I recently found out that a research assistant had made unconsulted plans to present, and possibly publish, a paper as a single author on the basis of a study conducted for their principal investigator. The research assistant was not involved in the original research design and worked under specific guidance from their PI.

Should they be able to publish a paper based on a study that is not theirs and be named as sole author? Could they do it with permission from their PI? What would have happened if the RA had been listed as co-author in a paper with their PI? Would this then give them the right to publish further papers based on the same research?

The question, in sum, is who owns the research? And under what terms can this ownership be shared? And what are the limits of such shared ownership?

  • 2
    Although I think I understand the urgency of your question(s), you are asking toooo many at once, each one of which would benefit from further details of context. Surely you don't want an "answer" like "yes, yes, no, maybe, no, no, yes, yes". :) Commented Mar 19, 2022 at 2:10
  • “A study” feels too generic. Is this involving collecting some empirical data? Was it analysis of 3rd party data? Is the data open access or otherwise publicly available because it was federally funded ?
    – Dawn
    Commented Mar 19, 2022 at 3:17
  • What is your position in all of this? Are you the PI? Do you know that the PI didn't give permission?
    – Buffy
    Commented Mar 19, 2022 at 11:19
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    This case has been discussed as part of an open conversation on authorship ethics in the institution where I work. The study inolved the collection of primary qualitative and quantitative data, and the data is not open access nor federally funded. And no, the PI did not give permission. To narrow down the question: can an RA claim any kind of ownership for the data and ideas from a study that is not their own? Commented Mar 20, 2022 at 15:41

2 Answers 2


Ethics in short:

  • Taking the PI's idea and presenting it as their own without giving any credit (sole authorship) = textbook plagiarism.
  • Building upon previous work (providing attribution in form of citations) = fine from an ethical standpoint, but might be going against the expectations of the work culture in a lab. Research output is why the lab exists in the first place, one would expect such a major thing as a paper to be collectively discussed.
  • Deciding that the contribution was not significant enough to warrant an authorship and/or acknowledgements is valid, but needs to be agreed upon by all parties. If the PI and RA in question disagree on the merit of the research design, this is problematic from the professional ethics standpoint, not even specifically academic one. Likely not in favor of RA as well.

So, the people who did the research "own" it. If the PI made a significant intellectual contribution by designing an experiment and RA ran off with it, that would be a serious breach on RA's side. RA is completely entitled to use their own ideas to produce new research and publish it solo or in collaboration with someone outside the lab. If they are using lab facilities to do so, PI has to know. It is also prudent to let them know regardless; they would not "own" that research, but they "own" lab members' working hours, which makes it really unproductive to get into an argument.


The OP is indulging in the "begging the question" logical fallacy. Their clarification is circular in reasoning.

By the Vancouver Convention, authorship requires a genuine intellectual contribution, amongst other things. Simply being a PI, general supervision of the lab or providing the funds does not qualify for authorship.

These things need to be examined closely, and in the context of any working contract, but it is entirely possible that the PI does not have any claim on authorship, in which case they should be an acknowledgement. It is possible that they made enough of a contribution to warrant authorship. The initial judgement here is, of course, the first authors. In cases of dispute, the university should mediate.

If the PI declines authorship, then it is usually quite acceptable for them to be dropped down to an acknowledgement.

Essentially, depending on the specifics, it could go either way. Without more information, which it would be inappropriate to provide here, no judgement can be formed.

In a general sense, the idea that PI's are entitled to authorships is wrong. They must earn their authorships.

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