Intel property in academia

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Intel property in academia

Postby Jean » Tue Mar 08, 2005 1:47 pm


I am a finishing grad student in pathogenesis, and I find the discussion about ideas very relevant!

My question: I feel that my PI has taken one of my major hypotheses, years in development, and is passing it off as his own - without even mentioning my name. I have discussed this hypothesis with him a number of times over years, and I am the only one in the lab who has published any data establishing the hypothesis.

I went to grad school because I wanted to pursue my own intellectual ideas. I looked for a new lab, young well-funded PI, hot field (within microbiology), and I found it. The lab has its problems - favoritism being the worst - but I've managed to carve out my own space. My publication record when I grad will be 2-3 1st author, I hope.

I never believed the view that one's intellectual ideas/property belong to the PI .. I came from a physical science background, and my hypothesis is about microbial evolution. I had always assumed that (s)he who creates it, gets credit for it. Period.

I've pretty much resolved just to graduate and forget it, and look for a postdoc that allows for real thinking with real credit to the thinker. Where, and how, do I find a postdoc that can give me that??!!?

Is there any recourse for discussing this with my PI (I did try, in a convoluted way, but he stonewalled. Then he criticised my 'scientific thinking' and told me what a problem child I am.)

Thanks for any perspective,


Intel property in academia

Postby Paul » Tue Mar 08, 2005 2:30 pm

Hi Jean,

As you might have read on the other thread, I have similar problems.

My sister is an intellectual property lawyer with one of the biggest firms in Europe so I was able to discuss it over with her. Unfortunately, the law in most countries states that our ideas during our training/employment at that institute belong to the institute. Major breakthroughs that have commercial potential in academia are usually funnelled through the legal offices these days, often before being published. I find it a really interesting irony that PI's see the ideas (and labors) of grad students and post-docs as being their own and yet are allowed to transport those ideas (and the money) if they move between institutions. I guess it relates to the fact that most funding is given to the individual, thereby making that money transferable...and yet, the intellectual property from that funding would be owned by the instititute where the discovery was made? Also, what about the situation whereby a post-doc is awarded their own fellowship? Shouldn't those ideas be entirely independent from the PI who's lab the work is performed in?

My sisters advice to me, and my advice to you therefore, is to forget the idea but leave in the knowledge that you, not the PI, has been coming up with the fundable, cutting edge ideas. In the long run, I'd rather leave with my ideas and no "starter" project than be in his shoes, with a project but few ideas for the future.

Oh, and I'd also advise storing away your ideas instead of talking about them!

Intel property in academia

Postby Chris Buntel » Tue Mar 08, 2005 7:13 pm


Most universities and companies have their people assign any rights in IP to the institution. You could check the stack of papers that you likely signed when you enrolled, or check with your university's tech transfer office.

That's the answer to "who owns it?". Some PIs are good about attributing ideas to all contributors, others are not so good. In looking at postdoc opportunities, you might ask lab members about if this problem happens to them.

Chris Buntel.
Chris Buntel
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Intel property in academia

Postby Read » Wed Mar 09, 2005 2:43 am

I think this is a common occurence between grad students and PIs. In general, most PIs in life sciences expect to take your graduate work/ideas/projects and continue to work on them. This is not necessarily a bad thing, provided that you are properly credited in publications and that your PI writes glowing rec letters crediting you for your work.

Since you are continuing on to postdoc, you should probably be planning some sort of field shift, in which case you should be leaving behind your graduate work and moving on to new interests anyway. Just don't share any of your new ideas for new directions with your PI if you want to save them for postdoc.

If you get proper credit in print and letters, do NOT antagonize your PI by pressing the issue further. Your graduate PI has immense power to ruin your career with bad letters, stonewalling papers, etc. Try to view this in the positive - you have done pioneering work that your old lab will pursue for years to come, proving you are a talented scientist.

When I was a student I pioneered a new direction in lab and the PI got 2 separate R01s and some nice papers out of my work alone - it was very hard to leave my work and ideas behind for my PI to take credit for and for other people to take over, but it has worked out well. My PI is supportive of my career in my new area. Plus, I have ongoing interactions with people currently working on my old stuff in which we share ideas/data/etc, which is fun and rewarding since it's led to a new paper that otherwise would not have happened.

Things change when you're a postdoc though ....


Intel property in academia

Postby Ellen » Wed Mar 09, 2005 9:52 am

I have a similar problem in knowing what belongs to who. I wrote a comprehensive introduction to my PhD subject area for my thesis and now I have finshed and left that institution I want to write it up as a review paper. I don't feel that I need to put my PhD supervisors on the paper as they only reviewed a previous draft of the manuscript (and you don't usually put reviewers down as authors), but I don't want to offend them either and I would never have written the review without the PhD studentship and the PI's funding. As I had the idea to do it while at that institution, do I have a duty to include them on the paper?

In response to the other comments on ths subject, it seems a great pity that there is not a standard for intellectual property that protects the "thinker" and the "doer," not just the "money holder." When you are in a good team, it has a good complement of all these people. In my experience it has always been the PI who has set the tone for the lab and the sharing of work. Those PIs with ideas don't feel the need to steal someone elses and don't condone anyone else doing it either. They are usually the ones that try to support the careers of their students. They see their success reflected by the good scientists they produce. Unfortunately its not easy to know these things in advance of taking a job and sometimes the interest in the subject area can outway any negative gossip you may have heard about a lab - the "it won't happen to me syndrome," but it will.



Intel property in academia

Postby Jeanne » Wed Mar 09, 2005 9:03 pm

Thanks. I was quite fed up but now am over it. I may be in the minority on this, but I approach graduate school not as training but as a significant contribution to scientific knowledge, just like any other scientific endeavour (independent of the positions/titles/degrees of its practitioners.) After all, didn't John Nash come up with game theory when he was a grad student? (I saw the movie.)

On the career path, what matters is the postdoc, I know. But I am past 30, and the research I am doing in grad school is a scientific/intellectual end in itself, not just the means to some (career-oriented) end.

As for IP, I also don't believe in the ownership of ideas. Shakepeare didn't write the original version of Hamlet, it was several hundred years old by his time. I do believe in giving proper credit for the original authors of an idea, however. And that is where my PI is deficient. I hope it works out the way it has for some of you, with ongoing collaborations!

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