Written by: Lirong Shi
Edited by: Patricia Garay, Alyse Krausz, and Sarah Kearns

The primary concerns of scientific researchers are experiments and data.  Thinking about intellectual property (IP) is usually left behind. However, if researchers hope to turn products or discoveries into patents or publications, it is of vital importance to understand intellectual property as soon as they start collecting data. Currently, with the rapid development of scientific research, issues are accumulating around intellectual property, such as authorship, data ownership, and publication practices. The purpose of setting up intellectual property rights is to promote social innovation and public access to human intelligence. Even though the intention of protecting intellectual property is sincere, the original work sometimes becomes too protected, resulting in limited access to it. New regulations, such as redefining authorship assignment and promoting open access, should be implemented to better protect IP and help untrained researchers trudge through the struggle between private and public domains.


Complicated Contributions Meriting Authorship

Intellectual property is the recognition of creative work and novel products, with the intention of enhancing social productivity and encouraging innovation. Within a research context, this mostly pertains to publication output along with the data collected and analyzed during the process. Authorship is regarded as the currency of an academic career. The number of papers researchers publish demonstrates creativity, productivity, and impact, which leads ultimately to increased grant funding and prestige. Consequently, authorship lists are growing because everyone who has made contributions to a paper wants to be an author. The scientific process requires ingenuity, and according to the International Committee of Medical Journal editors (ICMJE), only the individuals that contribute creatively to answering the research questions of the paper merit authorship. A list of criteria published by the ICMJE and other organizations (referred to as ICMJE guidelines later) requires authors to do the following: (1) design experiments or analyze and interpret data; (2) draft or revise the manuscript; (3) approve the final manuscript; and (4) agree to be held accountable for the manuscript. However, researchers often disregard these guidelines as being too restrictive, calling into question how the concept of authorship should be defined.

The definition of authorship can be dated back to ‘What is Author?’ by Michel Foucault, the 20th century French philosopher, in which he defines an author based on the idea of a work and the notion of writing. An author’s function, he claims, is to circulate certain discourses within a society. He refers to authorship in literature, but his point applies to authors in any discipline. In a scientific society, authorship is further complicated because it’s no longer confined to the field of literature and writing, where usually one author writes the majority of the work. Instead, scientific authorship is a cooperation and collaboration between scientists, leading to a more complicated division of labor. Moreover, because different disciplines have different ways of valuing intellectual contributions, assigning the order of authors on a paper becomes even more challenging. Pure and applied scientists grant authorship outside the ICMJE guidelines more often compared to scholars in the humanities. To ensure legitimate credit, scientific journals are starting to require corresponding authors to disclose everyone’s contribution to a paper, ensuring equitable recognition, matching people’s contributions with either authorship or acknowledgement according to the guidelines.

Apart from what is stated in the ICMJE guidelines, researchers value activities beyond writing and analyzing data, such as supervision and resource provision. Authorship assignment can sometimes be based on administrative tasks, especially in large collaborations where social relationships are essential to the project. However, creators of a scientific paper need to be honest and have the obligation to recognize the real authors who will hold both credit and responsibility for the work. To ensure that IP is granted to the right individuals, it is the authors’ and journals’ responsibility to honestly acknowledge contributions and disclose any conflicts of interest.


The Ownership of Research Data

Along with the authorship assignment problem for publications, the ownership of research data also generates confusion between researchers and the public and among researchers themselves. Even though researchers have the right to their output and publications, there is still the question of ownership in terms of the raw data that is generated from the research in the first place. This is particularly true when it comes to community and citizen science where the public are truly involved. For instance, a research team, Michigan Audubon, whose study focused on migrant birds coming from south to north during summer and back in winter asked people living in Michigan to help find and record these birds. These citizen scientists took pictures of birds with the experiment tags, and uploaded these photos to a website as part of the research data, which would be contributed to projects like seasonal survey and species-specific counts. Originally, the uploader’s name was accredited to the photo; however, once the data was uploaded, the photos did not “belong to” the photographers anymore. Removing ownership from individual photographers makes sense; imagine if each uploader was attributed, researchers would have to work with every “author” of the data, drastically reducing efficiency and research freedom. 

