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I quit my current research group after four and a half years. I am currently looking for other opportunities to join a new research group and finish my PhD.

Based on recent meetings with my former PhD adviser, our graduate coordinator, and our department chair, I was asked to sign and accept a Data Transfer Document to acknowledge that all the data, code, and intellectual property that were created during these four and a half years belong to my former PhD adviser, which I don't have any claim. I am willing to give up all the data, code, and intellectual property to him. I don't want to use anything created during these four and a half years for the rest of my life.

I received this Data Transfer Document today, and it contains some information that my former PhD adviser still recommends me to stay and continue my work with him. Still, I'm not going to do that. After that, a long list of data, code, implementations, and other created things during these four and a half years. In the end, there is a place that I need to sign and attest that I acknowledge that I transfer everything to him. It's OK, and I'm going to sign that.

This list of contributions gives me the impression that my former adviser expects me to complete all the incomplete tasks, and then I would turn them to him. My concern is that he hopes to do new work on the existing research materials and possibly bring them to a shape that he expects to see. My understanding of transferring all the data and research materials to the PI when somebody quits is like a freeze. Everything that was created and developed up to that moment should be transferred entirely to the PI in its current form. I don't think my former PI should expect that I'm going to do more work when I want to give up four and a half years and accept the pain of not getting a PhD for all the work I did during these years. If I wanted to continue to work on these research materials, I would stay, not leaving and abandoning all of my works.

It should be noted here that I never received any funding from my former PhD adviser. My funding comes from a different department entirely unrelated to my former PhD adviser.

In response to his list, I compiled another list that points out what data, results, or code is located where and how to access that. All the materials are stored within the university's storage and repositories. I don't want to have a lengthy discussion with my former adviser about why something is not complete in his opinion or if he expects me to do extra work on current research materials. I'm going to send him this list that I compiled and the signed Data Transfer Document and say whatever that is created during these four and a half years is entirely yours, and I don't have any claim. I wanted to know if he can force me to do extra or new work on the current research materials or not?

Update: I communicated my concerns to our graduate coordinator, and I received this response:

  1. It is not in my competency to decide what should be in the Data Transfer Document. It is created solely by your adviser.

  2. You are not supposed to do extra research to satisfy this requirement. My understanding is that you need to Transfer Data that is already existing.

  3. About intellectual property issues, you might consult with appropriate IP persons prior signing the document. Also you might consult with them if there are any consequences of not signing this document.

So, even if item 2 might be correct, I'm not comfortable with the hostile language and how it is worded. My other impression from this response is that not signing this document is also not that important as long as I acknowledge the University's IP policy.

Further update/clarification: I originally did not have the confidence to refuse to sign the data transfer document. But after this discussion, I have now told my adviser that I am not comfortable signing.

Latest update: Following my question, it seems that I must sign the proposed document to be able to switch my research group inside our department. I have pasted the two parts of this document that I am not comfortable with. I kindly ask you to read these sentences and let me know if reading this content will affect any prospective adviser's decision. Please tell me if you get a bad impression from a student approaching you and not accept him/her after reading these sentences.

You have indicated that you wish to withdraw from your research course and abandon your dissertation research following an incomplete (I) grade that you did not resolve, resulting in a no pass (NP) grade for the semester. My recommendation remains for you to work with the graduate school to develop a plan to improve your research skills while recognizing the tenets of academic integrity. The sanctions imposed for previous violations of academic integrity remain binding. You should also be aware that according to the university regulations, all requirements for a doctoral degree must be completed within eight years from the date a student first matriculates into a doctoral degree program at this university.

The undersigned acknowledges Mr. Alone Programmer’s obligations outlined in this memo and enclosed documents and acknowledges Mr. Alone Programmer’s responsibility to resolve any pending issues of concern under University’s Graduate School Policies and Procedures.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. We can only move comments to chat once. In particular, please avoid answers in comments and keep a respectful tone in the discussion, here or in chat. – Massimo Ortolano Mar 30 at 18:24
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    What do you get in return for signing this document? – Daniel R. Collins Mar 30 at 23:18

14 Answers 14

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Do not sign any document you are not sure about. Do not sign a document that assigns property to someone else unless you are getting fairly paid for it.

Your PhD advisor cannot force you to do anything unless you have agreed contractually to do it.

Very probably the work you did as a PhD student belongs to your university, and not to yourself or your advisor. Consult your university's policies.

If you need detailed advice, consult your union (if any) or a lawyer.

