Week 4. Resource sharing, collaboration, and intellectual property

Scientific research is often highly technical and specialized, so particular laboratories and individuals may have unique skills, abilities or resources. Hence, it is often effective to establish collaborations among laboratories to bring a variety of approaches to bear on a question. How can collaborations be established and conducted to provide the greatest benefits to the laboratories and to provide the most rapid development and distribution of scientific insights? 

In addition, science is a communal activity and progress occurs as experiments are replicated and ideas become accepted. One aspect of laboratory science is the generation of resources - data bases, sequence data, antibodies, chemicals, cell lines, and other tools. How and when should these resources be shared? 

Collaborations and resource sharing have a major feature in common: a resource leaves the laboratory which generated it. However, a collaboration includes many additional features. The two major distinctions are that a collaboration is reciprocal, and that a collaboration involves the combining of intellectual resources of the two laboratories in a mutual endeavor. Intrinsic reciprocity and intellectual involvement in a collaboration lead to the major considerations in thinking about how a collaboration might be organized. 

Secrecy is viewed as antithetical to the academic scientific enterprise. Can an observation or interpretation be “scientific” if it is not made public, or if the methods used to make an observation are kept secret? Two additional attitudes opposing secrecy are also common in the scientific community: that scientific knowledge is a common resource and should be equally available to all individuals and that progress in the collective scientific enterprise is facilitated by rapid and full dissemination of results. 

However, there are also reasons for allowing some secrecy of your own work. It is accepted that a scientist will actively avoid telling others about data or ideas in some situations. Confidentiality is often viewed as appropriate when an idea has been formulated but not yet tested. Even when the initial “preliminary” results are obtained, some degree of confidentiality is usually seen as appropriate. It can be argued that the results might be confusing or incorrect, or that the individual scientist deserves some quiet and privacy to finish up a project. It is also accepted that a scientist may keep secret the results of another person’s work, under similar circumstances. 

Resource Sharing

  • Is there an obligation to distribute resources?
  • Is the obligation greater if they are required to replicate results which you have published?
  • When should they be distributed (i.e. before or after publication)?
  • To whom should they be distributed (your friends, your enemies, people in your lab)?
  • Who should decide when and with whom to share (the tech who made the cell line, the student using it for thesis research, a collaborator, the principal investigator)?
  • Can a funding source dictate a requirement for sharing or not (e.g. a company, the NIH)?
  • What obligations can be placed on sharing? (e.g. “Only if you do not do the following experiments...”, or “Only if you put the following names on any paper...”)?
  • What if the resource is limited or costly?
  • How can sharing be reconciled with commercial concerns (e.g. patenting)


  • How is credit apportioned for the common results?
  • How is responsibility assigned for the published work?
  • How is “reciprocity” defined and evaluated?
  • What limits are placed on the collaboration (the scope of the work included, the freedom of each lab to independently pursue results from the collaboration, the time at which the collaboration ends)?
  • How are tensions in the collaboration presented and resolved?

Intellectual Property


  • Who owns the data? (See the link under Readings for the Washington University policies on Intellectual Property)
  • When can you keep your own ideas or results confidential?
  • At what point is a scientist “required” to fully describe data?
  • Is it appropriate to keep results secret from coworkers in the laboratory?
  • In collaborations, when can you keep your own results secret?
  • What if commercial interests (i.e. patents, trade secrets) conflict with scientific openness?
  • Does the source of funding for research affect the confidentiality of your results?
  • When is it appropriate to keep results obtained by your coworkers secret?
  • Who should decide which results are confidential, and which should be discussed?
  • What expectations for confidentiality can a scientist expect from others in the laboratory?
  • When are you free to discuss results obtained in other labs?
  • Does it matter how you learn about the results (private lab meeting, open seminar, in a bar)?
  • Can confidentiality be negotiated?

Sample Scenarios

1. Resource Sharing and Collaborations
Authors: Coky Nguyen and Stephanie Loranger (former DBBS students)

    Part I:

    Dr. Ewe is an up and coming new faculty member at New Maven University with only one graduate student in the lab, Sally Mustang. Dr. Ewe and Sally have decided to enter the field of apoptosis and embark on a project to make a conditional knockout murine model of a very downstream apoptosis factor. After two years of hard work and screening 2760 embryonic stem cells, Sally had the correct construct in the proper orientation. However, in the meantime, Dr. Ewe decides to collaborate with Dr. Know, a researcher at Harper Medical School, who is a major player in the field of apoptosis. Dr. Know and Dr. Ewe are completely stoked about Sally’s mouse, “yellow spots”, which is a powerful epigenetic tool when bred with other transgenic mice.

