Q: Can my ex-colleagues publish my research in a scientific journal and use it for academic benefits without acknowledging my authorship?

Detailed Question -

I work in the microelectronics industry. When I was employed at company X, I had an assignment of doing some research work in order to improve a product. After a year of research without any supervision, I delivered a new Intellectual Property which got patented and sold at X. 2 years after having left X, my senior colleagues published the research with their names. The paper also shows an affiliation to a university, at which one of my colleagues had applied for a PhD. Is it legal and are they allowed to do it? Even if X has detailed documents of the invention disclosure signed by me?

1 Answer to this question

We understand your concern. Let us first clarify what “authorship” entails.

The ICMJE considers four criteria for authorship. All authors should meet all four criteria to be considered authors, and those who do not meet all four criteria should be acknowledged. These criteria are (i) substantial contribution to the conception or design of the work or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data; AND (ii) drafting the work or revising it critically for intellectual content; AND (iii) final approval of the version to be published; AND (iv) agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work.

To understand these criteria better, ask yourself the following:

  • Besides your research for the improvement of the process, which led to a patent, did you provide intellectual contributions to the paper?
  • Were you involved in drafting or revising the paper?
  • Can you be held accountable for the contents of the paper?
  • Are you confident of integrity of the contributions of authors of the paper?

We are assuming that your answer is “No” to the above, and therefore, you are not an author but a “contributor.” Contributors who meet fewer than four of the above criteria for authorship should be acknowledged. Therefore, you might have wanted your name to be included in the “Acknowledgments” section of that paper. What you could do (now that the paper is already published) is openly and amicably discuss the matter with your former colleagues. You could ask if they are open to approaching the journal to publish an erratum, in which your contribution can be acknowledged. However, please be warned that this might be a cumbersome process; the authors might be reluctant to do so, and the more the time elapses from the date of publication, the less inclined journal editors will be to publish the erratum. You may be interested in reading about errata and corrigenda here.

Knowing that you are aware of this publication and that you might be keen to be involved in future publications based on your work, your former colleagues might be willing to work together or at least be sure to mention your contribution in future publications.

Now, coming to the legal aspects. It is not clear from your question if the authors declared the invention details and credited you and/or company X. If they haven’t, it would definitely be unethical. The second part that is unclear is whether one of the authors is indeed studying/working at the university that was credited as an affiliation (you mention that they have “applied” to it). If that author is enrolled and has carried out related research at that university, it should be fine. However, if the university has been falsely named, that too is unethical.

Ethical issues such as these are grave, but taking legal action is complicated. For the first issue, you could approach the intellectual property rights cell/department of company X to ensure that the published paper is not in violation of company policy and accordingly determine next steps. For the second issue, if you are sure that the university name has been falsely added, you may approach the journal editor to alert them to this infraction in the paper published in their journal.

Additionally, you may find the below resources helpful:

Hope it helps. If you provide more details we can help further! :-)