Research Policy Handbook


Relationships Between Students (Including Postdoctoral Scholars) and Outside Entities

Policy Authority

Senate of the Academic Council

Policy Contact

Now in Policy Details

Summarizes University policy and guidelines for the conduct of relationships between students (including undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars) with outside entities, such that the student's outside activities are conducted in a manner that allows openness in research, appropriate ownership of any resulting intellectual property, and protection against potential conflicts of commitment and interest.

1. Summary

As part of their Stanford education, students, including postdoctoral scholars, may establish relationships with outside entities, such as private companies or other for-profit or non-profit organizations (including law firms, venture capital firms, government agencies, foundations, public action organizations, school systems, etc.). These relationships may range from student internships that are part of a formal educational program established by the student's department or program to the actual conduct of a student's research or scholarship project at the outside entity to various more personal entrepreneurial activities aimed at advancing an invention or providing specialized services of many kinds. In addition to these activities, which are part of the students' academic programs, students may have the opportunity to serve as consultants to or founders of outside entities, independent of their academic programs at Stanford. Students may also be involved through licensing by Stanford of inventions based on their Stanford research to outside entities.  All of these relationships may have considerable educational value for the student, providing unique educational or research resources and familiarizing students with the work environment of private companies or non-profit organizations and how intellectual property is managed and consulting is done outside the academic community. However, the establishment of these relationships with outside entities, as part of or outside the student's academic program at Stanford, raises issues concerning the open versus proprietary nature of the work, the ownership of any intellectual property that may result, and the potential for conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment.

This policy establishes guidelines for the conduct of these relationships such that the student's outside activities are conducted in a manner that allows openness in research, appropriate ownership of any resulting intellectual property, and protection against potential conflicts of commitment and interest. These policy statements apply to all students, including undergraduate and graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars. Throughout this policy, the term "students" shall represent all three of these groups, and the term "faculty advisor" shall include faculty sponsors and mentors of postdoctoral scholars.

Policies expressed are consistent with and cross-reference existing policies on:

As discussed in more detail below, these policies are intended to be consistent with Stanford's current policy that full-time study is expected of all undergraduate and graduate students and, in most situations, of postdoctoral scholars as well.

2. Openness In Research

Stanford departments or programs may establish formal internship programs to expose their students to the work of outside entities. During these internships students may work either on campus or at the site of the outside entity. Alternatively, students may undertake a research project or other activity in collaboration with an outside entity, in some cases even performed at the outside entity's site. Where this is allowed as part of the student's academic program (for example, research for a Ph.D. dissertation or an undergraduate Honors project), a faculty advisor must approve and oversee the student's project and be responsible for the student's grade and the certification of the appropriateness of the dissertation.

Stanford's Openness in Research policy, which applies to all research carried out at Stanford and as part of Stanford academic programs, whether at Stanford or elsewhere, indicates the University's commitment to openness in research, defines and prohibits secrecy, and specifies rare circumstances such as for publication delays of less than 90 days for sponsor review of manuscripts or for patenting purposes. This policy is applicable in full to the relationships between students and outside entities. (See also Stanford University's Export Control policy below.)

When a student's relationship with an outside entity is part of their Stanford academic program, it is inappropriate for the student's entire project at the outside entity to be secret or proprietary. Students must be able to discuss their work with their faculty advisors, to present their work at seminars that may be a component of an internship program, and to summarize their work in oral reports, term papers, honors theses, and dissertations. In cases where the research is primarily performed on-site at an outside entity, that entity may keep certain information confidential (as happens in many research interactions between academic researchers and outside entities). The outside entity may also request the right to delay for up to 90 days publication of any work pending review of the intellectual property. However, this delay must not be allowed to delay the student's completion of required academic work, such as oral presentations, thesis defenses, term papers, theses, or dissertations.

Students may not expect that their Stanford coursework will be kept proprietary. If a student establishes a consulting or other relationship with an outside entity, such as becoming the founder of a startup company that is independent of their academic program, this work may be governed by the confidentiality policies of the outside entity and may be proprietary.

3. Ownership of Intellectual Property

A. Inventions, Patents and Licensing Policy

Graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and all others participating in research projects (including undergraduates working on research projects, either for pay or for academic credit) are covered by the Stanford University policy Inventions, Patents, and Licensing. This policy states that these individuals must disclose "all potentially patentable inventions conceived or first reduced to practice in whole or in part... in the course of their University responsibilities or with more than incidental use of University resources. Title to such inventions shall be assigned to the University."

NOTE: The phrase "University responsibilities" is not generally interpreted to include a student's regular coursework. However, if, in the course of this work, a student makes more than incidental use of University resources (including specialized equipment, laboratories and research facilities) to create a potentially patentable invention, that invention must be disclosed to Stanford and title assigned to the University. (See below, Inventions, Patents and Licensing.)

The policy also specifies that the University shall share with the inventors royalties from inventions assigned to the University. These individuals are expected to sign the Stanford University Patent and Copyright Agreement (SU-18).

See also Best Practices for Student Entrepreneurial Courses, found below in "Related Items".

B. Copyright Policy

As has been traditional in academia, Stanford generally does not claim ownership to pedagogical, scholarly, or artistic works, including "those of students created in the course of their education, such as dissertations, papers, and articles" (Stanford University Copyright Policy). Under the provisions of the Copyright Policy, copyright ownership in original works by students shall remain with the creator "unless the work is a work-for-hire, is supported by a direct allocation of funds through the University for the pursuit of a specific project, is commissioned by the University, makes significant use of University resources or personnel, or is otherwise subject to contractual obligations.

  • Example #1: Students who are hired to write software and are paid through Stanford are considered to be covered by "work-for-hire" provisions.
  • Example #2: While a graduate student owns the copyright to their dissertation, a videotape developed as part of their dissertation research that presents some of the observations or results reported in the dissertation would be owned by the University if it were produced with support from a sponsored project, significant assistance from Stanford personnel, etc.

C. Student Internships and Research Projects with Outside Entities

Ownership of intellectual property is further complicated if the student's creation or invention was developed during an internship or research project performed as part of a relationship with an outside entity. In general, the ownership of any resulting intellectual property (other than creative works developed in the course of the student's education, as specified above, ownership of which generally remains with the student) should reflect the relative roles and contributions of the student, the outside entity and Stanford University to the creation of the work or the development of the invention.

1. Internships

For internships sponsored by an outside entity and not involving more than incidental use (for inventions) or significant use (for creative works) of University resources (as defined, respectively, in "Inventions, Patents, and Licensing" and "Copyright Policy"), ownership of the intellectual property may belong to the outside entity (as determined by the student and the outside entity). During the establishment of any internship program that will entail more than incidental use of Stanford resources, Stanford will develop an agreement with the outside entity specifying the degree to which Stanford resources will be used by the student interns and defining rights to intellectual property resulting from the internship.

2. Research Projects

If a student research project is funded by a sponsored project, ownership of intellectual property resulting from the student's work is specified by Stanford policy and by the terms of the particular funding agreement. If a student is the sole inventor of an invention resulting from the use of resources of both Stanford and an outside entity, Stanford may agree to co-assignment of the intellectual property. If an invention is co-invented by a student, and involves both a co-inventor from an outside entity and more than incidental use of Stanford resources, the technology will be jointly owned by Stanford and the outside entity, pursuant to patent law. Depending on their contributions, the faculty advisor and perhaps other faculty, students, or staff may be co-creators or co-inventors.

D. Student Consulting with Outside Entities

Stanford does not claim ownership of intellectual property resulting from students' consulting or otherwise working outside their academic programs at Stanford, assuming that there was not more than incidental use (for inventions) or significant use (for creative works) of University resources.

4. Conflicts of Commitment and Interest

A. Conflicts of Commitment

As a general proposition, Stanford students are expected to be engaged full-time in their academic activities, with several exceptions including Research Assistantships, Teaching Assistantships, and Ph.D. students with Terminal Graduate Registration (TGR) status. In addition, graduate students who are US citizens or permanent residents may be employed for up to 8 hours per week on or off campus (Administrative Guide 10.2). (International students are not permitted to work additional hours beyond those prescribed for a 50% RA/TAship due to visa restrictions). Postdoctoral fellows may be prohibited from engaging in outside work, for pay or not, by their funding agency and/or visa restrictions. Outside consulting that is not part of a Stanford internship or academic program must be conducted in compliance with the time limits in Stanford’s Outside Professional Activities policy (RPH 4.3) and with applicable requirements for disclosure and management in conflict of interest and commitment policy (RPH 4.1) and PHS and NSF Requirement policy (RPH 4.2).

