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.
11 months ago