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I will be completing my PhD soon, and my supervisor is asking me to sign an IPR declaration where I have to mention the research works where I had direct or indirect contribution. However, it also states that I will not get any authorship in the resulting publication.

Here is the text of the declaration:

I will disclose any research result during PhD that may lead to intellectual property. I also completely understand that my name shall not be included as inventor/ author of the IP filing/publication.

This is not a university policy; only the students in my lab are signing this. I do not know where this document originated; my supervisor may have drafted it themself. I am not concerned about the IP part of this, but I do want authorship in any papers based on my work.

I have not yet asked my supervisor whether I have to sign this or whether I'm allowed to revise it before signing. However, my understanding is that he will want new students to pick up the ongoing work, but he figures (correctly) that new students will not be motivated to continue with mostly-finished lines of inquiry unless they are promised first authorship. So, this is his way of doing just that.

My question is, can authorship of someone's own research work be denied in this manner? I may have to sign it now under indirect pressure (to get a PhD without hassle with my supervisor), but can I challenge the declaration in future if papers are published based on my work that do not list me as an author?

Recent Update: I talked to my supervisor. He told me that he is not interested anymore in the particular work that I am concerned about and therefore he is probably not going to publish it. So according to him my authorship in that work is out of question. I am still clueless as he had shown interest in that work previously. Later he sent an email to me and other graduating students, requesting us to submit the IP declaration again. In the email he mentioned that "your contributions will be duly acknowledged", but he didn't ammend the declaration itself. Many of my colleagues (who are going to graduate) have submitted the declaration already and are not interested in arguing with him.

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  • Some clarifications have been edited into the post and comments have been moved to chat; please everyone, post advice as answers (or in the chat), not the comments.
    – cag51
    Aug 24, 2022 at 23:18
  • An explanatory heads-up here, not a chat element -- To understand the answers and comments, and why they've been offered, please notice that the content of the question has been considerably changed by the various edits made to it.
    – terry-s
    Aug 25, 2022 at 17:16
  • A famous example that came to my mind. The oil drop experiment that earned Millikan a Nobel price,: "[...] This remains controversial since papers found after Fletcher's death describe events in which Millikan coerced Fletcher into relinquishing authorship as a condition for receiving his PhD.[10][11] In return, Millikan used his influence in support of Fletcher's career at Bell Labs. [...] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_drop_experiment
    – StefanH
    Aug 26, 2022 at 22:07

6 Answers 6

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Are you sure that you correctly understand the meaning and scope of the document that has been proposed to you?

It is generally hard to try, after you have signed something, to undo the effect of a written statement you have signed, and much better and often easier not to sign it at all.

If you are under some kind of pressure to provide a document of the kind proposed, then it would be advisable first to try to have a dialogue with your supervisor or other person proposing it, to try to understand better just what s/he thinks it should suitably cover or contain. If you have taken part in an ancillary way in work that is mainly being done by others, and the circumstances are that you would not yourself think it fair for you to claim co-authorship in their publication, then in principle I see no harm in making a statement of the kind requested, so long as it is limited to that kind of involvement and that particular activity.

If on the other hand the supervisor turns out to be expecting you to make a disclaimer for work in which you have taken a part important enough for you to claim authorship or co-authorship, then you need to consider saying so, and claiming that authorship or co-authorship. There you have a potential dispute on your hands and you need to take advice beyond what is available in this forum.

If in addition the supervisor is really expecting you to make that kind of a disclaimer for work on which your part is really that of an innventor or coinventor, then the supervisor would be making a proposal which is actually illegal in India as in practically all other countries, and the people who wrongfully apply for a patent as a result of it would be at risk, if discovered, of losing the rights and of subjecting themselves to other legal risks also.

But in my experience there can indeed be situations in which a person P has had a (definite but slight) degree of involvement with a piece of work and its investigators A, B, &c, but not so much that a co-authorship is warranted for P in the resulting publication by A, B... . P's part may be worth a collegial acknowledgement but no more. Examples of such involvement can be those that go no further than generally useful conversation, or routine ancillary assistance.

If your department has a policy of clarifying the non-authorship of people in that ancillary position, and is not just aiming something specially at you, then I see no injustice or harm in your agreeing to take part in that precaution, just so long as you think carefully and take care about the breadth of any statement to which you may consider putting your name.

It may be useful for you to think through (1) which parts of your activities are those for which you definitely feel entitled to be an author or co-author in a resulting publication, and whether there are (2) activities that you have been involved with in an ancillary way, or parts you have taken in the work of others, for which you would not justly make such a claim.

If there is anything in category (2), then it seems to me that it would be reasonable and harmless for you to acknowledge it, as well as reasonable for the main investigators to ask for such an acknowledgement, to prevent disputes arising later. If there is anything in category (2) on which you feel prepared to give such an acknowledgement, then naturally the relevant description of the work of others to which your acknowledgement applies should be written in carefully limited terms, so that there is no risk of its effect 'spilling over' onto some activity or topic more important to you.

