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Usually Postdoctoral Fellows do not have the Intellectual Property (IP) for the data they collect during their positions. When a Postdoc finishes their role, research institutions can potentially use their collected data for funding or publish it. In some cases, Ive seen manuscripts prevented from submission, and then 'reangled' by the PI with the PI then put as first-author, which is arguably unethical although probably legal.

Given a Postdoc is still actively working on the data after completion of their Postdoc position, at which point should they forfeit their 'rights' to be first-author, if ever?

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    The academic-ethics question of who ought to get authorship on a paper is not particularly closely aligned with the legal question of who owns IP. Commented Sep 4, 2022 at 15:35
  • Thanks. I know what you mean. I only mention it because an institute can use this because institutes can claim IP if there is a legal dispute
    – Tom
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 6:42

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In brief, whether the PDRA is still employed at a university or not, does matter not one iota. They maintain whatever rights they had indefinitely.

When discussing IP, what matter to most universities is patenting, and attribution of the work to their university. Universities only care about publication with respect to those factors.

The PI probably does not have the right to prevent the PDRA publishing their work, unless the PI has truly qualified as an author in their own right. A financial or an administrative relationship does not confer any authorship rights. To have qualified as an author, the PI must have made a genuine and significant intellectual contribution to the manuscript beyond "supervision."

Since the PDRA certainly did make a significant intellectual contribution, they have a veto over any submission. They have this in perpetuity. The PI has no right to seize a PDRA's work and repackage it, unless the PDRA consents to it.

If the PI submits a repackaged manuscript without the consent of the PDRA, they have committed fraud. They had to sign that the PDRA agreed to the submission, and if they did so fraudulently, that is indeed fraud.

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  • Thanks for your answer. Do you know if this extends to grant applications? Can unpublished data of the Postdoc be used by PIs without offering coauthorship on the grant applications?
    – Tom
    Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 6:47
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Academic codes of ethics generally have a lot to say about who must or must not be listed as an author, but very little to say about which order the authors should be listed in. As such, there's not really a "right" to be first author - it's a question of the conventions of the field and of the particular research team.

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