Data collected in a research lab is a totally different scenario. Usually, researchers have to include the person who collected the data as one of the authors and ask them for permission to publish the data. The complicated process of generating research data in a lab usually requires a scientist to be an expert on a specific instrument. In addition to collecting the data, their expertise may also be necessary for the data analysis and interpretation. Based on the ICMJE guidelines, this scientist is responsible for the data they provide and meets the requirement of authorship. If these researchers who collected and analyzed the original data are not consulted and included in the author list, problems will arise. For example, scientists do not have the rights to publish data they did not collect due to the high risk of publishing incorrect data. Additionally, if the data collectors are not recognized, no one is left responsible for the data which may have been falsified. It is important to distinguish the different sources of research data, by either acknowledging people who are involved in data collection or granting them authorship as they analyze and hold responsibility for their data.

a)MiSciWriters - Lirong Shi-final


Figure 1 a) The structure of research and authorship assignment; b) the publication practices of intellectual property


Is Open Access the Future of Publication Practice?

Scientists need to share articles and intellectual property in academia in order to make progress, and the ultimate purpose of IP is to promote free access for the public and let human intelligence benefit every human being. It has been 51 years since Garrett Hardin, a famous American ecologist, proposed “The Tragedy of the Commons”. In this article, Hardin describes the lack of concern about environmental protection and care because the environment is treated as commons. Everybody has access to the commons, but the physical boundaries of the commons as well as the responsibilities for protecting it remain unclear. Similar to being in a community, people take care of their own homes but neglect the public area, even though the shared space contributes to the quality of the community. However, in the regime of science and publication, research publications are never truly shared with the public — preventing scientific research from becoming “commons” at all. The traditional publishing industry has kept research publications out of the hands and minds of the public for good. The publishing companies make intellectual property into private property, which is far from accessible and affordable for individuals and even universities, making this a tragedy of the “anti-commons”. Human intelligence is put on the shelf and restricted from being shared, which in turn restricts the public’s access to reading and digesting scientific literature. 

Open access (OA) of journal articles may address a lot of problems with the publishing industry, including accessibility, credit, and affordability, but the concept has been faced with many challenges. For instance, some journals will charge researchers for articles which are intended to be open access, making it expensive or impractical for the researchers. Ironically, even authors or their group members can lose access to their own papers once they’re published if the journal owns the work and the authors’ institute doesn’t subscribe to the journal.

Also, because information can be shared through the internet rapidly and widely with Open Access, it can be difficult to tell if acts of sharing are violations of intellectual property or promotion for open access. For example, there is an illegal website (SciHub) that constantly provides readers with plenty of literature, with the intention of encouraging free access to scientific papers for all. This practice violates the IP laws, even though the authors are sometimes more than happy to have their work presented on SciHub, their own websites, or the social networking site ResearchGate. It is very important for scientists and researchers to share papers, ask and answer questions, and find collaborators on a free platform; that’s why they value having more people access their work so that more ideas and collaborations may arise. Such nuances between private and public domains urge us to always seek for the subtle balance between private and public property, for the purpose of both protecting IP and promoting free access for the public. Open Access has the potential to be the future of publication practice, but journal systems and incentives are not yet in place to let Open Access address the problem fully. It’s worthwhile for researchers to work on promoting Open Access throughout the progress of publication.

Intellectual property is intended to promote good competition and protection of original work. However, the positive effects of good competition and the protection and distribution of authors’ original work are not being promoted with the current IP laws and policies. With the rapid development of science and technology, terms such as authorship and open access need to be defined and framed into the regime of intellectual property while taking into account both public interest and private property. It is researchers’ responsibility to establish and maintain a sustainable system of intellectual property, where scientists rationally assign authorship; research institutions respect data providers; and national regulatory bodies play a role in recognizing equitable ownership and promoting open access of publications. With these changes, we could finally realize the protection of creativity as well as free access and benefit for everyone. Imagine the possibilities if creative scientists unaffiliated with universities or research labs could invent new things using knowledge from published papers without worrying about accessibility. We and our next generations deserve a creative and accessible world of research like this!


Lirong received her bachelor degree in Chemistry at Nanjing University, China. She then came to Michigan and is currently a second year PhD student of Chemistry program in Dr. Zhan Chen lab (you can check their group website here) at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Lirong is very interested in surface chemistry and her research focuses on studying buried interfaces of different polymer materials with sum frequency generation (SFG) spectroscopy. Besides experiments, Lirong is also active in other science communication and advocacy activities, including MiSciWriters blog, Community and Citizen science workshop and ESPA, etc. She hopes to apply her knowledge of science to the field of public policy and improve people’s life. Outside academia, Lirong has a variety of hobbies: she likes listening to music (all day), reading, playing the piano, swimming, playing ball games and travelling (all over the world).

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