If you feel that you have not taken part in anything in category (2), i.e. that you have had no ancillary involvements that are too slight for you to claim to be a co-author, then your reply to your supervisor can simply be, that there is no work or activity in that category to which his proposed document would properly apply.

For your activities in category (1), the boot is entirely on the other foot. You should be prepared to state what your activities have been, and make positive claim of your activities and entitlement to be an author or co-author of any resulting publication, and you ought to be prepared to describe what those topics or activities have been. If, as it might seem, it is a policy in your department for ancillary helpers to be asked to disclaim being a co-author, then you should also consider making just that same kind of request in respect of any others who you are aware to have had an ancillary involvement in your own work that is so peripheral that they should not in justice seek to be named as author or co-author on the strength of it.

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Your question asks "can" authorship be denied? That's probably a legal question, best suited for another forum. But you might also be interested in the ethical question, "should" you be denied authorship?

I'm sure that every field and country has its own norms. You live in India and study chemistry; I live in the US and study medicine. However, I believe the ethics of authorship are relatively generalizable.

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors has provided recommendations for "Defining the Role of Authors and Contributors":

Who Is an Author?
The ICMJE recommends that authorship be based on the following 4 criteria:

  • Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  • Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  • Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  • Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved. ...

All those designated as authors should meet all four criteria for authorship, and all who meet the four criteria should be identified as authors. ... The criteria are not intended for use as a means to disqualify colleagues from authorship who otherwise meet authorship criteria by denying them the opportunity to meet criterion #s 2 or 3. Therefore, all individuals who meet the first criterion should have the opportunity to participate in the review, drafting, and final approval of the manuscript. [Emphasis added]

Thus, we can see that authorship should be an inherent quality of an individual based upon their contributions to the research endeavor, not a right or privilege merely to be optionally asserted.

Just because you sign a piece of paper, that doesn't somehow change your "substantial contributions" to the work.

Thus, I hold that ethically, you cannot and should not have your authorship discharged by contract.


So, what should you actually do?

I would recommend having a discussion with your advisor asking for clarification. I hope that most researchers would share the opinion that research team members that make "substantial contributions" to a work should be authors.

Perhaps you could have the wording of the document amended to something along the lines of:

I also completely understand that my name shall not be included as inventor of any IP filing. Moreover, I will not be listed as an author on any publication to which I have not made substantial contributions.

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  • 1
    You neglect that contract law may enter into the situation. Ethically, I agree. But what "should be" and what "is" often differ. And, of course, you can be bound by contract.
    – Buffy
    Aug 23, 2022 at 16:08
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    Say I email a journal and tell them I collected data, ran the analysis and wrote half the paper. Are they going to care whether there is allegedly some contract provision? That doesn't change the ethics. The journal isn't a party to the contract. Can you personally be sued for breach of contract? Probably. I'm not an Indian lawyer, but you can enter into contracts to do all sorts of unethical things in the US. That, however, is a question for Law.SE.
    – Ian
    Aug 23, 2022 at 16:16
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    I won't disagree with you that it could potentially lead to legal liability (I edited to clarify). But the question author hasn't signed anything yet. So I'm arguing they shouldn't agree to anything that is ethically dubious.
    – Ian
    Aug 23, 2022 at 16:21
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    @Buffy this question was on Ask Patents and it was suggested that the OP ask here also. If this was in the US one could contract to not have ownership interests in a patent they are an inventor of but a contract can’t change who is and isn’t an inventor and must therefore be listed. Aug 23, 2022 at 21:34
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    @Ian I suggest you modify or withdraw your proposal to modify the OP's document. If his position is in truth that of a coinventor, your current proposal would have him colluding in an illegal act.
    – terry-s
    Aug 23, 2022 at 22:39
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Based on your update, you are confused about what is being asked.

Your supervisor is not asking you to sign away authorship; he is asking you to sign away any patent rights you might have.

Doing so looks a little sketchy. However, without knowing how you are funded, what your lab does, or what agreements you have already made, it's very hard to say that it's actually bad, and I would tend to think the intent is innocent.

Here is a quick example of how this might be entirely legitimate:

You are working in a group doing research on blood clotting. You finish up your work and move on. Five years later, your lab patents a cool new band-aid that instantly stops bleeding, and spins off a startup to start marketing them.

To make this work, they need clear ownership of that patent. It's actually fine if you have partial ownership of the patent (they can plan for it and negotiate with you), but it is very bad if you might have ownership. So to fix that, your lab demands that you claim any IP you might have before you leave, and waive claims to anything that you don't claim now. The language you posted looks consistent with that.


Of course, they could also be strong-arming you into giving up IP that you rightfully own because they are bad people. It just wouldn't be my first guess.