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    The point about the university's ownership is an important one. OP may not be able to sign away these rights even if they wanted to do so. This feels all kinds of wrong, and is almost certainly covered by existing university policy and copyright/IP law. – Dan Mar 30 at 11:09
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    Scratch the university, the works belong to the student. The student was not hired by the university to produce such works; they paid the university as part of this program. The university may have a royalty-free licence on the IP, but no self-respecting academic would accept that coursework/thesis research is somehow work-for-hire. – obscurans Mar 30 at 16:59
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    @obscurans If you check policies, you will that usually Dan is right. Also, the question specifies that the student was funded, strongly implying they were paid. Work for hire is not the only way rights can be transferred. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 30 at 21:03
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    @obscurans Depending on country this advice can be very incorrect, and students can get in serious legal troubles. It is true that in many places universities has no clear policies nor IP observed, but that is not the universal standard. – Greg Mar 31 at 5:17
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If you sign a document in which you promise to complete unfinished projects, it will become much harder for you to refuse a request to do that, since you will be refusing to do something that you promised to do.

Now, whether what you signed constitutes a legally enforceable contract or not may be debatable, and may depend on whether you are receiving consideration, whether you had a reasonable option to refuse to sign, the precise legal jurisdiction, and many other details. Regardless, it is generally a good idea not to sign documents in which you make commitments you don’t think you should be asked to keep or which seem unfair. Even with a document that’s not legally enforceable in some hypothetical sense, people tend to put a lot of stock in a person’s signature on a piece of paper, and the former adviser may still have influence over your future career.

I suggest that you study the data transfer document some more to make sure you understand what it is asking you to do. If at that point you still have concerns, raise them with the department chair, before you sign the document. Good luck!

Edit: I see that other people are advising you to consult a lawyer. I didn’t suggest that at first because in my experience people tend to throw around such suggestions much more casually than they would follow such advice themselves. (For example, in my entire life I went to “consult a lawyer” about something exactly once, and that was regarding an issue involving a large amount of money.) Anyway, for what it’s worth, if consulting a lawyer is an option that’s available to you and within your budget, then yes, I agree that may be a good idea in the current situation, especially if you still have serious doubts about the data transfer document after studying its contents more and/or suspect the department isn’t looking out for your best interests.

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    Department chairs cannot always be trusted to protect students' interests. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 30 at 3:51
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    @AnonymousPhysicist true. Does that mean you disagree with my advice? What would you suggest instead of raising the concerns with the department chair? – Dan Romik Mar 30 at 3:56
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    @DanRomik This looks like a case where it could be risky not to consult a lawyer. As I understand, the issue here could be that the adviser and the PhD student have a different opinion/expectation regarding the completeness of the existing work results. That could make it difficult for OP to prove that they have fulfilled their obligations. – Roland Mar 30 at 5:46
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    @Roland thanks, edited to discuss the lawyer suggestion. – Dan Romik Mar 30 at 19:19
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    Well, I really appreciate all the answers here. I doubt a lawyer could give a more useful insight even after getting a couple of hundreds of dollars. My current strategy is that to talk to our graduate coordinator that sent me this data transfer document compiled by former adviser and ask him some clarifications about the scope of this document and if I need to do extra work beyond what is already available and also honestly telling him that I'm not willing to take any extra responsibility beyond what is already defined in University IP policy and Graduate Manual. – Alone Programmer Mar 30 at 19:37
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First off: You can't be forced to do anything in any situation where you are walking away (*).

This implies that when you are asked to sign a document, you can decline. You can also decide to sign it, but you should ask yourself (and the other party) what's in it for you if you do. It's a negotiation, and that means both sides should strive to get something meaningful out of it, and walk away if they don't. In a situation like this, that could mean that they support you for your future steps, give you good references etc (even if you don't see their benefit right now, you can insist on that). That basically means, there needs to be a benefit for you in that document and they will also need to put a signature under that.

In any case, take your time! This is nothing that should be done in haste, and there should be no urge from their side. You would be well-advised to consult a third party for legal advice, anyway. Sometimes there is an association of law students or something similar that might be willing to help you if you can't afford it.

(*) unless you have a contractual obligation from a previous contract, but then they wouldn't need you to sign anyway.

Don't sign before you are 100% sure of what you are doing!

On top of that, there seems to be a lot of confusion about the contents of the contract. What exactly are you giving away? An instruction on how to access the data/code? The exploitation rights (right to publish the codes etc.)? Removing you from the authorship lists (that would be wrong)? This should be clarified. Regarding the recommendation to continue your work, that may be just a CYA for you advisor to make sure that he did his due diligence that you are acknowledging before you put your career at risk. But if you feel like it could be seen as an obligation to do more work, then, again, don't sign (possibly negotiate the wording).