Despite the expectation that students' primary obligation is to fulfilling their degree requirements and that they will generally be full-time, it has not been Stanford's practice to prohibit students from outside work, whether for pay or not. Students have a wide variety of outside interests and activities that take time away from their academic pursuits, including involvement with outside non-profit or for-profit entities, some of which may be related to the students' academic interests and future careers. It would be both difficult and inappropriate for the University to decide which of these activities are allowable. It is, however, appropriate for students' academic advisors to monitor their academic performance, and if inadequate, to inquire about the students' outside activities and to recommend that students reduce or terminate their outside commitments.  In addition, if the outside activity involves a financial interest and would reasonably appear to be related to the design, conduct or reporting of the student's research at Stanford, this activity must be disclosed to the academic advisor for review.

Students must not make more than incidental use of Stanford resources in the course of pursuing activities with outside entities that are not part of their Stanford activities.

B. Conflicts of Interest

Students as well as faculty are involved in the transfer of technology gained through their Stanford research to the private sector to benefit society, an important function of the modern university. This may lead to relationships such as the following between students and an outside entity: licenses for technologies invented at Stanford; consulting and directorship, or founder positions, and advising investment entities.  Situations such as these raise the potential for conflicts of interest. Perspectives on the situations in which conflicts of interest arise and on the rationale for the University's policies are provided in the Policy on Conflict of Commitment and Interest. As stated in that policy, a conflict of interest occurs where there is overlap and conflict between:

" individual's private interests and their professional obligations to the University such that an independent observer might reasonably question whether the individual's professional actions or decisions are determined by considerations of personal financial gain.

A conflict of interest depends on the situation, and not on the character or actions of the individual... It is wrong for an individual's actions or decisions made in the course of their University activities to be determined by considerations of personal financial gain."

See the Policy on Conflict of Commitment and Interest below for a fuller discussion of situations where there is a personal financial interest that may generate conflicts of interest and how such conflicts may be managed (RPH 4.1).

The following are additional guidelines applicable to situations where students have relationships with outside entities related to their academic activities:

  1. Students must support and foster an atmosphere of academic freedom by promoting the open and timely exchange of results of scholarly activities, by ensuring that their scholarship is not influenced by consideration of personal commercial interests, and by informing their faculty advisor or teacher of outside obligations that might influence the free exchange of scholarly information between them and others in their research group or class or involve a personal financial interest that affects the conduct of their academic activities.
  2. Students may not use University resources, including facilities, personnel, equipment, or confidential information, except in a purely incidental way, as part of their outside consulting activities or for any purposes that are unrelated to the education, research, scholarship, and public service missions of the University.
  3. Students must disclose on a timely basis the creation or discovery of all potentially patentable inventions created or discovered with more than incidental use of University resources. Ownership of such inventions must be assigned to the University regardless of the source of funding. The inventor will share in royalties earned.
  4. Students must disclose to the University whether they (or members of their immediate family) have consulting arrangements, significant financial interests (as defined in RPH 4.3), or employment in an outside entity before the University will approve either technology licensing arrangements or procurements between such entities and Stanford in situations which involve the student. In such cases, formal University approval will be required prior to entering into each such proposed arrangement.
  5. Students who are inventors of technology licensed by Stanford to private for-profit outside entities (e.g., startups) must follow the Conflict of Commitment and Conflict of Interest policies that are prescribed for faculty in these circumstances (RPH 4.1).  Specifically, the inventor’s School Dean and the Dean of Research will review any potential conflicts of interest.  The inventor must disclose any financial interest (e.g., consulting fees and/or options) and describe how they will separate and clearly distinguish their on-going activities as a student from work being done at the company and disclose measures that will allow them to avoid all use of Stanford facilities and personnel for company purposes.  If conflicts are deemed manageable by the Cognizant Dean and the Dean of Research, Office of Technology Licensing will be advised to proceed with licensing.  Students may not serve in managerial positions at entities that have stock options or that license the students’ technology while they are still enrolled or appointed at Stanford.  Students may take a leave of absence to work at the startup and will need to discuss their plans with their thesis advisor and the department chair; postdoctoral scholars will need to discuss plans with their faculty sponsor and the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs and must adhere to the postdoctoral leave of absence policy (RPH 10.3).
  6. Student disclosures of outside relationships should be made to the student's faculty research advisor or cognizant faculty member/ instructor. The faculty member should call unusual situations to the attention of the department chair or school dean (in those schools without departments).
  7. In situations in which the objectivity of the student could reasonably be questioned, the student and research advisor should discuss how the conflict of interest might be managed with the department chair and/or school dean. The student may appeal any decision made by the department chair to the school dean. An appeal of the school dean's decision may be made to the Dean of Research.