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    For comparison here are the University of London regulations - see para 46 "In general, where a student creates intellectual property in the course of their studies which is capable of protection under registered or unregistered design right, patent or database right, those rights will vest in the University rather than the student."
    – Stuart F
    Aug 24, 2022 at 20:27
  • @Stuart F : Well that looks like a selective quotation, elsewhere the Univ of London document appears to concede that students keep at least some of their rights. But generally it also looks like an attempt to create contract terms by unilateral fiat rather than by agreement, and in some respects it appears to respond to the law as it was about 50 years ago. But I won't suppose that the defects of the document will matter much in practice, since financial muscle (here, of the university) so often trumps individual legal rights.
    – terry-s
    Aug 24, 2022 at 23:59
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    I'd argue that a) many university contracts contain broad terms like this, and b) they're not infrequently challenged as being overly broad - simply because a contract tries to claim rights over your work doesn't necessarily make it so, but it does make it expensive to dispute.
    – lupe
    Aug 25, 2022 at 11:14
  • If you are an inventor, and the patent goes in without your name, the patent can be attacked and voided. Inventorship should always be correct. Inventors can assign royalties, though. Aug 25, 2022 at 11:48
  • @terry-s Such terms are fairly normal for UK university rules for postgraduate research students. The university of Sheffield says "It will be a condition of registration for Higher Degrees by research that the student will agree to assign the Student Intellectual Property to the University." However, they do agree to pay the student a share of patent revenue. sheffield.ac.uk/media/33590/download?attachment Aug 25, 2022 at 11:48
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You should not sign the document. It is common for PhD contracts (in the UK and USA) to have a clause stating that any IP generated in the university's facilities belongs to the university and not the student. If that is the case, then there is no need to sign the document. However, if it is not the case then there is no reason you should be pressured into signing away any rights of authorship or ownership that you may have.

Your supervisor claims that he is uninterested in the work and will not publish it. If that is true, then there is no benefit for them if you sign it anyway, which would make me even more suspect of their motivations. They may want to make their life easier in the future in case they realise some of your work has commercial/IP value - but you should not lose out for the sake of their convenience. Don't be afraid to push back on unreasonable requests.

Practically, you still have to deal with your supervisor and get your PhD. If I were you, I would first check what my signed PhD contract (including any official departmental policies you agreed to at the time) says. If the situation is still unclear then I would say I'm not comfortable signing something without getting independent advice (e.g. a lawyer) given how broad the scope is, and make sure that any communication with your PI regarding this issue (e.g. if they hint that not signing will delay your graduation) is in writing. You can see from the other comments here that it is very unclear what you would actually be agreeing to, and that is reason enough to not sign something.

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I am going to try to answer this from a legal perspective. You should really consult an IP lawyer if you have concerns over this.

Yes, you can waive your right to be named as an author. The most obvious cases of this happening are where there is a “ghost” writer. But quite often an employer will ask that you waive these rights too. In the EU/UK this would be called waiving your Moral Rights.

However, when that is done the document/contract that states this will be quite detailed, not three lines.

I am not a lawyer, but if I were I would seriously doubt the validity of this document, or at least what it purports to achieve. The first reason for this is that you evidently believe that you are being coerced into this position, and contracts formed via coercion cannot be legally enforced.

The more elaborate arguments against it involve the terms stated "shall not be included as author/inventor". This is an odd turn of phrase. Great, you are not named as author/inventor, but can you still claim to be the author/inventor? Are you entitled in equity to the benefits of authorship/inventorship? If the answers to those questions are “yes”, then for practical purposes you would be the author/inventor. That is to say that you get to claim authorship/inventorship and you get all the financial rewards of such…

The main purpose of contract is to attempt to remove doubt from any agreement between parties. The agreement you have posted does not appear to achieve that in any realistic way.

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The declaration is rather sweeping, and while it may be meant to facilitate transfer of projects, it could be made oppressive.

Since you are close to finishing your PhD, most of your primary/'first author' manuscripts would presumably be in some partially prepared state. Your interest is to secure those. The best move would be to send those manuscripts to your professor over email before signing the declaration.

This may not be practically feasible, so you could mail the professor a list of manuscripts that you have planned, and ask if these could be exempted from the declaration.

The point of having it on mail is that you have tangible support for your case, should there be any future difficulties.

Personally, I don't read any bad faith into the declaration, but it is certainly unusual. There may be mitigating factors though; one is that the continued research (across batches of students) is funded by the same grant/funder, and continuity of work is essential. This would also explain why it is lab policy, rather than university policy. Still, you must take reasonable measures to protect yourself.

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  • yes. The work is part of a funded project and a part of the declaration also mentions that we will not continue the same work in some other laboratory after graduation. But I still don't understand the authorship part. Aug 25, 2022 at 16:32
  • The intention may be that you can't claim authorship for any future publications that come out through the work of your successors. Aug 26, 2022 at 0:59

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