man bites dog

August 14, 2009 at 9:47 am | | grad life, news, science community, scientific integrity

Former Stanford graduate student Christopher Sclimenti is suing his former PI, Prof Michele Calos, for patent infringement and plagiarism. See stories here, here, and here. The complaint can be read here.

The summary is as follows:

  • Student was originally on a patent application.
  • At some point, Stanford and/or prof removed student’s name from application, which becomes this patent. Prof Calos is the only inventor listed on the patent.
  • Prof filed a second patent, which is a continuation of the first. Prof Calos is still the only inventor listed.
  • Prof filed two other applications (here and here), still the sole inventor listed, with significant portions copied from the student’s dissertation. (Stanford Daily found about 20 paragraphs in one application that were essentially identical to paragraphs in his dissertation!)

All parties agreed to an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) with a neutral party. The ADR panel concluded that the student was a co-inventor and should have been included in the patent. As a result, Stanford agreed to add him to the issued patent (but I see no evidence that that has occurred yet).

CalosAccording to Stanford’s OTL page, inventorship is different than what most scientists would consider authorship. For instance, “A person who contributed only labor and/or the supervision of routine techniques, but who did not contribute to the idea—the concept of one of the embodiments of the claimed invention—is not considered an inventor.” For the prof and the University to claim that the student was not an inventor, they implied that he was only a technician and did not contribute to conceiving any of the claims in the patent. That’s possible, but the ADR panel disagreed. It seems pretty straightforward that the student should have been on at least the first patent!

Why would Prof Calos and Stanford University fight so hard against their former student, who clearly contributed enough to the invention to appear on the original patent application? Is splitting the royalties from one patent with one extra person, a student who contributed to the work, so terribly painful? Stanford’s policy is to divide the royalties (after paying for the patenting and lawyer fees) 1/3 to the inventors, 1/3 to the department, and 1/3 to the school. So the prof loses half of her royalties by re-including her former student as an inventor, but the University loses nothing.

Is the recent patent application plagiarized from the student’s dissertation? Only if the dissertation was not first self-plagiarized from an earlier paper. Who knows. Regarding the plagiarism complaint, Stanford had this to say:

“I think we’ve really done our part at this point,” Dunkley said. “The inventorship has been corrected. He has been made whole for any amount that he would have received if he had been an inventor from the beginning. So from the University’s perspective, all necessary action has been taken to rectify any differences on the inventorship issue.” (source: Stanford Daily)

Sclimenti

That’s not really very satisfying. What if the roles were reversed and a student copied significant portions of his PI’s earlier grant proposal into his dissertation without the PI’s permission? Or submitted a paper without the PI’s knowledge? That student would probably be kicked out of Stanford at a minimum. The least the University could do is investigate this case and if Prof Calos has a history of taking credit for other peoples’ work. Maybe Prof Calos is innocent and the student is trying to steal credit, but it would be nice if the University would check into it.

All in all, the entire situation is not clear-cut. I suspect that the whole incident is the result of large egos, hurt feelings, and greed—from all parties! This is why it is very important to not burn bridges and to try to empathize with your PI or your student. I suspect this conflict could have been resolved early on if all parties had been more understanding and willing to listen and compromise.

Bottom line though, I find it unfortunate that the University would fight one of its own students.

P.S. Guess what Sclimenti is doing now?

6 Comments »

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  1. hey, an earlier version of this appeared on my RSS feed. i’m not sure if your CMS publishes drafts in the RSS feed before they’re published, but you may want to check into that.

    great post, by the way.

    Comment by joel — August 14, 2009 #

  2. nope, that was my fault: i clicked “publish” by mistake.

    Comment by sam — August 14, 2009 #

  3. The university has to stand behind the professor unless he has committed some clear-cut misconduct, and even then they would do the utmost to control the damage, fairness be damned. I am afraid professors do not have to play by the same rules as their group members, the academia is pretty medieval in this respect. When you find yourself in this situation (I did) you can try to shame and sue them to submission – which is what happened in this case – but that practically means that the students career in science is over. The only thing that allowed this dude to prevail was that the professor acted in so blatantly sloppy and spiteful way

    Comment by milkshake — August 14, 2009 #

  4. Technical point about the correction of issued patents — the patent office is still in the dark ages as far as publishing goes. When a correction is made to an issued patent, that correction is attached as a separate document to the issued patent. So, for example, if an omitted inventor was later added to a patent, the patent would not be republished to add his or her name. That might be the explanation here.

    Comment by Michael F. Martin — August 21, 2009 #

  5. Interesting read! Wow – I’m trying to think of when it would ever be ok to cut-and-paste language from a student’s dissertation like is alleged here, and I’m coming up empty.

    Comment by Doug Natelson — August 24, 2009 #

  6. […] discussing publishing ethics in scientific journals. On his Everyday Scientist blog, Sam Lord summarizes an interesting case at Stanford where a student’s name was allegedly removed from a patent application by the […]

    Pingback by Publishing ethics: Definitions of authorship | materialsdave.com — September 1, 2009 #

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