Editorial: Research data ownership and dissemination: is it too simple to suggest that ‘possession is nine-tenths of the law’?


The expression ‘Possession is nine-tenths of the law’, derived from the Roman law, ‘Uti possidetis, ita possideatis’ (‘as you possess, thus may you possess’), is applicable in many spheres of life. When it comes to ownership of research data, however, the matter is more complex and warrants, in our opinion, careful examination. The issue is clearly a crucial one. As Fishbein (1991) aptly points out, ‘The importance of resolving the ownership issue lies in the fact that whoever owns also controls dissemination, especially the timing of dissemination, publication, and propriety rights… [and] their preservation and destruction’ (p. 129).

There are a number of potential owners of research data, including the researchers, host institution (e.g. university or hospital), funding agent (if any), and journal to which a paper describing the research findings is eventually published. For any given piece of research, ownership can potentially vary over time and be subject to various factors and influences. For example, research teams frequently involve personnel from multiple and disparate institutions. In the current environment, researchers and academics frequently change institutions, according to opportunities, commitments and career trajectories. No longer are professionals limited to particular settings, or even countries, and some will move to new institutions and overseas countries to work on a short-term basis (e.g. visiting scholars) or for the longer term. Students also relocate overseas to pursue their studies. Furthermore, it is not unusual for research projects to be undertaken for various purposes, including for higher degrees, but follow-through to publication commonly remains incomplete. Given these and other factors, issues around data ownership can prove complex, even for the most seasoned and astute scholars and researchers.

Research collaborations require a high degree of integrity, including in relation to all aspects of research data; the integrity of research data is essential for ethical and responsible research conduct and enables others to confirm or refute findings. However, the high mobility of the workforce can present special challenges. For instance, there is not always uniformity in governance issues at state, national and international levels. In addition, to our knowledge, there is limited published information in healthcare journals on ownership of data regarding uncompleted or ongoing research pertaining to a particular study when relocating to another job or country, or situation change such as altered team membership, or student withdrawal from a project.

The ownership of data in many academic settings can be a grey area and, before embarking on any research project, prospective researchers should familiarise themselves with the employing institution's relevant policies. This is just as important as the many other issues for consideration when developing projects, including likely benefits of the research; time required to plan for and conduct the study; interest, preparedness, issues, skills, expertise and experience among colleagues and within affiliated organisations to develop and maintain a diverse and viable team; availability of administrative, financial, infrastructure and practical resources and support (Cleary & Horsfall 2002).

The role of a study's ‘chief’ or ‘lead investigator’ (however termed) warrants special consideration when considering the subject of research ownership. With all projects that receive research ethics approval, a lead investigator, who may for example be faculty staff member or postdoctoral fellow, is identified and will be responsible for the project along with the co-investigators. Irrespective of whether the study is or is not funded, it is often assumed by the lead investigator and research team that the data they collect are their own. However, this is not necessarily the case (Columbia University n.d.). As an employee, the principle, ‘works for hire’, indicates that the institution may own the rights to its employees’ primary research data (Fishbein 1991, p. 129). Even in the case of funded research, the lead investigator may only be viewed as the ‘overseer’ and/or ‘manager’ of the project data, roles that do not automatically confer data ownership. Generally speaking, if the faculty members performed the research, then the data would belong to them (Columbia University n.d.).

Notwithstanding this ownership issue, the key here is signing the copyright transfer agreement regarding the transfer of intellectual property. When a study is published or submitted for review, copyright is allocated to the journal publisher by the lead author unless a previous workplace agreement states otherwise, and assuming that the project was not conducted on behalf of the university (in such circumstances, the university may own the copyright) (Columbia University n.d.). The copyright form that most scientific publishers require authors to complete before an article is published will ask the author to clarify this very issue. In relation to publication, there is a long-standing and cherished tradition in academia by which universities do not ordinarily claim copyright to scholarly articles and publications authored by faculty members (Fishbein 1991). This is closely linked to the notion of sharing and dissemination, a crucial component of the research process. If the research is worth doing, then it is worth disseminating the findings via presentation at conferences and through publishing (Cleary et al. 2007). Indeed, research participants may be very disappointed by a lack of feedback or dissemination of the research data generated by studies in which they participate, as this not only wastes their time but also valuable resources. This is a thorny issue when projects are abandoned, such as when doctoral students withdraw from projects, and can represent an ethical dilemma for supervisors. After all, research participants contribute to research to generate knowledge that can help others, not to simply assist someone to obtain a PhD.

With regard to retention of the raw data (e.g. completed surveys, interview transcripts, etc), academic institutions may claim ownership of research data collected by students and postdoctoral fellows and prohibit any removal of data from the premises upon completion of studies or postdoctoral programs (Columbia University n.d.). However, the researcher retaining copies of data is acceptable after obtaining the necessary permission and would generally be considered to represent sound research practice as long as appropriate safeguards are in place. For reasons unspecified, some employers may be less than collegial in this request. As is the case when a faculty member leaves an institution, the departing staff member too may have to negotiate to retain their grants and data. How this is resolved will depend on the funding agreements, data ownerships rules, and whether the employing institution considers that it owns the rights to the data, among other considerations. Faculty members may, in some cases, be asked to leave copies of the raw data behind. If required to do so, it is important that investigators ensure that copying and storage are in accordance with all relevant ethics committee requirements.

Clear department and faculty guidelines and safeguards are necessary in the area of research data ownership. Junior staff, in particular, may be unaware of proper protocol and etiquette. For example, junior faculty members may not have been part of the original research team for a project, yet believe it is their right to review the data that may be stored in the department, and perhaps even reanalyse it with a view to publishing. This raises additional ethical issues around author integrity and protection of research participants – departments should ensure that data are held securely and stored in ways to ensure that it cannot be accessed by others. Retrospectively analysing others’ data without ethics permission is dubious and requires careful consideration. Fishbein (1991) states that much will depend on the employing institution, but declares that ‘… case law suggests that a faculty member or institutional researcher does not have any legal right to review the data developed by a colleague’ (p. 129).

There are several special situations that underscore the importance of clarifying, at the earliest possible stage of a study, the issue of research ownership. First, research about an aspect of a health service has the potential to reflect poorly on that health service (revealing, for example, delays to admission to inpatient units or, in an attitudinal study, staff dissatisfac-tion with their role). Second, a study funded by a pharmaceutical company about that company's drug may find, for example, that that drug is less effective and has more side effects than a rival company's drug. The health service and sponsoring drug company may not be pleased with potential publication of results from these studies. Ascertaining at the outset who owns the research data, even if ‘unfavourable’, what ‘permissions’ (if any) are required prior to submitting papers for publication and ensuring that the path to publication is not thwarted by the host institution are essential.

The above discussion highlights that the ownership of research data is far from straightforward. The importance of sound data management, protection of one's intellectual property and the integrity of the research (e.g. confidentiality) and adhering to any funding requirements are just some of the considerations. It is recommended that open and frank discussion of data ownership occur up front to prevent acrimonious and problematic relationships with students, faculty and employing institutions. This subject is complex and made even more so in this age of a global relocation and with the potential to have affiliations with multiple organisations. For all research, however, it is helpful to have collaborators who work with integrity, to have contingency plans in place to safeguard the research process, and to facilitate collegial relationships, from the inception of research through to and including the dissemination of findings.

Some rules of thumb regarding research data ownership and disseminating research findings

  • Clarify at the outset, with all relevant stakeholders (e.g. employer, study funder, etc.) who owns the research data generated in a study.
  • Establish what ‘permissions’ are required before research papers can be submitted to scholarly journals.
  • Ascertain if your employer has a policy regarding the handing over of primary research data if you cease to be an employee.
  • If you are planning on leaving your position, ensure that, to the best of your abilities, you have completed your projects and submitted manuscripts beforehand.
  • If resigning, ensure a final ethics report is submitted to prevent others from reanalysing data. In addition, inform the research ethics committee and your employer of likely publications, to prevent complaints further down the track regarding duplicate publication, should papers arising from the study be later authored by others at the institution.
  • With regard to byline affiliations, some institutions have strict stipulations so check with your current employer whether it is permissible to use your previous employee byline.