Thursday, August 12, 2010

Run With It

Have you ever voluntarily given away a good idea? I just did. I didn't do it out of altruism, although it's OK with me if the recipient of my idea thinks that.

I gave this idea away knowing that the person to whom I mentioned it might take it and run with it without me, but hoping that he would instead provide one little thing I needed to follow through with the idea myself or that he would at least express an interest in collaborating on the research related to testing my idea. In fact, he said "Great idea. I'll work on that and let you know how it turns out."

OK, that's fine. It isn't such an awesome idea that I am emotionally and professionally shattered by having someone else work on it. It just would have been fun. I could have worked on it without this guy, but it would have taken me a long time to get set up to do the research, whereas he, now that he has My Idea, can do the work rather quickly. I am sincerely looking forward to finding out the results, even if they are acquired by someone else.

I should also mention that this person is an assistant professor whose tenure evaluation is starting to loom. If this idea works out, it may help his career in some way. I hope it does.

Nevertheless, this incident started me thinking about what I would have done in a similar situation. The passage of years since my professorial youth has perhaps blurred my memory of what it was like to be an assistant professor, but the feeling of tenure anxiety is a rather visceral one that I don't think I have entirely forgotten.

So, I may be giving myself more credit than I am due, but I think that I would have taken the collaborative approach if given a good idea to run with. I think that I would have asked the giver if they wanted to collaborate, and, if they did, worked out a way to do so.

But everyone is different in terms of their interest and ability to collaborate. Collaborating has been a major feature of my career, and, for whatever reason, perhaps it isn't for the Recipient of My Idea. Maybe that's just how he prefers to work. Maybe he is concerned about getting maximum credit for his research.

What would you do if given a good research idea? (whatever your career stage)

Would you ever give away a good idea?

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well it depends on the idea, if the idea is of the sort that it essentially gave birth to paper or it contributed a major part in it then I will ask the person concerned if he would like to be a coauthor of the paper. But if the was not of prime interest of the paper and I don't see other person much interested in putting an effort in paper otherwise then I would prefer to give it proper credit in the paper (saying so and so gave it) and will not ask for co authorship. But in both cases, I will take prior permission of the person concerned beforehand.

mOOm said...

Coauthorship would be automatic in this situation unless the originator didn't want to put the effort into reading/editing the paper and didn't want their name on it. This has happened to me. Actually, a paper I currently have under review.

Anonymous said...

Whenever this happened to me in the past I have always offered to collaborate (at every career stage - grad student, postdoc, tenure track). Giving appropriate credit is vitally important to research integrity. In most cases this has led to co-authored papers, and on one or two occasions the giver of the idea has simply said that they would like to be acknowledged at the end of the paper - no more required.

In terms of giving away ideas, I have done it - sometimes it has worked out well, and sometimes it has backfired. One particular fail was with people that I thought I trusted (former PhD advisor and his group) - I suggested something, he suggested we collaborate, and then 2 months later a paper written by him and his two postdocs on this very topic appeared on the arXiv. I was gutted, but it was a valuable lesson - never share an idea unless you are prepared for someone else to take it up and run with it (or you are senior enough that they would not dare screw you over). Last week I put an idea I had been thinking about for a long time out there at a conference, and was gratified to see a lot of people taking an interest. Yes, it might mean that someone else gets there first but in this case I thought it was worth the risk to increase interest in this particular field (good for my grad students!) and to force me to get on and work on it. Oh, and I will be collaborating with someone on it :-)

Anonymous said...

I'd take it, if I liked the idea, and if it led anywhere I'd definitely give credit where due, if nothing else under the "thanks" part.

I almost feel like a given idea is more on loan than anything else, so I'd watch the person to see how they want to play it -- some brilliant people spin off ideas they want to see made wrok to smart people hoping it will happen, some wnat collaborators.

Anonymous said...

You give him the idea, he executes it. Isn't just giving him the idea worthy of coauthorship on any resulting papers? It's a collaboration already.

Anonymous said...

Collaborations can be tricky for an assistant professor, who must establish independence while simultaneously showing their ability to work in the Interdisciplinary Teams that funding agencies (and Deans, etc.) are so fond of.

But it sounds like your colleague had a great opportunity to collaborate with you, since he is already set up to do experiments that you are not. For me, the collaborations where each side brings a unique technique or analysis method or whatever are the best kind, because they actually ARE synergistic, rather than just being described to funding agencies as such.

And for assistant professors, it is much easier to point to their unique contributions to a collaborative project when it can be clearly shown what results were enabled by their unique expertise.

So in this case, I think your colleague missed out on a chance to develop stronger connections to you and your expertise. But perhaps he already has established collaborations with others, and feels like he already has the "interdisciplinary team member" portion of his tenure dossier under control. Perhaps he's more worried about the "independent investigator" angle. It's probably not the way I would have handled it, either, but I can easily envision legitimate reasons why an asst. prof. was not interested in collaborating with you, pre-tenure.

Academacule said...

I would probably take the collaborative approach, myself. The dual currencies of science are ideas and work, and I'd feel like a bit of a thief if I took someone else's idea without at least inviting them to work with me on it.

--Unless I understood that they were handing it off to me specifically because it fell into the category of "interesting ideas I don't want to work on myself."--

But I can certainly understand why an Assistant Professor would jump at the idea of solo-work. