Data Ownership

It is a common misconception that the principal investigator automatically owns the data that is generated within his/her project. For example, the Council on Governmental Relations’ (COGR) guide on Access to, Sharing and Retention of Research Data (Blum, 2012, p. 9) states that these functions are only fulfilled on behalf of the researchers’ institutions:

By tradition and for practical reasons, investigators, as creators of the data, retain possession of the data on behalf of the institution.

In agreement with this statement, Cooper (2016, p.63f)  observes that research data are most likely owned by institutions:

Principal investigators (PIs) sometimes assume that they own the data they collect. In most cases this is not true. […]  , the data you collect as part of your job typically are owned by your employer.

Therefore, the National Academy of Sciences (2009) introduced the concept of investigators as custodians of data. As the legal status of research data  differs between countries and depends on various aspects, data ownership eventually differs across countries. We will therefore focus in the following  on the legal status of research data in Germany.

German Situation

According to German law, it is highly unlikely that a researcher owns the data he generates. Naturally data can only be owned by someone if they are subject to copyright protection where copyright protection most likely applies due to sui generis database rights. This right applies if a substantial investment took place in building the database and, if it applies, the entity that is responsible for the investment will hold the copyright (see the knowledge base’s section on the legal status of research data). Thus, in most cases, data will be property of the funding agency or the researcher’s institution. Even if research data met the condition of originality and copyright, most researchers would transfer the copyright of their work to their institution by their employment agreements (§43 u.§ 31 Urhg). The only exceptions of this rule are professors (if not otherwise outlined in their employment agreements) because scientific publications are typically not part of their employment agreement, or scientific employees who independently conducted research without being bound by instructions (Spindler, 2009, p. 67).

You should always consider that funding agencies and institutions may have their own copyright policies. For example, Heidelberg University (n.d.) states:

Alle Rechte an Daten, insbesondere das Recht, die Daten weitergehend zu nutzen oder zu publizieren, sollten den PIs vorbehalten sein und nicht an Dritte vergeben werden. [All rights on data, especially the right to further use or publish data, should be reserved for the PI and should not be passed on to third parties.]

Thereby, it indicates that rights on research data belong to the PI.


Further Resources

  • Lippert (2009) published an article about the question of data ownership in research projects:  Lippert, H. (2009). Wem gehören Daten die im Rahmen von Forschungsprojekten gewonnen werden? In H.-J. Ahrens, H.-J., C. von Bar, G. Fischer, A. Spickhoff, & J. Taupitz (Eds.), Medizin und Haftung (pp. 359–369). Heidelberg/Berlin: Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-00612-8_22
  • On the Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) website of Northern Illinois University a free online learning module on data management is available which includes a topic about Data Ownership.
  • Also see this study by Guibault & Wiebe (Eds., 2013) on “the protection of research data and recommendations for access and usagebelow:
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