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2. Data Ownership and Access to Data

Ownership and access are critical issues in the sharing of research data. In the United States, ownership of research data is usually under the regulation of laws as well as governmental and institutional policies. In particular, if a research project generates results that have economic values, ownership of the research data might be subject to intellectual property laws.


2.1 Intellectual property: copy rights, trade secrets, and patents

In the academic setting, intellectual property often takes three forms: copyright, trade secrets, and patents (Geller 2010). The U.S. laws also protect trademark as a form of intellectual property, but trademark applies less frequently to academic research. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) defines copyright as “a form of protection provided by U.S. law to the authors of ‘original works of authorship’ fixed in any tangible medium of expression” (USPTO, 2016). In the context of scientific and engineering research, copyright states the authors’ rights on “written or artistic works” (Geller 2010). For example, authors of journal articles maintain copyright over the published articles, unless they formally transfer this right to the publisher. According to the Copyright Act, “the copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, distribute, publicly perform, and publicly display the work” (USPTO, 2016). Note that this statement implies a distinction between ownership and access. For example, the copyright owner of a research publication can give others access to her work while retaining her copyright. The distinction between ownership and access provides an important foundation for the sharing of copyrighted work. While copyrighted work is often publicized, trade secret “relates to information that is kept secret from the public” (Geller 2010). In order to count as a trade secret and receive legal protection, the information “must be used in business, and give an opportunity to obtain an economic advantage over competitors who do not know or use it” (USPTO, 2017). The legal definition of a trade secret prohibits sharing outside the scope agreed by its owner, thus research findings designated as trade secrets are not allowed for public dissemination. Another popular form of intellectual property—perhaps the most common one for academic research—is patent. A patent “is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office” (USPTO, 2015). Patent owners have to publicly disclose the invention in order to receive legal protection for a period of time (usually 20 years).

Intellectual property provides another compelling reason for comprehensively documenting the research process. Documentation of experiments, group discussions, and research ideas provides important evidence for identifying the “discoverer”—and intellectual property owner—of research findings. Researchers should also take care not to violate others’ intellectual property rights. When using existing data in research, one has to check with the owner of the data and follow proper terms of permitted use. In many cases, ownership of research data belongs to the university that employ the researchers or the company that funds the research. It is a good practice to negotiate and produce a written agreement on the intellectual property before starting a research project. Academic institutions often have institutional policies regarding the distribution and handling of intellectual property. For example, Penn State University Policy IP01 specifies the ownership and management of intellectual property generated by Penn State members.