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Say I work on a project as a Postdoc/PhD student and conduct an experiment or study, and this results in data that leads to another interesting follow-up question, or possibly even indicates a major area for new investigtion. Can my PI then use this unpublished data, without including me (and other coauthors) to try and win grants?

Im sure this must happen alot (also Postdocs doing similar things i.e not including the PI), but is this ethical? Is it policied? Could doing this practise result in the funding being withdrawn?

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  • Why would it not be ethical? Oct 14, 2022 at 4:39
  • Who has come up with the follow-up question and the new research idea? If you've, it's possibly unethical not to include you depending on previous agreements between the research team members. If your PI has come up with it, he decides to include or not include whom.
    – Ehsan
    Oct 14, 2022 at 7:17

2 Answers 2

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What you're asking about is who "owns" the results and data of a study. I don't think this is generally defined between researchers in academia. This is unlike in industry, where all of this is "intellectual property" owned by the company that employed the people who conducted the study. In that sense, the university owns the results and data, but that is not generally an ownership that is asserted (with the exception of patentable or marketable material). As a consequence, it is typically left up to the researchers themselves how they want to handle that ownership, but it is rarely done in any formal way.

At least informally, though, every participant to a study can use these results however they see fit for purposes other than publication (where one would typically expect that everyone who participated also becomes an author). Thus, most researchers would agree that for presentations at conferences, grant applications, etc., use of study results and data is fair game. I cannot see anything unethical in using data that way in grant applications, for example, and I certainly wouldn't know why anyone would "police" this or withdraw funding.

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    For presenting (unpublished) results from a study at conferences, it is definitely good form to check with your co-authors if this is OK.
    – TimRias
    Oct 14, 2022 at 8:49
  • Good form for sure. Is it unethical not to -- maybe not. Oct 14, 2022 at 20:31
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Your question seems to assume the premise that being the co-participant in the collection of research data (or more generally in the creation of knowledge in the context of academic research) confers you with certain rights. That is correct. However, I think you fail to identify correctly what those rights are: you do not get a right to control what is done with the data by the other people who have it. The right that you have is a right to be identified as a co-creator of the data.

In other words, I think the right way to look at this issue is that academic knowledge such as research data is not “owned”; that is, it is not conceptually correct to think of it as a form of property (even intellectual property). Rather, it is knowledge that is labeled with the identity of its discoverers/creators. To make clear the distinction between those two things, consider that a researcher cannot create knowledge and then sell to someone else (in a confidential transaction, obviously) the rights to be labeled as the creator. The lack of the ability to sell this right is one clear thing that sets it apart from a property right, including intellectual property.

Coming back to your question, following the above logic, I’d argue that what would be unethical is if your PI were to intentionally misrepresent who created the data. But if they state in their grant application that the data was collected by their lab members and students (and/or state the individual names of the discoverers, assuming that’s relevant enough to be included - in a grant application it might not be, but in a formal publication it probably would be), then it seems to me that they are respecting your rights and the rights of the other data collectors, so I don’t see a reason why that should be considered unethical or problematic.

A famous case in which the rights of the creator of a very important piece of experimental data to be identified appear not to have been honored is the story of Photo 51. Whether the photo was actually significant enough to suggest that Rosalind Franklin was robbed of a Nobel prize, is a separate and, from what I’ve read on the topic, much more controversial question that I don’t have a firm opinion on. But, Nobel prizes aside, credit for the photo to Franklin and to her student Raymond Gosling (who took the photo while working under her supervision) should in any case have been given in the initial publications announcing the double helix structure of DNA, and from what I understand, it wasn’t.

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