Who owns your thesis data? We do, says one university, prompting retraction

The University of Pavia, Yamada via Flickr

Here’s a story that’s likely to strike a sour chord with graduate students. 

A researcher in Italy has lost his 2020 paper, based on work he conducted for his doctoral thesis, after the university claimed that he didn’t have the right to publish the data. 

The paper, “Musical practice and BDNF plasma levels as a potential marker of synaptic plasticity: an instrument of rehabilitative processes,” was written by Alessandro Minutillo, now of the Department of Pathophysiology and Transplantation at the University of Milan and appeared in Neurological Sciences. His two co-authors included Massimo Carlo Mauri, a prominent psychiatrist at the Department of Neurosciences and Mental Health, Fondazione IRCCS Ca’ Granda Ospedale Maggiore Policlinico, also in Milan. 

The study, which Minutillo conducted while a medical student at the University of Pavia, was based on data from 48 men and women, of whom 21 were musicians and 27 were non-musicians. (In case you’re wondering: “To be defined as a “musician,” the practice of any musical instrument or voice was required for at least 3 h a week. This practice had to be stable and continued for at least 5 years and the subject had to have been achieved a musical degree.”)

Per the authors: 

The study protocol was approved by the local Ethics Committee. An informed consent was obtained from each participant and the research was conducted according to the principles of the Helsinki Declaration.

But apparently, the savage breasts at the University of Milan weren’t so soothed by the article. According to the retraction notice

The authors retracted this article, taken from the dissertation (graduation thesis) of co-author Alessandro Minutillo, as they had not been authorized to publish the data. The Department of Brain and Behavioural Sciences of the University of Pavia have confirmed that they are the rightful owner of the data as reported in this article. All authors agree with this retraction.

Well, not quite. Minutillo told us that: 

Actually I did not agree with their claims, but I was forced to retract. … I think that the data of my thesis belongs to me by definition, even if I currently work into another institution. [The University of Pavia] had claimed that I was not authorized to publish the data of my thesis… I retracted only for fear of retaliation, since I am currently a Psychiatry resident at the University of Milano and the professors of both Institutions have pushed for my retraction: I still cannot fully grasp the reasons for this. 

The episode should serve as a cautionary tale for researchers about who owns the data they’ve collected while working at an institution. In many, if not most cases, the answer is: someone else. However, as this blog post notes, universities in the United States, at least, may feel they have a stronger legal hand than they in fact do. 

Nicholas Steneck, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, who has studied research practices, told us: 

Ownership generally depends on institutional and granting agency policy.  This is data collected for a thesis.  Presumably the student in question was funded in some way.  That funding or institutional policy about the ownership of thesis data would be the first place to check to see who owns the data.  If all are agreed that the institution owned the data, the publishing without permission would be a problem, particularly if the institutional policy said researchers must get clearance before they publish.  It has not been my experience that US institutions are very possessive of research data, except when the intellectual property may be of value.  This is why many universities strongly suggest or require that researchers check with their intellectual policy office (tech transfer) before publishing, a step that protects both the research and the institution.  Researchers sometimes do not understand that if they publish too soon and in the wrong ways they could lose control of their IP.  If the research in question in this article were of any value, then the university might have wanted to protect it.  …

 As universities have become more dependent on IP revenues, protecting research data has become more important.  The courts weigh in when there is a dispute about ownership.

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4 thoughts on “Who owns your thesis data? We do, says one university, prompting retraction”

  1. It doesn’t sound like this is all there is to it. I doubt universities are in the habit of stalking their alumni and checking if they published any previous data. Is there a former supervisor or colleague who held a grudge over this? Someone who would know that this data was collected at Pavia? Is this why they didn’t list an affiliation with Pavia in this paper?

    1. I think you are on the right track.

      If he did this research at Pavia, you’d think someone at Pavia would also be a co-author… when they were left off and other co-authors at his current institution were added (perhaps appropriately), that may have generated some hard feelings.

      The statements “We recruited 48 healthy subjects of equal age and sex,” and “The study protocol was approved by the local Ethics Committee,” for example imply that these subjects were recruited at, and the protocol approved by, the University of Milan, which appears to be inaccurate.

  2. This article also confuses ownership, with the right to use for publication. Most universities state clearly that students and staff normally have the right to publish findings from the data, even if the data belongs to the university. The usual complication is if the data were funded through the supervisor’s research grants.

  3. “Most universities state clearly that students and staff normally have the right to publish findings from the data, even if the data belongs to the university. ” Yes; in many cases, they go further than that, and say that students are _required_ to publish a number of papers based on their thesis work. Strange, indeed.

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