Clear but flexible rules on intellectual property are needed to avoid exploitation and ensure staff share the spoils.
In a discussion with a group of graduate students, I asked, "Who owns the results of their research?" A cacophony of voices proclaimed, "Surely, we do." Understandably they felt that the results of their great toils belonged to them. But then one tentatively suggested that their supervisor, who had conceived, directed and funded the project (and probably added as much sweat and tears as the student), might be an, or even the , owner.
Another suggested the funders - he was funded by industry and had a formal agreement over shared ownership. Other suggestions followed: the university that provided all of their support and training, and even the public whose taxes supported them in one way or another. A lively discussion ensued.
There was no clear consensus, other than that this is a complicated question.
I've had similar debates with experienced academics, with remarkably similar outcomes. Views also varied depending on personal background, experience and discipline, and sometimes on "vested" interests.
Concerns over ownership relate to many aspects of research activity - publications, funding and commercialisation of research and intellectual property rights (IPR). The importance of the last might have something to do with the fact that personal financial gain can be involved. In terms of "ownership", academia has a distinct disadvantage over industry. Our colleagues in the commercial sector work in teams towards a common goal, with each individual recognised for (and usually rewarded on the basis of) their contribution. In contrast, academic success is more individual. Here, it is not just the papers and grants that count, but the individual's specific role, whether he/she is the senior author of a paper or first name on a grant, or first named supervisor of a PhD student. Middle authorship or the fourth name on a grant is definitely "second best". This is a problem for the many staff in universities who provide critical input on methodology, advice, technical support or other services but who are often not fully recognised. It can also inhibit team working between academics.
The issue of ownership comes into focus over IPR and commercialisation issues. Universities are increasingly encouraged to engage more actively with the commercial sector, as highlighted by the recent science and innovation document led by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The pressure is on us to deliver more practical outcomes from our research and to interact more closely with industry. This is the subject of great discussion and has produced a diversity of views. Academics worry about loss of academic freedom or a dilution of fundamental, curiosity-driven research in favour of a "managed" shift towards more applied or commercially driven progress.
Commercialisation and exploitation of research outputs sharpens the mind over ownership, and not simply which staff are named on a patent and who ultimately benefits from income, but also about the fundamentals of ownership.
Cambridge University is proposing new arrangements for ownership of IPR that are causing significant concerns among its staff. Under the scheme, the university, rather than the individual, would have ownership of intellectual property, though copyright would remain with individuals. This has led to suggestions that staff could be exploited or limited in their ability to transfer their discoveries to other institutions and may be unable to earn personal income from their ideas and innovations. But the Cambridge proposal would bring them in line with many other universities that hold ownership of IP but nevertheless exploit such property in partnership with the relevant staff, who therefore benefit financially.
This is an area where ground rules need to be clearly laid down, but flexibility is essential. It is difficult for individuals to fully exploit their own work, given the necessary expertise and very considerable costs involved. Filing and maintaining patents, let alone exploiting them, is expensive. Most universities have become adept at exploitation and can provide that investment and expertise. But it would be silly to seriously restrict research and teaching activity by exploitation or to treat all copyright, know-how, new medicines, equipment, computer programs or teaching methods in the same way. Most important is that the "originators" of the outputs - whether they be academics, technical staff or students - should see some benefit. This may come in many forms, but financial reimbursement is high on the list. It's hard to imagine that anyone embarks on an academic career for the financial reward, but additional income is likely to be welcome - whether it be for the graduate student who has contributed to the work, or the supervisor who conceived the programme.
Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University.
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