This essay provides suggestions on how to teach engineers about fair credit and intellectual property.
There is a good chance that students will not have given much thought to issues concerning credit and intellectual property. Interdisciplinary collaboration and technological advances have made this topic more controversial. Technological advances raise questions about whether tangible, material property can be treated the same as technological property or whether new moral or legal laws are needed. Interdisciplinary collaboration and the incredible growth of science and engineering have raised such questions as who counts as author and who should get credit for dual discoveries. This section is designed to give pedagogical advice for getting students to think deeply about these issues.
Professors can make use of the Responsible Authorship, research ethics module on the Online Ethics Center website. This section offers background information, scenarios for discussion, and has links to relevant information. Definitions of key words such as patents and copyrights can be found in our glossary. In addition, there are a number of topics that can be discussed in order to get students to think about these complex issues. These are described below.
Who owns my work? The idea of property began with philosophers like Locke, who claimed that the outcome or product of one's labor is his/her own. In fact, we might view employment as a kind of contract whereby the laborer agrees to hand over the products of her labor (which she owns) in return for wages/benefits. Thus the products designed for an employer are usually recognized as the employer's property. But what about work performed in a university setting? Professors should talk with students about the guidelines and standards about ownership of work and data by students and faculty.
How do we balance the benefits of ownership (copyright and patents) with the drawbacks? You may want to start by discussing with students the justifications for copyrights and patents for products and ideas; that is, property rights. One justification of property rights is a deontological one: people who put in hard work to develop a new idea or product have a right to benefit from that hard work. Another justification is a utilitarian one: private ownership provides a necessary incentive for people to work hard at creating new intellectual or technological creations. Thus, it is argued that private property is necessary for the growth of technology. People would not put forth the necessary effort if they could not profit from their own creations. And yet laws focused too stringently on ownership can have negative effects. It can allow companies to create monopolies or oligopolies, which can have a negative effect on the economy and the rights of consumers. Furthermore, the sharing of ideas is necessary for further growth and often for the well-being of humanity. As Whitbeck asks (see citation below), "what about a surgeon who develops a new technique that can save lives but keeps the technique a 'trade secret' to enhance his relative standing?" What about the engineer who patents a technology, making it inaccessible to others who might be able to make improvements for the benefit of all? Engineers do work that enhances the well being of humanity. This goal often cannot be met without having access to others' findings. Clearly we need a balance of these important considerations.
Discussion might focus on finding a balance between these two goals. This raises two issues that are important to include in the discussion: (a) this discussion really highlights the incentive to engage in reverse engineering; this would be a good time to discuss this issue and (b) you might also use this discussion to highlight the apparent differences between tangible/material products and intellectual products. Discuss with students how our law has attempted to find a balance of these considerations in the past for material products (by, for instance, limiting the years one can have a patent) and then ask whether these same rules result in a good balance when applied to intellectual property (like computer programs). To enhance discussion, point out the obvious differences between material and intellectual property; for example, with material property only one or a few people can use it at a time whereas intellectual property can be copied in millions and distributed to many.
Who gets credit for an innovation or idea if two people or groups come to it near the same time? Today technologies and discoveries are growing at a rate so great that it is impossible for any one person know everything about everything. University library shelves are lined with hundreds of journals and periodicals on every subject from engineering, mathematics, and science to the liberal arts. It is an inevitable consequence that there will be some unintentional overlap (if not out right redundancy) in this work.
It is nice to think that the person who first had an idea should be credited with it but rarely is it the case that a breakthrough hits a person or team like a bolt of lightening from the sky. Even if this were the case there is still the problem of verifying the time of the discovery. In the seventeenth century the British Royal Society established the convention that the first party to publish was the one who should get credit for being the originator of an idea. Other options are to give credit to the party that first submits or the party with the earliest postmark or copyright. Ask students what the benefits and drawbacks of each of these conventions might be and share with them the conventions of their own professional societies.
Who exactly counts as an author anyway? In fields such as philosophy and literature it is often the case that a single individual (or a pair of individuals) will rightly claim sole credit for work. But in science, engineering and mathematics often teams of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of researchers, lab technicians and advisors work together on a single problem. In cases such as this, who gets credit as an author of a work of discoverer of an innovation? Once again there is a 'perfect world' solution that falls short in practice; that is to list each and every person individually along with an itemized list of their contributions. However journal space is very limited and this is a costly, inefficient way of solving the problem. Are there ever cases where it is right to credit a person who has not played any direct role in the work if that person's prior work was indispensable to the project? Should proofreaders and translators get listed as authors? What about the project's all important fundraisers?
One way of given great credit to those that did more important or at least more significant work is to list only those people or, at the very least, list those people first. What are the drawbacks and benefits of this approach? And what counts as important or significant work? Drawing an example from my own life illustrates one point very well. I have a close friend, Wayne, who is working in a field far, far different from my own. One day over lunch I was telling him about some of my research and he made a short, off the cuff comment that changed the entire direction of one particular part of my project. I went home, made a few changes and began anew. Is Wayne's contribution to count as significant, thereby giving him a place in the authorship list? What considerations would you need to make this decision?
For point of discussion, you may want to look at some authorship guidelines, such as the Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals.
At what point does something become plagiarism? With the glut of work out there today it is easier and easier to get away with minor bits of plagiarism. Although it is easier, it is still unethical. It is not only helpful to use prior work of others, it is foolish not to use this advantage. The breakthroughs of others are very often the jumping off points for even greater breakthroughs in the future. Careful citation of sources is mandatory. Talking to students about the definition of plagiarism and especially the use of internet sources is vital. Yet can it be the case that even with sources cited a work still counts as plagiarism? Consider the following example: Researchers A and B have been working on the same difficult problem independently of each other for several years, but each is nearing a conclusion. Researcher A is first to finish the work and submit and publish it. Researcher B is farther from finishing and now has this new source of information to draw on. B realizes that in the end he will reach exactly the same conclusion as A but feels that his own earlier research is stronger and better supports the conclusion. 'Borrowing' A's final bits of research would save B's laboratory thousands of dollars and still look very good for himself once his work is published in a competing journal. Is this plagiarism if B cites his source but doesn't complete the experiment on his own? Is it right in this case to use A as a source without discussing the work with him? Exactly how much text can B use in his publication (assuming every word of it is properly credited) before it moves from an original work to a derivative work?
Other questions to ask students: Is it ethical to publish scientific work under a pseudonym? How do copyrights succeed and fail to protect? Exactly how much reprinting of text is acceptable (assuming credit is given)?
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Professors can make use of the assignments described in the Background Skills page of this section.
There are several cases in engineering research that cover issues related to fair credit and responsible authorship.
Finally, issues of reverse engineering can also be found on this website. For example, there are some student projects about reverse engineering that might give some ideas of projects or assignments you might give. There are also some articles on reverse engineering that might be of interest.
Rosa Lynn Pinkus and Claire Gloeckner have developed an interesting and empirically tested project that helps students learn about these issues by expanding design course material. After having students create scenarios that depict conflicts between these obligations, students should try to do this with their own research and design projects.
In their article, 'Want to Help Students Learn Engineering Ethics? Have them Write Case Studies Based on Their Research/Senior Design Project,' Pinkus and Gloeckner explain the benefits of this assignment (over having students write about scenarios not associated with their own research). They also offer an example of student work to show how this project works.
Whitbeck, Caroline. 1998. Ethics in Engineering Practice and Research. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
By Michael Leeds and Elysa Koppelman, Ph.D.