Administrators and the Responsible Conduct of Research
Collaborative Research:
Written Agreements

When Should Written Agreements Exist?

Collaborations, in an ideal world, would be handled through a handshake and an understanding of each collaborator’s responsibilities. There are many reasons why this is not the best way to manage collaborations. It is best, and absolutely necessary in complicated projects, to set forth each party’s rights and responsibilities in writing. More than likely when rights and responsibilities are discussed, consideration must not only be given to those pertaining to researchers, but also to the rights and responsibilities of their institutions. Written agreements are not just a good idea, but they are often a requirement imposed by employing institutions or external research sponsors.

Unless institutional or research sponsors require otherwise, many researchers operate on the basis of unwritten understandings concerning the following aspects of a collaboration:

Authorship and credit. Where will the results be presented and/or published? Who will be included as authors? What will be the order of co-authors? Who will have the final authority to approve presentations or publications?

Research Accountability. What type of access will members of the collaboration have to each other’s original data and/or notes? How frequently will the members of the collaboration meet to discuss and evaluate their results?

More often than not, written agreements are required when institutional rights and responsibilities are affected. Some of the research-related issues that should be covered in the various types of agreements follow:

Intellectual Property. The concern here would involve rights to patentable inventions discovered in the performance of the research. It might also cover situations in which inventions are jointly owned by the collaborating institutions. Copyright is handled differently than patents primarily because copyright law automatically gives ownership to the creator of the given work. Although copyright ownership can be negotiated, it is more likely that the agreement would include mention of license rights than a transfer of ownership.

Use of Data. Data are traditionally owned by the institution and/or researcher developing or collecting them, and collaborating institutions need to ensure that their researchers have access to these data. Use of data may be limited in certain cases for proprietary reasons (e.g. the data may be included in an invention disclosure that has not yet been incorporated into a patent application). In general, however, collaborating institutions and researchers have an interest in sharing data to ensure success of the project. The sharing of data is essential to the submission of future grant applications and the publication of scholarly work that appropriately recognizes the contributions of the collaborators.

Data Retention and Preservation. Once project information and data are collected, analyzed and reported, it is vital that they be maintained after the project closes. If a project is funded by an external sponsor, it is almost a certainty that data retention will be a requirement of the award. Even if sponsored funding is not involved, data should be retained to permit verification of the research results and the record of inventions and inventorship, as well as to provide background data for future research. Agreements covering data retention may also call for the destruction of materials or the return of materials to the providing party at the end of a project.

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