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Students protecting intellectual work

TORONTO (CP) - Graduate students heading to Ottawa's Carleton University this fall are slated to receive an education of a different sort - learning their rights when it comes to protecting ideas and work from possible theft.

The Carleton Graduate Students' Association is spearheading an initiative to educate some 3,300 grad students on how to safeguard their intellectual property while ensuring they're being properly recognized for their work.

"If (intellectual property theft) has been a problem, we don't really know about it, which is one of the reasons we wanted to do it," said association president Oren Howlett.

"A lot of the times, this stuff does happen to students but they have no real way of being able to cite it or try to figure out how to go about bringing the issue to light."

The initiative will include workshops and a handbook outlining what would constitute an infraction of students' intellectual property rights, Howlett said.

Examples include a student not receiving authorship on written work, or having a professor take credit for their work.

"This isn't an indictment of profs at all," said Howlett. "It's just to ensure that students' rights are protected in the case that it does happen."

Experts say while it's next to impossible to put a number to cases involving intellectual property theft at Canadian universities, some say the push towards commercializing research may be a factor.

A Statistics Canada survey of intellectual property commercialization in the higher education sector found that researchers reported 1,475 inventions to Canadian universities and research hospitals in 2005, up three per cent from the previous year.

Patent applications filed by the institutions surged 13 per cent during the same period, and were the beneficiaries of $55 million in income from intellectual property commercialization.

The idea of knowledge as property was once an alien concept to universities, where the emphasis was on creating and sharing knowledge for its own sake, said Paul Jones of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

Funding cutbacks and a more commercialized culture have seen government, the private sector and university administrators gravitating to the notion of knowledge and creativity as saleable products, Jones said.

"What typically happens is that a team will come together to work on a project, perhaps with the best intentions, and with some naivete about this commercialized model," he said. "As things move forward, it may dawn on someone, 'Hey, there's some money to be made here.' "

Jones said his association is working on developing a best practices guide with the Canadian Federation of Students to alert individuals to the issue of intellectual property theft, and to suggest ways it can be avoided.

Howlett said the initiative was prompted in part by recent high-profile cases at universities involving copyright infringement.

In one case, Chris Radziminski, a former University of Toronto graduate student, alleged his former supervisors at U of T and Indiana University plagiarized his drinking water research in two journal articles and manipulated research results.

Radziminski was threatened with a defamation suit by the University of Toronto when he attempted to contact the journals to correct the record.

An inquiry launched by Indiana University in the spring of 2006 confirmed Radziminski's allegations of misconduct. Formal apology letters were written to him and other students cited as authors on the articles.

Radziminski said in an e-mail that universities need to institute a policy to deal not just with intellectual property "but research integrity in general - including protection for whistleblowers, especially vulnerable groups such as students."

The Canadian Federation of Students wants whistleblower legislation put on the books to protect university researchers from any backlash they may experience if they call out researcher misconduct.