I'm currently a master's student in statistics and data science in the US. I've been doing academic research for about a year and am planning to apply for a PhD at the end of next year. Recently, I joined a research group led by a prominent professor from my university.

The project is unpaid, and we are required to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) before starting. This will be my first time signing an NDA, and while I understand the importance of protecting intellectual property, it feels somewhat contrary to the principle of spreading knowledge. The professor mentioned that the NDA would mean any material produced during this project would belong to the university, and individual students would not be credited.

This project is relatively short, lasting only a few months. Despite the potential downside of not being able to publish a paper, I believe the opportunity to learn from a prominent faculty member outweights this concern. Therefore, I am leaning towards signing the NDA.

I have two main questions:

  1. Are NDAs common practice in academic research?
  2. How should I approach situations in the future where project credits matter, especially when I am doing my PhD program?

If you are not bound by an NDA and are able to share, any advice or insights would be greatly appreciated.

  • 26
    Forget about what's normal-- What exactly are you getting out of this exercise?
    – Anonymous
    Commented May 25 at 20:37
  • 13
    An NDA is about protecting commercial interest. This sounds much more like an attempt to cut off potential co-authors from future papers, which is not only unethical but also entirely uncommon.
    – xLeitix
    Commented May 26 at 9:13
  • 12
    "The professor mentioned that the NDA would mean any material produced during this project would belong to the university, and individual students would not be credited.". Neither of these seem to require (or even follow from) an NDA. In many (most?) countries being employed, even for minimal pay, is sufficient for the former and absolute standard. The latter is just a big why would they do that?!? - the point of an NDA is to protect valuable information (in a commercial or similar sense), withholding attribution especially in an academic context is the exact opposite of that. Commented May 26 at 9:21
  • 10
    This sounds so shady that I have to ask: was this communicated in English, and was the concept really referred to as NDA? Otherwise: it's pretty standard that Universities keep the right to use whatever is invented/developed/etc. at their premises, you usually accept this when you enroll as a student, or sign the contract to become an employee. But that's absolutely not about the removal of your name from your work, and it's often explicitly written on the same IPR page that the right to publish always remains with the inventor.
    – tevemadar
    Commented May 26 at 11:57
  • 3
    @Anonymous, as Stephan pointed out, I am trying to gain 1) experience and 2) a RL for my PhD application, based on the status of the faculty. However, after reading Bryan's and others' answers, I doubt I would be getting much experience or a strong letter. I do have other collaboration opportunities that could result in publications, but I was hoping to do more during the summer. Given the short amount of time before applying for a PhD, these seem like a better option.
    – Danny Wen
    Commented May 26 at 13:10

5 Answers 5


The professor mentioned that the NDA would mean any material produced during this project would belong to the university, and individual students would not be credited.

The project is unpaid

RUN RUN RUN. This is not normal and absolutely ridiculous. Universities create knowledge for the public; you may be under NDA when working with an industry partner, but they must pay you well for it. Here you're not being paid, not allowed to take credit, you're getting nothing except the privilege of being abused.

It's normal for the university to retain IP rights to things you work on there, but definitely not to have an NDA like this. It's definitely against academic ethics to restrict credit this way.

  • In the situation described. I doubt that the NDA is valid. For an NDA to be valid, there needs to be consideration. No money, No paper/credit. Sounds more like exploitation than a real contract to me.
    – Questor
    Commented May 29 at 0:04
  • @Questor It's exploitative whether or not it would hold up to legal scrutiny, yes. This is not a person to trust.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented May 29 at 0:07
  • I absolutely agree here. It sounds like a highly exploitative situation. You deserve better. Commented May 29 at 10:31

"Unpaid" + "a few months" + "NDA" = not good. Any two of these would be defensible: an unpaid gig for two weeks under an NDA to possibly build goodwill could be something to look at. But work for multiple months without getting paid and without being able to talk about it? No, don't do it.

Data scientists are very much sought after. You almost certainly have other, and better, opportunities that don't tick all three boxes.

Picture yourself after this internship. You apply for your next job, or actually your Ph.D. You have a period working for professor X on your resume. This is precisely what people will be asking about in your interview. "What did you do with professor X?" "We roughly did Y and Z, but I can't tell you more, because of an NDA." "Ah. Did a publication come out of it?" "It's in the works, but I don't get credit or authorship." Honestly, if I was your interviewer, I would have a very hard time determining whether you are honest - as Bryan notes, this is so far outside academic norms that it is just a huge red flag - or whether you are bullshitting me and actually didn't do anything.

