DO SCIENTISTS have property rights to their discoveries? In the West, the answer has been unequivocal. No property right exists unless the "discovery" can be patented as an "invention." Many scholars, metaphorically speaking, have insisted that scientists have a single property right, the right to be recognized as the author of a discovery. This is not a legal right. Only the "court of public opinion" within the scientific community can resolve disputes that have arisen throughout the history of science over alleged abrogations of this right.
During periods of abundant support for science, the exclusion of discoveries from legal protection has not been problematic. Basic research, in such times, has been stimulated by the availability of resources. Scientists have been rewarded for outstanding achievements through peer recognition, promotion, increased mobility, and greater opportunity to pursue research projects of personal interest. When support for science has been scarce, questions invariably have arisen as to whether it is "just" to deny legal protection for discoveries, especially when products of the scientist's creative endeavors translate into huge profits for industrial concerns.
Historically, the institutions that provide the financing for basic research have resisted attempts of scientists to secure legal rights to their discoveries. Industry has expressed concern over the costs of such a system. Government agencies, the chief source of basic research funds, have dismissed the idea as unnecessary. Universities, echoing norms prevalent in the scientific community, have asserted the idea that scientific knowledge is a public resource, free to all.