Who the hell doesn’t know they need to enact a MTA?

August 26, 2010

An ethical scenario was forwarded to the blog today with a request for the wisdom of the crowd. I can but oblige. The query has been lightly modified for anonymity purposed.

A member of my department informed me that a collaborator, another faculty member in our department, gave, without this person’s knowledge or permission, quantitities of unique compounds that synthesized by the lab to an investigator outside our university. That external researcher has recently published work based upon those compounds, and included in that paper an acknowledgement of the collaborator as the source of those materials.

The rest of the note indicates that the person who had synthesized the compounds was not informed by the departmental collaborator or the external investigator. This person only learned about it through a roundabout way that boiled down to “hey, have you seen this paper about this stuff you are working with?”
This is entirely simple, as depicted. Nowadays it is nearly impossible that an investigator would not know that anything sent to a collaborator external to the University requires a Materials Transfer Agreement. Everything. Compounds, reagents, mice, tissues. Everything.
Now true, many times people sort of overlook this for the small stuff. Or overlook it until something actually works out and it looks like a publication is ahead. But c’mon. How can you not know?
Furthermore, everyone knows that you don’t get to screw a collaborator and doing so in your own department is incredibly stupid. It will come out and you will look like a jerk. Particularly when you have failed to file the right MTA paperwork. And, depending on your University policies, you may be in a world of local hurt for letting intellectual property that belongs (formally speaking) to the University into a competing institution’s hands without protecting the intellectual property rights.
(Look, I don’t make the rules and I actually think they are bad for science. But the roots of this go back a long, long ways. Universities have a structural stance toward intellectual property that is highly corporate.)
My view is that the fault here is almost exclusively with the in-house collaborating investigator because s/he could have told the external collaborator that it was all coolio and conveniently neglected to mention that a third lab had actually made the compound in question. Maybe a *slight* possibility that the external collaborator had proceeded to publication without appropriate notification of the in-house collaborator who provided the (third lab’s) compound.
What do you think DearReader? Straightforward? or am I missing something?

16 Responses to “Who the hell doesn’t know they need to enact a MTA?”

  1. Lorax Says:

    Straightforward as presented.
    The problem comes with things like published materials which you are obliged to send out. We are still supposed to get MTAs, but I generally don’t because it is another level of BS I don’t need in my day. I say this as someone who works with materials that are fairly trivial to make so if we didn’t send the published material, the interested party could probably make it without too much trouble.

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  2. juniorprof Says:

    Yeah, the in house collaborator screwed the pooch.

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  3. Eric Lund Says:

    And, depending on your University policies, you may be in a world of local hurt for letting intellectual property that belongs (formally speaking) to the University into a competing institution’s hands without protecting the intellectual property rights.
    Not to mention that if the external collaborator happens to be located outside the US, then depending on exactly what was sent the internal collaborator may be in for Federal criminal charges. The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) cover the export of anything that might plausibly, or even vaguely, be related to a weapons system, and the regulations cover a whole bunch of things that you wouldn’t expect, including unpublished technical details of certain things. Executive summary of ITAR: If you are not a US citizen (or at least a permanent resident) and item X is covered by ITAR, I am not allowed to tell you anything about X that you don’t already know. My group has several international collaborators in matters that fall under ITAR, so our administrative staff spend many hours ensuring that we have the proper export licenses for all of this stuff.
    From the evidence you have provided, I don’t see any indication that the external collaborator did anything wrong (unless he failed to notify the internal collaborator of the submission). The internal collaborator screwed up, at minimum, by not disclosing the true source of the sample to the external collaborator, who reasonably believed that the internal collaborator had produced the sample. In this case, not having the proper MTA (and ITAR, if applicable) paperwork means there is a way to make the internal collaborator pay for his transgression.

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  4. whimple Says:

    Nowadays it is nearly impossible that an investigator would not know that anything sent to a collaborator external to the University requires a Materials Transfer Agreement. Everything. Compounds, reagents, mice, tissues. Everything.
    I so loathe pinheads with this attitude.

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  5. becca Says:

    Uhmm Eric? Is it really plausible that the external collaborator didn’t do anything wrong? I mean, isn’t the whole point that they also could not NOT know they should have an MTA? In my experience, BOTH institutions have a form (i.e. one for intake and one for release).

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  6. James Says:

    Some schools actually DISCOURAGE MTA’s in some circumstances:
    http://www.stanford.edu/group/ICO/researcher/documents/MTA9-18-09_000.pdf

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  7. idlemind Says:

    Forget the legal niceties. Even there were no such thing as MTA’s this is unethical behavior and is likely to get the internal collaborator a “does not play well with others” reputation very quickly.

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  8. Dude, the MTA aspect to this is a total red herring. What this is really about is that someone who didn’t develop a novel reagent took it upon themself to distribute that reagent without the knowledge and consent of the person who developed it. The MTA aspect is just stupid fucken lawyer shitte.

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  9. S. Rivlin Says:

    I’m with CPP on this.

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  10. anne Says:

    What a miracle Rivlin

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  11. Shitlin, you fucke uppe! You’re fucken alive!!!

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  12. DK Says:

    It happened many times to me: I send something, it gets acknowledged/referenced in one paper, all papers that follow cite that paper, making it look like the thing was made in the lab that published the paper. In all cases I just say screw it and go on with my life. It’s unpleasant but not that much of a problem.
    MTAs have a potential to solve a lot of problems but they don’t. Currently, they are written by lawyers who routinely hijack the whole idea. Nearly every MTA I had to sign basically required me to sell my soul and body to the institution where a person sending the materials works. My uni has the same ridiculous MTA standard and I usually try to avoid having our collaborators goes through this inanity. Had the MTA simply said “every time you use my shit you must acknowledge that you got it from me – verify and sign here” (or something that simple), everyone would be ussing the MTAs right and left. Instead, everyoneis avoiding them like plague.

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  13. whimple Says:

    DK is right: when you send out your stuff it gets cited one time. I think that’s ok, because everyone knows that’s the situation. That makes the interpretation of your citation count just that much more impressive. MTAs are shields for assholes that don’t want to share to hide behind. I had a very unpleasant experience once where this guy asked me for a published plasmid, and I asked him for a published cell line in return, and he got all crazy you-mean-I-can’t-have-this-plasmid-unless-I-send-you-this-cell-line? on me (which wasn’t true, I sent the plasmid) and then eventually after a lot of bitching he hit me with this 50-page MTA that I threw in the trash. Fucker.

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  14. daedalus2u Says:

    I met an extremely senior researcher at a nitric oxide conference, we talked about my research and he offered to throw some of my stuff into a bunch of tests he was doing to see what would happen. I sent him enough to do the tests and how to make more with no MTA (I didn’t need one because my IP mojo was very strong; patents on it had already issued ;).
    In trying to follow up, a couple of months go by (more than enough time to actually test it) and I get a cryptic message that he can’t work with me because there is a “business conflict”. That people funding his research are trying to develop a competitive product.

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  15. Eric Lund Says:

    becca @6: We don’t know that the external collaborator is at a university. We don’t even know that he is in the US (which is why I brought up ITAR). So it’s possible that he didn’t know he needed an MTA.

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  16. Joe Says:

    The problem with MTAs is time. It takes 6 mo.s to 1.5 yrs to get something that would take a week to send without one.

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