Inconsistencies have been highlighted in universities' policies on student intellectual property rights after a professional misconduct case was summarily dismissed.
The Health Professions Council ruled this month that misconduct allegations against a professor who used sections of his student's dissertation in a journal paper were unfounded as the student did not own the copyright to her work.
Remco Polman, professor of psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, was charged with having "reproduced substantial sections" from Jeannette Cohen's dissertation without her consent, although he did list her as third author.
He was also accused of signing a copyright agreement with the journal's publisher without her permission. He strenuously denied the allegation of misconduct.
The case focused on a paper published in the Journal of Sports Sciences in 2007, when Professor Polman was at the University of Hull. He supervised Ms Cohen's MSc dissertation in 2002, when they were at Leeds Metropolitan University.
The HPC's lawyer told the hearing on 5 March that under Leeds Met's regulations on intellectual property rights, Ms Cohen did not own the copyright to her dissertation. This meant her rights could not have been breached, so there was no case to answer. The Leeds Met rules state: "All students ... hereby assign by way of future assignment all rights in any works that may be produced or created by such students in connection with their studies as registered students of the university to the university."
It is similar to the University of Leeds' policy, which tells students that "the university will normally be regarded as owning all intellectual property generated by you during your studies".
Other universities allow students to retain the rights to their work. The University of Plymouth's policy distinguishes between copyright in "scholarly work" and patents or designs. "Copyright in scholarly work, for example your dissertation or thesis, belongs to you. No one else may publish, or claim to have authored, material which is yours."
University College London's policy says that "as a general principle, UCL recognises the student as owner of any intellectual property rights he/she produces while a registered student of UCL".
The University of Manchester not only gives its students intellectual property rights over their dissertations, but also allows them to restrict access to their work.
Leeds Met said that Professor Polman would have needed to seek prior approval from the university to use Ms Cohen's research if he had still been based there.
A Leeds Met spokeswoman said: "While our regulations, which have been in place for years, are quite clear that the university can choose to assert ownership of any intellectual property generated during the course of students' study, staff would need to obtain prior approval."
She refused to comment on the specifics of the case, but a preliminary investigation by Leeds Met after a complaint by Ms Cohen in 2007 found that her work was not properly acknowledged in the article and that there was "a strong prima facie case" for plagiarism. The university's legal adviser told Ms Cohen in 2007 that the faculty's secretary and registrar confirmed that there had been no request to relinquish copyright in her work.
Professor Polman declined to comment.