07 March 2014

Who owns data?

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion in the online science community about the data-sharing policies of PLOS journals, including PLOS ONE. I’ll link to DrugMonkey’s discussion here, as it was one of the first comments, and has one of the liveliest comment threads.

One reason this is contentious is because different scientists have different answers to the question, “Who owns research data?”

One view is that data is the property of the individual researchers, who, as owners, are allowed to use data in whatever way they see fit. (Whether students or lab leaders have greater claim to that data is another issue I’ll put aside for now.)

Others tend to view data as being in the public domain. Research, the argument goes, is paid for by government funding agencies, and taxpayers should have free and unfettered access to anything generated by tax dollars. (That not all is tax supported is another issue I’ll put aside for now.)

For many researchers, both of these views are wrong.

I checked my university’s Handbook of Operating Procedures on intellectual property. It clearly states that research data are considered intellectual property, and that we follow University of Texas System rules about intellectual property (“plain English” version here), which includes research data (section 3). And those rules are crystal clear:

I do not own research data I generate. Neither do the funding agencies.

The University of Texas system Board of Regents (right) own research data I generate.

Things get muddier because “scholarly works” – presumably journal article and books and papers – are owned by the authors.

While the Regents own the data in principle, it seems individual researchers are left to their own devices in practice. I doubt that the Regents care about how researchers choose to share data (or not), unless... it becomes possible to make money from data sets. It’s quite clear that the main aim of this policy is to allow the UT System to profit financially from inventions and patents. If there is money to be made from university research, the UT System wants to be one of the ones making it.

The University of Texas System is not small potatoes, but I have no idea if similar policies exist in other institutions. I’d be interested to hear from people in the comments about their university’s intellectual property rules.

Additional, 10 March 2014: PLOS has clarified its policy.

External links

PLOS’ New Data Policy: Public Access to Data
Data Access for the Open Access Literature: PLOS’s Data Policy
Update on PLOS data policy

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