When you are making a disrupting decision, don't forget about future eventualities!

This is very important! You never know how everything will pan out in the future. There is a common pattern when people leave in grief that they want to close the chapter, and can't get rid of the emotional weight fast enough. Try to assess this calmly:

  • Are you giving up the work of 4.5 years (!!) just to be done with it?
  • You may need your past work in the future! For another PhD very likely! and even if not, you never know how it could be useful.
  • Can your relationship with your former advisor / faculty be salvaged so that everyone can leave saving their face?
  • Are they trying to help you, maybe, and can you benefit from that?
  • How can you build your future in a constructive way, and how do your current actions shape that future?
  • Can you aim for a solution where you can give a positive spin to it at some point in the future?

Take your time!

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    +10 You can't be forced to do anything in any situation where you are walking away – obscurans Mar 30 at 17:03
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    Counterexample: the US university patent agreements I've signed as a condition of employment all say I have an obligation to help them pursue and defend any patents in the future, which may mean signing documents up to testifying in court. The patent system requires the actual inventors to make certain assertions and there's no way around it. – user71659 Mar 30 at 22:22
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    @user71659 true, that would fall under the (*) category (obligations from existing contracts). but OP does not mention any patent issues here, or that they were asked to adhere to any existing obligations. – sciquant Mar 30 at 22:58
  • Patents are extremely rare. I've worked in technology all my life and never got one, and only been asked to look into getting one. Still if you need to defend the patent you need to do that. – JosephDoggie Mar 31 at 20:57
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    @user71659 But then the inventor can charge basically what they like on an hourly rate, surely? This can't be an obligation to carry out indefinite amounts of unpaid work for an indefinite period in the future. As a "condition of employment", that contract ceases when you cease to be employed, unless they continue paying you a retainer. – Graham Mar 31 at 22:02
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Don’t sign

At least until you have had some proper advice. I haven’t seen the document and IANAL but there is a difference between what the University or PI might assert is its IP and what actually is.

This matters because you say you still want to get a PhD and the work you have done in the last 4.5 years might be useful to you in that. You wouldn’t be the first person to have a dissertation that involved some disparate research conducted with different PIs in the interests of graduating and moving forward if that was what, after some time and reflection you decided to do. Certainly, waiving your rights to all of your work may create difficulties for you if the PI decides to be difficult.

It also matters potentially given your funding is from a firm. Again I don’t know the details but they may have some interest in the IP.

Finally, if it’s valuable to them, and you created it, they should pay you for it. If you prefer not to involve money you could release it via some type of open source license, assuming the status of the IP allowed.

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This seems rather unfair to you, but let’s put that aside. It seems like the crux of the issue may be whether the word complete means “finished” or “total.” If I were to ask you to give over the “complete” data for a project, is that the finished data or all the data you have?

I am not a lawyer, but to the best of my knowledge the way to deal with this ambiguity is to add a clause to the document which spells out the meaning of the word complete. So here you would want to specify that complete refers to all items in your possession on a particular date. You could also specify that this agreement does not create any obligation for you to incrementally improve work after X date to achieve a more finished state.

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    There might be a dispute regarding the current state of the work, i.e., what exactly is in OP's possession right now. – Roland Mar 30 at 5:48
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    Sure, but at least that moves it beyond — this isn’t done and you owe me more work. – Dawn Mar 30 at 18:36
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You are being asked to sign a legal document. You should seek legal advice from a lawyer, if you really are interested in protecting your own self-interest. Even with regard to IP, your name should still appear on any resulting copyrights or patents, as the producer of the IP.

You should not sign a document you are not comfortable with.

You should certainly check with a lawyer, but there may be no problem with communicating your concerns to your Chair and Graduate Coordinator, listing specifically the sentences in the document that preclude your signing it. If you're willing to sign without those sentences, let them know that (but you should really talk to a lawyer before signing!)

There is substantial risk that not signing will be an obstacle to matching with another advisor -- though matching with another advisor even if you sign is certainly not a given.

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What's going to happen if you don't sign? If nothing much, then refer them back to the University's policy document on IP.

I'm wondering why they need this. If it's not already covered by agreement then just say no. Either they own the IP and rights or they don't. If they don't then why do they think they have the right to demand it? Why assign to a particular person? That's fishy.

Watch out for what you're assigning. For example, you might be happy giving title to 'stuff' but not the fact that you did the work. You did a lot of work and should get, and keep, credit for doing it.

