What Should I Do About My Racially Obtuse Co-Worker?

Shortly after my abstracts were accepted, another company bought the company that I worked for, and I decided not to accept the new owner’s offer of employment. I remained an employee of the first company until it was dissolved, but I was never an employee of the one that bought it.

I notified my former employer that I would be happy to have someone from my old company as a co-author on the paper I was to present and that my former colleague could present the other paper, on which I would be identified as lead author. I discovered, however, that my name had been taken off both abstracts. I contacted my former employer, who said that the work was the intellectual property of the new company. I was offered the option of writing the paper and sitting in the audience, as a co-author, while someone else presented it. Otherwise, the new company would withdraw the paper from the conference. It was unclear whether I was being offered the option of being a co-author on the second paper.

I understand intellectual-property issues; I probably signed a document stating that any work I did as an employee belonged to the company. I am not claiming ownership of the work, however, just the right to present it. I naturally would acknowledge my previous employer and I would be happy to have someone from that company as a co-author.

I told a friend who is a tenured university professor what happened, and he said that he had never heard of such a thing. He had collaborated with colleagues on research who then left his university but whose role on all submitted work was unchanged. Is my previous employer being ethical in trying to prevent me from presenting work that I alone conceived? Name Withheld

As is common in the private sector, you evidently ceded to your old employer the intellectual property you created as an employee. At least some of the content of your two papers — the material sketched in the abstracts — falls into its purview: The company has, in whole or in part, an ownership claim, which gives it a say in what you do with them.

A claim to ownership, however, doesn’t entail claims over authorship. A Jeff Koons rabbit can be yours for $91 million, but you don’t thereby acquire the right to say you made it, or helped make it. Similarly, under the Berne Convention (a longstanding international agreement about copyright, first adopted in 1886), an author who assigns the copyright of a work to another person or entity retains “moral rights,” including the right to be identified as the author and not to have the work distorted or misrepresented. Under the threat of withdrawing the papers altogether, your old employers are trying to dilute your authorship. They’re doing so by removing your name from the abstracts, by having you demote yourself to co-author (of at least one paper you would have been solely responsible for; with the other paper, it sounds as if you decided to spread credit yourself) and by preventing you from presenting either paper.

Here, they’re out of bounds. It’s an act of abuse when owners intrude into ascriptions of authorship. If the two papers were presented by others, you should feel free to stand up and say that you’re entirely responsible for one and did the analysis for the other, assuming that’s the case. In academia, typically, the ethos is indeed very different. Even when universities claim ownership of inventions by students or faculty that might generate commercial revenue, they tend to split the revenue with the inventors. An administration that sought to police the presentation of research and distort its authorship would be roundly vilified. Your previous firm may be within its rights in preventing you from presenting work you did as its employee, but its conduct is ungenerous, underhanded and alien to the spirit of intellectual inquiry that produces work worth owning.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/02/magazine/what-should-i-do-about-my-racially-obtuse-co-worker.html?emc=rss&partner=rss

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