Friday, June 22, 2007

(Not) Aiding & Abetting

A few times in the past year, I've written about situations in which research groups at other universities started working on very similar things as my research group, in some cases after seeing a proposal or talk by my group. Depending on the situation, this is either fine (scientific results should be reproduced, and good ideas should inspire other good ideas) or unethical. I'm not going to repeat that part of the discussion today.

The issue of the day related to the copycat scenario involves a strange email I got from one of these copycats. Last year, I learned indirectly that he and a colleague started working on the same thing I am already working on, using the same materials and techniques. I'm not too concerned about this because I've got a head-start on the research, I have funding (they do not), and I'm egotistical enough to think that my work is better. Whether or not the latter is true, I'm just doing the research as I think best, finding out some interesting things, and not worrying about these other guys. Except.. today one of these people wrote me a vague email asking me to tell him how I do one particular critical step in the research. He was cagey about why he wants this information, leaving open the possibility that he is working on something completely different that just happens to require this information.

The particular procedure with which he is struggling is something that my group struggled with as well. It took a lot of effort and false starts before we finally found a way that works well and consistently. It doesn't surprise me that he is having trouble with this too, but I think it's obnoxious that he wants me to tell him how to do this. He already took my idea, and now he wants me to make it easy for him to do the actual work.

I wrote back a polite but vague reply, acknowledging that it's a difficult thing to work out and asking some questions about what he has already tried. If he seems interested in discussing it further, I will help him. I see no reason to be secretive, even if I don't like or respect his tactics.


Anonymous said...

I see nothing wrong with working on something someone presented at a talk. (And I say this as a slow and scooped researcher.) It seems normal, especially if the two parties are coming from different theoretical perspectives. In fact, it seems natural in that case. Getting ideas from a proposal seems ickier.

You're nice to share (guardedly). At this stage of my career, I'm just so happy anyone is interested on anything I do, that I sent everything, from code to stimuli.

Mr. B. said...


I don't think you are under any kind of ethical obligation to help him with anything, unless he is trying to reproduce an experiment that you have already PUBLISHED.

Mr. B.

Rosie Redfield said...

Altruistic perspective: The more we all help each other, the faster science will progress.

Social perspective: It's a reasonable courtesy to inform the originator of an idea or approach that you're going to try it too. Then you can openly ask for advice and share ideas.

Cynical perspective: People who think secrecy and competition are better approaches to research than openness and collaboration generally do not make good collaborators.

Dr. K said...

I would say: "You know, I've been working on a very similar problem. I'll be happy to share my methods and results with you when they're ready for publication/dissemination."

LZ Blogger said...

Maybe they apply that standard philosophy that seems to be prevalent in today's society...
let no one's work
escape your eyes!"
~ jb///

Mr. B. said...

Or as Tom Lehrer wrote:

Let no one else's work evade your eyes,
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
So don't shade your eyes,
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize...
Only be sure always to call it please, "research".

TW Andrews said...

If he seems interested in discussing it further, I will help him. I see no reason to be secretive, even if I don't like or respect his tactics

Really? That's an impressive degree of self assurance. I'd have told him that it's a critical piece of your research and he can read all about it when you publish.

Anonymous said...

You know, I really think how this _should_ work is that you should tell him about the critical step. After all, what purpose is served in society by him running around in circles trying to do something you know how to do.

That being said, I recognize that if this is only a one way street, and they guy is secretive, in the end, less science could get done, because your work could suffer, ultimately giving you less access to the resources you need to do your work. And, you've already proven that you can do it (at least in this case) better than him. I think I'd ask him what he's trying to do, and then share, if he shares. Then, I'd expect some sharing in return (although I don't know what you do if you think he'll never have any help to offer you).



Jeremy said...

Hmm... If this work was already published, it would hopefully be explained in sufficient detail that he could just copy it. If it's not already published, and it's interesting, then I'd wait to tell him how to do it until after the paper was accepted, since you should be the one who gets credit for the discovery.

Another thought would be that if this step is truly difficult and he works on it himself and finds another way to do it, then that would be broadly beneficial to science in general, which is a good thing for all involved.

Drugmonkey said...

Your approach sounds perfect. If someone is perpetuating some sneaky copycatting instead of legitimate scientific exchange, you respond with nothing. If the person fesses up to what they are doing and is willing to discuss things with your openly then you reward this with the goods. the way to break the "cycle" of bad competition and scooping is to withhold the rewards for bad behavior and reward good behavior.