In the case of a falling-out with the powers that be, you also need to protect your reputation. For example you wrote "black is not white" but then this was simply changed, yet still attributed to you, then what can you do? You need to keep cover-your-arse copies because anything from malice to carelessness might blot your reputation. Quite likely the funders will get a skewed story from the management and your work will be used to polish the reputation of people you don't like.

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I would try to get out of it without signing anything. It doesn't matter if you don't expect to use what you did in the foreseeable future. Basically, when you enrolled in this PhD, everything you did was covered by some existing rules to which you agreed explicitly or implicitly when you entered the PhD program. Asking you to sign something now doesn't seem to make sense, unless they are trying to get from you something they are not entitled to. If they cannot force you to sign, like implicitly blackmailing you by making you understand you will never be able to enroll in something else in the same university (supposing it's something you want), then don't sign. It doesn't matter if you don't value what you are giving them when signing such a document.

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Your immediate question concerns whether to sign a Data Transfer Document and/or to add a clause or substitute a different document. My advice is to take a step back and sleep on the paperwork and if possible show everything to a good friend who is COMPLETELY UNINVOLVED. Get some outside perspective and bear in mind what YOUR best interest is. Earlier answers have good advice about who legally owns what but consider also how your former advisor can help or ignore or be an obstacle to your career in future. It seems likely you are not getting along with your advisor and I'd be the first to acknowledge that Ph.D. students are a modern day form of indentured servants, but your overriding goal should be to leave on friendly or at least neutral terms. The best would be if your former advisor were to (publicly) say that you'll be welcome back in 6 months or a year if things don't work out.

It's not necessarily fair but wherever you go they are going to expect a reference from your former advisor. They may give you an opportunity to explain it and they may discount it but it will always be there. You spent 4.5 years or about 10% of your work career working for or with this person. You will notice that I don't regard this as "school" but rather "work" even if your advisor didn't fund you. And FWIW these situations frequently arise in the work world where you are employed by one organization but spend long periods working for another. Once I got 2 different annual reviews but mostly I got collaborative reviews where the manager I was actually working for day to day provided feedback to my "owning" manager. The reality is that any person you move to will want to assess both your skills and your teamwork. Many times people leave good jobs because of personality differences and new bosses are fine with that if they are reassured that you will fit well with their team. Try hard to lay the groundwork now for such a determination in future.

Best of luck to you. And always remember, friends come and go but enemies accumulate.

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    The best uninvolved good friend given the circumstances is probably a lawyer who you pay if necessary. – Bryan Krause Mar 30 at 14:47
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You wrote:"My fund comes from a different department completely unrelated to my former PhD adviser." When you accepted this funding, you probably signed a document with a lot of fine print. Check this fine print. I wouldnt be surprised if all your code and IP might actually belong to them already. It is rare that you receive funding from a department not wanting something in exchange. (Scholarships can be different).

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    There is one general clause that says everything is under University IP policy. Fine, I don't have any problem with that. Also, the work I'm doing under my contract for receiving my fund has nothing to do with my PhD research. – Alone Programmer Mar 30 at 17:41
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    @AloneProgrammer I do not know for the US, but in my country it can very well be that even the IP you didnt do under the contract is covered by such a contract, even the stuff done in your free time. – lalala Mar 30 at 17:45
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You have a say in the wording of the doc. In my experience, there is a bit of back and forth about what these docs say pursuant of a signature. I'm with most of the people above, I'm not sure walking away from 4.5 years of work when you are trying to build a future is sound but only you know the circumstances. Short of hiring a lawyer, I'd simply go through the document and modify it to fit your comfort level and counter offer an agreement that outlines specifically, that you WILL NOT be obligated to future work for or with the advisor or the project and the information being released to them will be "as-is"... You can word-smith it but you get the jist.

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It is not in my competency to decide what should be in the Data Transfer Document. It is created solely by your advisor.

If the advisor solely invented a document for you to sign then really you should not sign it and wait for an official document to come in (I heavily doubt it will come someday).

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I'm just repeating here what others have said already, mostly, but I will add it again to be sure. Don't sign anything.

Not that the legal implications are terribly important anyway; but it will be an important psychological step to snap out of the strange state of mind you are in.

You are not a serf beholden to some job you worked at for a few years. You don't owe these people anything. No signatures, no additional work, no excuses.

There is a whole world out there outside of academia. I get the distinct impression it isn't making you happy. Walk away from it. Get a job washing dishes if you must; anything to snap you out of this PhD-induced-psychosis (I don't mean that literally, but whatever) and remind yourself that there is a whole world out there.

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If there is someone you are on speaking terms with (dept head? grad chair? student rep? union?) you could explain your concern about signing up for more work though you do not object to handing over existing data as is.

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