How should we think about clinical data ownership?

J Med Ethics. 2020 May;46(5):289-294. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2018-105340. Epub 2020 Jan 7.


The concept of 'ownership' is increasingly central to debates, in the media, health policy and bioethics, about the appropriate management of clinical data. I argue that the language of ownership acts as a metaphor and reflects multiple concerns about current data use and the disenfranchisement of citizens and collectives in the existing data ecosystem. But exactly which core interests and concerns ownership claims allude to remains opaque. Too often, we jump straight from 'ownership' to 'private property' and conclude 'the data belongs to the patient'. I will argue here that private property is only one type of relevant relationship between people, communities and data. There are several reasons to doubt that conceptualising data as private property presents a compelling response to concerns about clinical data ownership. In particular I argue that clinical data are co-constructed, so a property account would fail to confer exclusive rights to the patient. A non-property account of ownership acknowledges that the data are 'about the patient', and therefore the patient has relevant interests, without jumping to the conclusion that the data 'belongs to the patient'. On this broader account of ownership, the relevant harm is the severing of the connection between the patient and their data, and the solution is to re-engage and re-connect patients to the data research enterprise.

Keywords: data; ownership; private property; public interest; research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bioethics*
  • Ecosystem
  • Humans
  • Ownership*