have an institutional policy that states that all intellectual property is owned by the institution. At Texas Tech, OP 74.04 states that: “In general, inventions, innovations, discoveries and improvements, biological materials and other proprietary materials and plants (i.e., intellectual property), made with the use of TTUS facilities or during the course of regularly assigned duties of the faculty and staff shall become the property of TTUS.” Furthermore, this applies to “all persons employed by the component faculties of TTUS, to all students of TTUS and anyone using TTUS facilities or under the supervision of TTUS personnel.” So that is the easy answer, the institution owns the data. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy.

Controversies of this type remind me of how my mother resolved many of the fights that I had with my sister when we were growing up. Like many siblings, my sister and I fought continuously, and many of the fights revolved around a toy or an article of clothing, who “owned” it, who was permitted to “borrow” it and under what conditions. For the most part, my mother would ignore us and let us resolve our differences on our own. However, on occasion, when my mother tired of listening to the argument, or the battle was dangerously escalating, my mom would step in and take possession of the disputed item with the declaration that, “Actually, the toy belongs to me.” Now, my mother had no interest in keeping the toy or playing with the toy, but her intervention temporarily resolved the dispute until our anger had sufficiently dissipated, so that toy “ownership” could be addressed and resolved. Admirably, my mom held that authority even when my sister and I got older, and held jobs that independently paid for toys and clothes. As matriarch of the household, my mom maintained the unquestioned authority to take possession of items under dispute.

Similar to the simple yet complex role that my mom held in resolving family disputes, an institution of higher learning “owns the data,” but the goal of that ownership is not to take intellectual property away from an individual. Rather, the institution’s authority of ownership is a complex role that is used to ensure that all parties are appropriately credited for their contributions. As such, OP 74.04 also states: “As a public institution, TTUS is entrusted with the responsibility to facilitate application of scientific, technical, artistic and intellectual endeavors of its faculty and staff for public use and to provide for an equitable disposition of interests among the authors and inventors, TTUS and where applicable, the sponsoring or contracting funding source.” Therefore, the university uses their authority to work to protect the contributions of all vested parties.

However, it should also be clarified, that as stated in the above OP, the university is not always an independent authority. Rather, the university itself sometimes has a vested interest. Universities invest in the intellectual endeavors of their personnel in the form of salary, facilities, equipment and even grants. It should also be noted that complex business relationships such as these have increased since the Bayh-Dole Act enabled scholars and universities to patent and profit from ideas grown out of federal dollars, university resources, and the sweat and genius of university personnel. Therefore, in cases where the university has a vested interest in a patented product or profitable idea, they work with all parties to protect and forward their investment.

Although it is easy to understand how battles over profitable endeavors evolve. It is less obvious how these conflicts arise when there is no profit to be made by an idea/data, until you personally experience a conflict of this nature. Although there is no one path to battles over intellectual contributions and ownership, I have some ideas on how these conflicts arise and how they can be avoided. With regard to collaborating with students, especially new students, I don’t think that students realize how personal a research project can become. They start in the lab happy to engage in the intellectual discourse and excited to engage in data collection, they want to learn and do everything. They have no interest in taking ownership of a project. However, a change starts to occur in talented students. They take charge of projects and contribute suggestions for improvement. They sweat project failures and then celebrate subsequent successes. I’ve seen students distressed before lab meetings because they cannot figure out what factors may be contributing to high variability in the data. The energy and emotion that goes into stressing and celebrating failures and successes, respectively, make the project very personal. As such, as they take ownership of the project, they begin to feel that the data/project belongs to them. If there is never a discussion that data belongs to the lab, and if the data (notebooks, files etc.) are not treated like lab property, students may begin to feel that the data/project is their personal possession. And when conflicts arise, they want to take their toys and go home.

Therefore, one of the primary ways of avoiding conflicts over data is through direct communication. Discuss where ideas come from and how ideas seldom arise from an isolated individual. Ideas arise as we discuss them in groups, at national conferences, lab meetings and informal lab discussion. However, there are generally one or two people that take on the challenge of a new idea and work to translate an idea into a defined project and subsequent data set. As such, there are generally many contributors to an idea or research project. The contribution of ideas needs to be acknowledged but so does the hours of hard work associated with conducting a research project. Also, spend time discussing the data at lab meetings, but do so in a way that respects the contribution of personnel, while also clarifying that the data belongs to the lab and needs to be accessible to all members of the research group. Furthermore, have an overt discussion with all personnel that since the research is conducted in Texas Tech facilities, with Texas Tech supplies and equipment, by Texas Tech personnel, the university has a vested interest in the research data/intellectual property as well. Therefore, all data produced at Texas Tech, belongs to Texas Tech. This is true at all universities and as such, departing students and even faculty need to request a release of data if they leave the university for other academic or industrial positions.

Finally, here are some suggested topics to discuss with your research group regarding data ownership, as well as acknowledging project contribution:

    1) Make it clear to postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students that the data belongs to the lab and/or the university, and as such, it must be left with the lab if and when they leave. This includes data notebooks, raw data files, spreadsheets, biological samples, images or data in whatever form it is collected/generated in your research group. Also, clearly discuss whether they will be able to take copies of data (notebooks or electronic files) when they leave and in what manner they are permitted to build on current ideas in their next professional position.

    2) When embarking on a collaborative project, clearly discuss data ownership at the start of the project and make sure that all contributing parties are aware of any agreements that are made. Put all decisions in writing if possible and regularly amend the written agreement as ideas evolve and personnel changes. Remember that it is easy to ignore these issues when starting an exciting new project with a new team. However, the issues of ownership and credit will have to be addressed at some point, and frank business negotiations up front can preclude anger and bad feelings at a later date.

    3) When students of similar or differing status propose a team project in the lab. Work with them to negotiate a plan for project responsibilities and credit. Keep an eye on the project, and if you perceive that one member of the team is more focused on the project in sweat or intellectual contributions, ask the team if their responsibilities have evolved. Strongly encourage open discussion and negotiation of responsibility and credit. These are professional skills that should be developed and can prevent future conflicts over project ownership.

    4) If students present a new research idea, frankly discuss how the idea evolved and how they should assign credit if the work is successful. I remember when I was a graduate student giving an oral presentation on a pilot study, a procedural question from a colleague in the audience markedly influenced my subsequent experimental procedures. When I later proudly presented improved results at a lab meeting from the modified procedure, my mentor reminded me that it was our colleague that made the recommendation, and we had to remember to credit him. I was right to be proud of the improved results, because it was my sweat that took an idea and translated it to better results. However, my mentor was right to remind me that the idea, proposed by a colleague, also deserved credit. Students need to be taught that they must remember and acknowledge the contribution of co-workers and colleagues. Most of the research community freely shares ideas, both in the lab and on a larger scale at regional and national meetings. This willingness to share needs to be fostered because it contributes to academic progress. Acknowledging the contribution of colleagues, however vague, encourages the sharing of ideas.
Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger. Alice Young, associate vice president for research/research integrity, is a contributing author/editor.