    Simultaneously, Dr. know has a long history of collaborating with Dr. honeydew down the hallway. For their long collaboration, the yellow spot mouse is godsend. Dr. Know is in charge of the manuscript and with Dr. Honeydew’s advice, has decided to not include Dr. Ewe or Sally on this paper for fear of having too many authors. As an aside, Dr. Honeydew is a Nature editor, so Dr. Know feels as though he would benefit more from leveraging his collaboration with Dr. Honeydew over that of Dr. Ewe.

    Drs. Honeydew and Dr. Know go on to publish a mindboggling Nature paper with the yellow spotted mouse, acknowledging Dr. Ewe and Sally in endnotation for their reagent contribution.
    1. What can Sally do now for her thesis project since her mouse has been published? Should she fight to have her name put onto the publication retrospectively (i.e. take it to the editorship?)
    2. Should Dr. Ewe, as Sally’s mentor, have freely given away the mouse, keeping in mind that neither of them knew the potential implications of the yellow mouse when the collaboration began?
    3. Is it ethical for Dr. Know to treat Dr. Ewe and Sally as reagent sources more so than collaborators, since Sally and Dr. Ewe really did not make a tremendous intellectual contribution to the nature article?
    4. Is it ethical to carry on more than one collaboration for Dr. Know’s laboratory, even though there are 20 postdocs with 20 different projects? Dr. Know has Merck grant money, Howard Hughes grants, as well as NIH R01 funding. Are there conflicts of interest from the funding the lab receives as well?

    Part II:

    The impact of the yellow spotted mouse on the field of apoptosis is akin to that of the RAG 2-/- mouse to the field of immunology in the late 1980s, early 1990s; i.e. HUGE. Everyone is clamoring for the mouse, from academics to industrial scientists.
    1. Who gets to give the mouse away here? There were no papers of limitation files or signed beforehand.
    2. Sally and Dr. Ewe want to salvage her hard work and have decided to pursue another avenue using the spotted yellow mouse. Therefore, Dr. Ewe will not be giving the mouse out anytime soon, and wishes to counsel Drs. Know and Honeydew not to give it out, either. Is this ethical since the work has been published?
    3. Dr. Ewe has had a phenomenal year, because in the end, Sally’s work is also gargantuan. The lab receives NIH funding, HHMI funding, and Pfizer funding. The question now becomes, which funding agency may determine the ownership of the yellow spotted mouse as well as future transgenic mice? Pfizer would like to hold onto the mouse for their apoptosis studies. NIH guidelines as well as journal guidelines point to “public domain”. HHMI tend to favor deposition at Jackson Laboratories. For example: what is Son of Yellow Spots (SYS) mouse is made next year? How much say can any funding agency have over the fate of resource sharing here?

2. Struggle over Data
by Caroline Whitbeck, Ph.D. (from onlineethics.org)

    Grady is a graduate student in the department that you chair. Grady has had a research assistantship with Professor Junior and planned to use the research data from that project as the basis for her thesis. Professor Junior, who is untenured, has now come into conflict with Professor Power, a senior member of the department. The conflict has affected the working environment for some of the graduate students in the department, including Grady, and consequently the relationship between Grady and Professor Junior has become strained. Grady has asked to switch thesis supervisors, now that her experimental work is complete.

    Until now, the department has always allowed students to switch advisors, if another faculty member was willing to take them on, and another senior faculty member, Professor New, agrees to take Grady on. Grady is fearful that Professor Junior will not let her have the primary data for her thesis, some of which is in a form that cannot readily be copied in a way that preserves all the information. Professor New advises Grady to take from Professor Junior's lab everything she needs to finish her thesis.

    When Professor Junior discovers that the data is missing she comes to your office demanding the data, and points out that as PI for the grant under which the data collection was funded, she has the responsibility for it in the eyes of the funding agency.

    What do you do and how do you go about it?



Science 286:2430, 1999. New NIH Rules Promote Greater Sharing of Tools and Materials.

Science 277:24-25, 1997. The Mouse that Prompted a Roar.

Science 287:567, 2000. NIH Cuts Deal on the use of OncoMouse.

Science 274:911, 1996. Battle ends in $21 million settlement.

Washington University Policy on Intellectual Property

Dr. Catalona's response to Public Statements Posted by Washington University Regarding His Dispute with WU Over Who Has Jurisdiction of Prostate Tissue and Blood Samples

NIH data-sharing policy

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