Friday, January 7, 2011

Who Really Owns or Who Should Own Research Data?

The Bayh-Dole Act, an act established in 1980 by Sens. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) and Bob Dole (R-Kan.), deals with intellectual property occurring from research. Basically, the federal act gives universities the control over intellectual property that results from federal funds. As a federally funded researcher working within a university, it is important to understand and abide by that federal law, I guess!

After a couple readings of the law it seems to suggest that the university can retain the rights to any intellectual property resulting from research that is conducted as part of that university. So…I studied other writings on the law hoping to clear up any misgivings about this issue, and the result -- I have not a clue what this means in the real world of conducting research as it relates to the true ownership of data and other research funded products!

I do understand that if a federally-funded researcher, working in a university, discovered a pill that could finally cure, say… hemorrhoids, that researcher couldn’t setup a business selling this product without a financial cut going back to the university. It appears, before the Bayh-Dole Act, the federal government would get all of the rights and money to any new research discoveries. As the result of the Bayh-Dole Federal Act, the university would get some of the financial benefits from the new hemorrhoid pill’s cure. Can you guess how much money could be made by curing all these pains in the asses?!

What remains unclear is the issue I am most interested in – who really owns data and other products resulting from funded research that may not have any foreseeable market value?   

Typical Research Study Scenario

Let’s say I was awarded a five year federally-funded grant to study technology use habits of college students. I budget for the grant to pay part of my salary, health benefits, travel, and some supplies I need to carryout this study (e.g., new laptop computer, printer, scanner, video recorder for interviews, and office supplies).  Also as part of that budget I buy 40 laptop computers and 40 smart phones. I plan to study the technology use differences between African American and Caucasian students.  I will recruit 80 total student volunteers, 40 African Americans (20 with laptops and 20 with smart phones) and 40 Caucasians (20 with laptops and 20 with smart phones) and follow them using their new technology products for three years. I hypothesize that one racial group of students will have lower rates of usage than the other group.

Now let’s say that three years have past and the study is over. It seems the policy of the university is that all products resulting from grants (in this case, laptops and smart phones) are to be returned to the university. There is a policy that these things become to property of the university. Also, although I can continue using the specifically supplies I brought for my use, such as the laptop, printer, scanner, etc, they are also the property of the university.  That’s the university’s policy.

I go back to the students and say the study has ended and I need the laptops and smart phones back. I present them with a $30 gift card for volunteering and thank them for their work. I’m not sure how, but the study’s products get distributed back into the university’s possession and inventory. Now…what about the data that results from doing research with those students -- who really owns that data?  I bet it is safe to assume the university owns this as well.

Studying some special groups, like Native Americans, should have a different policy

If you’ve reviewed any health and wellness data related to Native Americans, then you know that this groups suffers disproportionately compared to any other group.  For instance, of the top 10 lowest income counties in the US, 7 are located on reservations and the one in Alaska, 93% report being Native American on the 2000 US census.
Top 10:
  1. Buffalo County, South Dakota (82% Native American)
  2. Shannon County, South Dakota (94% Native American)
  3. Starr County, Texas (88% White)
  4. Zieback County, South Dakota (73% Native American)
  5. Todd County, South Dakota (86% Native American)
  6. Sioux County, North Dakota (85% Native American)
  7. Corson County, South Dakota (61% Native American)
  8. Wade Hampton, Alaska (93% Native American)
  9. Maverick County, Texas (71% White)
  10. Apache County, Arizona (77% Native American)

(Note: Thank goodness for Texas! Out of the top 100 poorest counties in the US, 17 are located in Texas, followed by 16 in my home state of Kentucky!)
(Note 2: I was going to use the saying, Don’t Mess whiff Texas, but that saying is trade marked by the Texas Department of Transportation. I purposely misspelled the word “with” hoping to avoid the unauthorized use of the trade mark and subsequently being placed on death row in a Texas prison.) 

Studying the factors associated with why Native Americans have such poor rates of health, and then doing something about that should be a high priority.  Any researcher having the privilege of studying/working with Native Americans must do so with an eye toward complying with federal law, university policies, and what I will suggest is the most significant factor – the Native community’s best interests.

Some policies should be developed with some common decency and a level of morality rather than collecting every nickel and dime that is available to the university. Let’s say a researcher was awarded a small grant to study the attitudes within a specific, large Native family living on a certain reservation. The plan is to visit the family and spend a few hours asking questions and collecting data. As part of the research grant, funds are available to cover the cost of a large feast as a reward to the family for providing information to the researchers.

Leftovers and Research Data

Following the university’s policy, it seems the researchers, after all the information was gathered from the native family, would require that any/all food leftovers be collected and returned promptly to the university!  Can you imagine that!? What type person would have the cojones to follow this policy on their way out of that family’s home? If a computer would have to be returned to the university, what about a half pot of corn soup? What about that data collected during that visit? Who really should owns that data?

At my university the policy states that research records, “as at other research universities, both the research director and the University have rights and responsibilities concerning custody, maintenance, retention, use of and access to original research data.” It continues with, “each faculty research director is responsible for: (a) retaining original research data for a period of three years following completion of the project or publication of the data whichever comes later.” The policy goes on to state that data “are to be retained by the University for a period of at least three years after completion of the research project for which the data were collected.”

If I leave the university or asked to leave as the result of posting this here document, I “may take copies of research data for projects on which [I] have worked. Original data, however, must be retained at [my university] by the research director.”

Reciprocal Partnership

I know there are tribes out west that has a strong relationship with universities and researchers. Any products resulting from research such as computers, data, office supplies, etc. goes back to the tribal community.  The example I used earlier about studying students using smart phones and laptops, if that study was done within one of those strong Native-university partnership communities, those products would go to tribe – not the university. The materials I used as part of that research, my laptop, printer, scanner, would also go to the tribe. That tribe could put those items to use for their own people just as well as a university finding ways to reuse laptops and other supplies. 

It seems a policy requiring products to be returned to Native American communities should apply to any university researching these communities. While the Bayh–Dole Act could remain, there is no moral justification to have a one-way research policy that takes research products from Native communities without returning any products. The reason the Bayh-Dole Act became law was because, during the relationship between the university and the federal government, the university was not directly benefiting from its research. The same can be said of the current research relationship between the university and Native American communities.  

I am very interested in hearing from folks who have Research University-Native American community partnerships where there are collaborative, productive policies. Being able to learn from these existing collaborative policies would be a great way to move toward a meaningful, productive, moral, reciprocal partnerships.

Peace, DAP

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