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Ask the Ethicist

Editor's Note: Please send ethical questions for Jordan Moiers or comments to: ethics@aps.org, or by mail to Jordan Moiers, c/o APS News, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740. Contributors should identify themselves, but their names and addresses will be held strictly confidential unless they request otherwise. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of either the APS or APS News.

In the past year, a colleague posed the following ethical question to me. We discussed it at length but never felt that we reached a satisfactory conclusion. Perhaps you can help.

When a student takes a course and part of the requirements for the course is to write a paper, I think that most people would agree that the paper written by the student for the course belongs to the student. If a faculty member wanted to keep the paper or use it for some purpose, they would need to obtain the student's permission.

When research is supported by a grant from the federal government or a foundation to an institution, it is typical for the institution to have rights to the results from the work. Typically a faculty member will acknowledge funding for the project but the rights to the work will remain with the faculty member (unless the foundation has specifically stated that they own the work).

So, the conundrum arises when a student performs research FOR CREDIT, not for pay, and writes a paper for the course that he or she got credit for, to whom does the paper belong? In one sense, it belongs to the student, who paid for the course he or she enrolled in and completed. In another sense, if any of the research was funded by a grant, it belongs to the faculty member in whose lab the results were obtained, even if the student was not paid from the grant to do the research. A corollary to the question posed above is, who has the rights to the results obtained by the student? That is, could the student publish the results without the permission of the faculty member or could the faculty member publish the results without the permission of the student?

Thanks, N

Jordan Moiers replies:


Dear N,

Intellectual property policies vary from university to university. Most schools consider the results of a student's academic efforts to be the property of the student, and any results of work paid for by the university to be university property. (Although I've read a few intellectual property policy statements that are framed so broadly that a university could claim copyrights to anything produced with the aid of university resources such as laboratory equipment, buildings, furniture, and blackboards. This suggests a love poem penned in a dormitory stairway is potentially university property, although I imagine few universities are going to attempt to enforce their policies that strictly.)

Students buy their educations from universities, and they should own the rights to the work they produce. The academic credit a student earns is not payment to the student because the student pays for the credit. A student who performs research for credit deserves to share in the rights to the resulting paper. An unpaid student becomes part of the research collaboration and should be included as a full-fledged coauthor on published works, and has the same rights and obligations as every other coauthor. The student also could potentially own a portion of any patent rights associated with the research.

As I see it, you have three, basic options: pay the student in addition to giving credit, have them sign over all rights in advance, or be prepared to share rights to publications and patents with them. It's probably worth talking to your university's lawyers, whichever option you choose.

Help on Ethics Needed

The recent APS Task Force on Professional Ethics recommended that APS work with physics departments to improve education on ethical issues that affect the physics community.

If you have experience or interest in developing materials to help students understand and confront such issues and would be willing to help with this task, please contact Ken Cole, Special Assistant to the Executive Officer, at cole@aps.org.


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