When a postdoc and a PI disagree on when to publish their data, who has the final say? Usually, it's the PI — but in two recent cases, says BioTechniques' David Pittman, the postdocs published data without their PIs' consent. In one case, Purdue University postdoc Jiasheng Diao was working in the lab of X-ray crystallographer Miriam Hasson. When Hasson died in 2006, control of her data passed to her husband, biochemist David Sanders. "Three years later, that protein structure data finally made its way into a paper in the Journal of Bacteriology that listed Diao and Hasson as co-authors," Pittman says. "The only problem was that it was published without Sanders’ consent." That paper was then retracted, as was a second paper published in 2009 that also used Hasson's data without Sanders' permission. And in a case involving Baylor College of Medicine researchers, postdoc Hui Chai published several papers on work done in the lab of Changyi Chen, without obtaining Chen's permission, Pittman adds.
"Both recent cases involving post-docs who publish data without consent of the principal investigator highlight a growing trend of insubordination in the lab," Pittman says. University of Washington School of Medicine researcher Ferric Fang tells Pittman that data ownership issues are complex, and that "Post-docs may understandably feel that data they obtained in experiments belong to them." However, Pittman says, work done in labs funded by the US National Institutes of Health is considered to belong to the university or institution, and the person who has control of it is the person the university or institution appoints. To prevent future mishaps, Pittman says, schools should provide better instruction to trainees on data ownership, and journals should be more "explicit" on authorship rights.