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Monday, February 18, 2013

Distinguishing research authorship and ownership rights


Distinguishing authorship

I REFER to the letter “Quality time supervising post-graduates” (The Star, Feb 16 - attached below) where the writer said: “The supervisor obtains grants for his research and allows you to use the money to do your research. There is no reason why he should not claim first authorship”.

This was one of the responses to the letter “Stop practice of ‘free riders” (The Star, Feb 7- also attached below) which criticised the alleged practice of supervisors claiming authorship for students’ works.

It appears that there is a failure to appreciate the difference between authorship and ownership.

“Author”, as defined under section 3 of Malaysia’s Copyright Act 1987, means “the writer or the maker of the works”. It does not refer to a person who pays for the work.

In our present context, authorship can only be acquired through some scholarly input into the work. Money cannot buy authorship.

Authorship must not be confused with ownership.

The latter refers to one’s property right in the work, which includes the right to exploit it for profit.

For example, an author and a publisher may co-own a work. But the publisher is not the author.

Likewise, the supervisor who has provided the funding may acquire ownership, but not authorship.

Being an author attracts certain rights.

No person may, without his/her consent, present the work without identifying the author or under a name other than the author’s.

This is one of the author’s “moral rights” recognised by the law (section 25), which cannot be overridden without the author’s consent even if the work is subsequently sold.

Of course, where the supervisor constructs the framework for the research (more common for sciences than for social sciences) and divides its components to be researched by her students, the supervisor may appropriately be regarded as an author. There is scholarly input on his/her part.

What about the credit due for supervision given?

This will depend on the common understanding between the supervisor and the student.

In normal circumstances, the supervisor’s comments on a student’s work does not give him authorship since it is either given gratuitously or in pursuant to the supervisor’s obligation as a supervisor.

As the legal holder of moral rights, the student may as a matter of courtesy offer to include the supervisor’s name. But this is a matter of discretion rather than obligation.

Supervision is a selfless task. In my subject area, at least, supervisors conventionally disclaim authorship (or rather, they do not assert).

To acknowledge their generosity and sacrifice, it is common to explicitly express our gratitude to them in our work.

A close and personal relationship, which will last for many years (or decades) to come, arises from such mutual respect.

ALVIN SEE Assistant Professor of Law  Singapore Management University
  • B.C.L., University of Oxford, 2010
  • C.L.P., Malaysia, 2009
  • LL.B. (First Class Honours), University of Leeds, 2008

Quality time supervising post-graduates

I REFER to the letter “Stop practice of free riders” (The Star, Feb 7 - attached below) by Pola Singh.

The writer has missed the point by many miles. He has called supervisors by many idioms! One of which is “lembu punya susu, sapi dapat nama”.

He has misunderstood the whole process of postgraduate education. I don’t think there are any supervisors who will force a student to work under him like a “slave”. It is the student who chooses to work with a particular supervisor.

The graduate student–supervisor relationship is very personal and close. Yes, the student has to do all the work under the close supervision of the supervisor. The supervisor obtains grants for his research and allows you to use the money to do your research. There is no reason why he should not claim first authorship.

Of course in any publication there is no need for the supervisor to put his name first, but the corresponding author must be your supervisor. You cannot be the corresponding author simply because you will not be able to answer the reviewers’ queries as well as he.

If you can, then you don’t need the postgraduate degree and you don’t need the supervisor.

Many professors and supervisors spend hours discussing, correcting and guiding many students to their postgraduate degrees.

PROF FAROOK ADAM School of Chemical Sciences 
Universiti Sains Malaysia Penang

B. Sc. (with Education) (USM) 1981) M.Sc. (USM) 1992 D.Phil. ( Sussex ) 1998   

Stop practice of ‘free riders’
I FEEL compelled to write after hearing the tales of graduate
students pursuing their doctorate degrees at local universities who are exasperated with their professors for making use of them for their own ends.

Graduate students, particularly those doing their doctorate degrees, are at the mercy of their professors who demand this and that.

Topping the list of unreasonable demands is the co-authorship of papers based on the research done by the student for his PhD dissertation.

It is the student who painstakingly prepares the literature review, formulates the hypothesis, collects and analyses the data, draws up conclusions and makes recommendations.

Yes, the conscientious professor guides the student all the way (which in any case is part and parcel of his work) but when it comes to the publication of a manuscript based on the research findings, guess who gets all the credit?

Professors take for granted that in an unequal relationship, they will get credit for the hard work put in by the student and this is manifested by putting their name as the first author of the research paper.

No straight-thinking student would challenge this. In the worst case scenario, the student’s name does not even appear on the manuscript.

It’s akin to the saying “Lembu punyi susu, sapi dapat nama”.

Call this a form of exploitation but it is taking place all the time.

This imbalance of power leads some to label the students as “slaves”.

No matter how friendly and accommodating professors are, they still hold considerable power in deciding when the student will graduate.

Some nasty professors demand that the thesis be rewritten again and again and this frustrates the student who will do everything and anything to complete his doctoral degree as soon as possible.

We can understand why students are so afraid to bring such matters up to the higher authorities. In the process, they suffer in silence and the problem remains buried deep in the ground.

And it’s hard to say “no” to a professor’s unreasonable demands because grad students need the support of faculty members, who may happen to be members of their dissertation committee, to pass and approve their thesis.

Many of the department heads are so busy and sometimes overburdened with their administrative duties that they have hardly any time to do serious substantive research.

But as they aspire to go higher they need to beef up their resume by coming up with more publications. This will also increase their prospect of promotion and getting the elusive JUSA (super scale) post.

Guess who does all the “donkey work” for them? And yet some of these selfish professors do not even acknowledge the contribution of the student, although their contribution in the preparation of the paper has been minimal.

It’s easy to know who the culprits are.

Just ask the academicians to submit a list of their publications and notice the number of times the name of the professor is listed as the first author followed by the students.

Sometimes, the subject matter or topic of a paper is the same but the student’s name is left out entirely.
This practice of “free riders” in the academic circle has to stop.

Graduate students cannot be forever exploited. Vice-chancellors should not condone such practices which are regarded as a norm not only in Malaysia but also in developed countries.

A system has to developed by the Higher Education Ministry to ensure students get due credit for the work they have done.

What can be immediately done is to send a circular that a professor cannot take ownership of an article or paper that has been prepared entirely by the graduate student based on his dissertation work.

If it is warranted, the professor’s name can be listed not as the first author but as co-author.

POLA SINGH  Kuala Lumpur

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