So this "opportunity" can actually work against you in your Ph.D. application.

I believe the opportunity to learn from a prominent faculty member outweights this concern

Prominent people are often very busy, so how much you would actually learn from the PI may be limited. You may be mostly working with a Ph.D. student, or possibly a postdoc. Look carefully at how large their working group is before you give this argument a lot of weight.

Also, to be honest, presenting you with this option does not sound like this faculty member has your best interests as a budding academic at heart, per what I wrote above. Did they discuss how this internship would help your Ph.D. going forward? A internship can help you in different ways:

  1. Learning tools and methodologies - which sounds like what you want to get out of this, and this is important, but you won't be able to talk about details
  2. Publications - because any publication looks very good on your CV, and apparently there won't be any chance of that
  3. Connections and introductions - prominent academics can help you network, but will this PI be willing to introduce you to other people if they presented you with this option in the first place?
  4. Money - because knowledge is good, but it won't pay your rent

In the present case, it sounds like the only thing you may get out of this is point 1, and per the busyness of famous people, you might get less of that than you would like.

This does not look like a good opportunity.


I agree with previous answers that this kind of NDA is uncommon and very restrictive.

In order to add additional points of view, I would consider:

  • Seeking advice from a legal expert or the university's legal department to better understand the implications and negotiate the terms of the NDA.
  • In case she/he is a Nobel prize like researcher or similar
    • Assessing whether the mentorship and learning opportunities from the prominent professor might outweigh the lack of formal credit.
    • Considering how this project might influence future collaborations and networking opportunities within and outside the academic community.

Otherwise I would look for other projects without looking backwards.

  • 5
    Regarding the Nobel prize thing: I doubt that very famous researchers are particularly likely (compared to other researchers) to provide great mentorship or learning opportunities - if only because they are likely to be very busy. One might indeed benefit from their network or from having their big name on one's CV. But then again, the question is whether this really works out under the conditions of such a weird NDA. Apart from that, I'm apprehensive of the idea that one should accept unethical practices of famous people just because one might be able to benefit from their name or network. Commented May 26 at 11:54

An NDA between a student and their university is very uncommon, with most contingencies that may arise generally already covered by existing IP policy at a university.

There are other situations, though, where NDAs are more common -- for example, between researchers and private corporate sponsors of that research. It also comes up with my design students for corporate sponsored projects. NDAs may or may not address ownership of any IP developed under a project.

When a design project in my class requires an NDA, our univ. counsel eyes it over just to make sure nobody is trying to take advantage, but I clearly explain to the students that this is a courtesy, that counsel does not represent them, and that if they feel funny about signing, they should select a project that doesn't require an NDA.

Since the university is asking for this, if you feel funny about it, I suggest having private counsel look it over, or at the very least, asking if university counsel can explain the agreement to you as a courtesy (again, with the reminder that such counsel does not represent you). If you remain uncomfortable, try to work with your mentor to work on an alternative.

You should, at the very least, COMPLETELY UNDERSTAND who the agreement will be with. I have a feeling that it might be between you and the individual professor, who might be trying an end run around standard school IP policies.


I am a bit confused by your explanation of the situation on a couple points.

  • Usually when I'm consulting, an NDA is a separate contract from the IP Assignment Agreement. They are about different things.
  • Secondly, if you are hired as staff (ie paid on a W2) or as an "independent contractor" (ie paid on 1099), or not being paid at all, that could affect who retains the IP.
  • An NDA could be appropriate, for example, if you are working with embargoed or sensitive data - there could be, for example, a third party that requires your professor to get an NDA before they can share the data with grad students.
    • In this case, I would be very concerned if the prof is inappropriately farming work out from industry to grad students, for example. You need to make sure you are compensated fairly and not being used for unpaid labor.
  • The first point of this answer is probably the biggest deal why this 'NDA' probably shouldn't be signed - Things like who is credited don't belong into a typical NDA in the first place and I wouldn't want to know what other surprises this 'NDA' has in store. I've heard too often about NDAs with more unrelated things hidden in them (which likely is valid - falsa demonstratio non nocet) - Don't sign an NDA (or anything really) based on what the professor tells you about it.
    – LW001
    Commented Jun 2 at 23:45

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