As an academic working at a university, is it wrong to (personally) accept money for your research outputs? Would this be a bargain you would be happy to take?

EXAMPLE: Suppose you are a Mathematician with valuable algorithms or expertise (e.g., quantum-era code breaking, fancy AI, ...) and you are offered a (secret) contract of $150,000+ in additional salary per year to give access to an external entity (e.g., company) all of your research before it is published. For example, your mathematical proofs and working computer codes. You give them the right to patent any results, to use the codes for their own purpose, and potentially veto the publication of any result they would like you to keep secret.

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    If the contract is "secret," then that implies that you will not pay tax for that payment. This might be illegal.
    – JRN
    Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 5:52
  • And if the contract is secret, it will be unenforceable. Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 5:53
  • Another situation I had in mind was the "Thousands Talents Plan" but I didn't want the actors involved to cloud/bias the response. It could equally be a FAANG company or a startup, etc. Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 6:10
  • By secret, I mean for example a Thousand Talents Plan that "stipulate they cannot disclose their participation in the Chinese Government program without permission". morningmail.org/… Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 6:21
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    150k sounds mighty cheap for something like that Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 14:01

1 Answer 1


As an academic working at a university, you do not have unlimited freedom to enter into arrangements of the sorts you describe, but are limited to what your university’s policies will allow you to do (which at my university would certainly not include the hypothetical secret agreement you described). And at established universities those policies have been carefully crafted to balance the university’s rights and its mission of public service against the academic’s desire and right to pursue side interests, including for pay, and also taking into account the fact that such side projects also often benefit society and thus advance the university’s mission.

So the answer to your question is more boring than you might imagine: that is, if you are following the university’s policies, then generally speaking it’s not wrong (unless you are being particularly crafty, misleading in reporting your actions or intentions, or are otherwise pushing the limits of what’s acceptable in a way many people would consider unreasonable); and conversely, if your actions clearly violate university policy, well, I don’t want to generalize too much since one can always think of exceptions, but that’s a pretty good sign that you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing.

Here are some relevant policies from the University of California system, in case you want to go deeper into this issue: 1, 2, 3.

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    I'm in the Australian system, for example, University of Melbourne states that "Copyright in all scholarly material is owned by the academic, unless there is a research, funding or other legal agreement to the contrary". Also, similar to the UC system, we have an "outside work" policy allowing 52 days of external paid work a year. Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 6:16
  • @partition_of_unity Well, Dan's statements hold. You have to find out whether you can have a contract with your employer (uni) that permits you to do what you stated above. It might be possible that part of your work can be kept confidential. But it's not clear what you mean by "secret". If it is a clandestine agreement with the company, then it might be simply illegal. In which case they may even renege on your payment for your work without you having a recourse. But confidential work exists, and can be perfectly legal. However, I doubt that you can filter all your work through the company. Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 6:23
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    @partition_of_unity copyright and patent rights are very different things. At my university the scenario “you give them the right to patent any results” is completely untenable (but assigning copyright to code or other material may be fine, indeed we regularly transfer copyright on our papers to publishers). And outside work under some circumstances needs to be reported to the university, so keeping the agreement secret is also very likely a dealbreaker. Anyway, as I was saying, whatever the employer is okay with is, pretty much by definition, not “wrong”.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 6:30
  • Yes, by secret I mean confidential and I had in mind China's Thousand Talents Plan which is being strongly investigated in the US and Australia. I guess my question is: Is it bad because it is by China? or is it bad in general? Personally I believe there shouldn't be a difference if the entity was China or a company. Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 6:30
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    @partition I’m not going to get into a discussion about whether some specific country is “bad”. In general, one can well imagine an evil country or corporation paying a researcher money to influence that researcher’s work or benefit from their knowledge somehow in a nefarious way. This has been known to happen many times. And yes, that would be bad, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that you seem to have a misguided idea about the extent to which academics have the ability to sell out in the way you are thinking of. Researchers can and do sometimes behave unethically, but there are limits.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 6:37

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