I’ve been at my PhD for almost 18 months now and I’ve come up against the barrier of intellectual property rights on more than one occasion.

Intellectual Property (IP) is that which is created by an invention or design and then deemed to belong to its creator.  Life science companies use their IP rights all the time; to protect their products and safeguard themselves from being copied and undercut.  They do this by keeping ‘company secrets’.

I was using a commercial kit to assess a panel of reference genes for use in my qPCR experiments.  MIQE guidelines say we shouldn’t assume that the reference genes that we’re all used to using (GAPDH, for example) are stably expressed across all samples and that an assessment of the most suitable genes should be carried out prior to the experiment itself.  When I came to look at the details of each primer I noticed that some important details were missing, I didn’t have the primer sequences.  Companies will keep their sequences a secret to stop you from having them manufactured cheaper and you can’t really blame them for that; they’ve designed them, they’ve optimised them, why shouldn’t they benefit from the effort they’ve put in?

However, MIQE also advises that you should publish your primer sequences with your qPCR data because of their effect on efficiency.  It can only be, then, that commercially available reference gene assessment kits which don’t supply primer sequences aren’t MIQE compliant; a headache when MIQE has come to establish itself as the gold standard in qPCR guidelines and all we want to do is really good science (an update to the MIQE guidelines addressing this problem can be found here).

The problem with company secrets will more directly impact PhD students like myself who will be expected, at some time or another, to describe the reasoning and purpose behind every experiment they do.  This became clear to me when I was using a buffer supplied in a kit and referred to only as a protein precipitator.  I contacted the manufacturers of the buffer and asked if they could tell me the constituents or, knowing they’d be reluctant, at least the general process by which the buffer works.  The very swift reply I received stated that this information was indeed a company secret but that I could be confident that the buffer was effective.

Is this enough for the publication of good scientific research?  When they won’t tell us how their products work, can we trust these companies enough to accept that they do?  Is IP simply keeping companies in business to develop better reagents for us?  And can we live with not being able to efficiently troubleshoot our own methods without spending hours on the phone to tech support?

Tell me what you think below or @KarlyBroadway on Twitter.