Ask the panel

February 9, 2007

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

'For the past five years, as a unit leader for research methods on a masters programme, I have developed a unique heuristic device and model of research activity that goes beyond generic approaches. It is popular with students, has been praised by the programme's external examiner and has been written up by me as a publication. I know of no one else who uses the same approach. Recently, I discovered that both my model and quite a bit of my original supporting material have been incorporated into the research methods unit of another masters programme. The material is not attributed or acknowledged, and no permission was sought from me to include it. I do not teach on this programme and had nothing to do with its development. The programme leader and my head of department have ignored my e-mail requests for an explanation. There are vague intimations that the university does not need to ask permission or acknowledge this material as it owns it and can use it however it wishes. I feel that my ideas and material have been plagiarised. Who is correct?

* Our panellist from the University and College Union says: "In general, the law assumes that the employer owns the copyright of works created by employees in the course of their employment. However, this is not necessarily the case in higher education, where institutions waive their claim on copyright in lecture notes, scholarly papers, articles and books.

"If you work in a post-92 institution, the right to retain copyright over the work you produce as part of your scholarly activity is included in the national lecturer contract and, as such, forms part of your contract of employment.

"If you work in a pre-92 institution, you must check the institution's policy statements on intellectual property - they are likely to indicate that academics retain copyright over materials they produce. It is therefore possible that the institution's use of your materials, without your permission, constitutes a breach of copyright.

"Legalities aside, it is not acceptable for the work of a member of staff to be used by others without consultation, attribution and acknowledgment.

The UCU would recommend that you take advice from your union representative and consider submitting a formal grievance on the grounds that your legitimate concerns that your work has been plagiarised have been ignored."

* Our panellist from the UK Panel for Research Integrity in Health and Biomedical Sciences adds: "There are generally accepted definitions of plagiarism, such as: 'Any deliberate attempt to represent falsely or unfairly facts or the ideas or work of others, whether or not for personal gain or enhancement'. This includes the piratical use of material that has been provided in a privileged way for review, examination, assessment or appraisal; copying of ideas, text, software or data (or various combinations thereof) without permission or acknowledgement; making use of ideas in breach of confidentiality, including that associated with peer review or supervision; not attributing other authors.

"If you think what has taken place corresponds with this definition, you might pursue the options available with your employer, either through an informal approach or by using formal grievance or misconduct procedures. But take advice first."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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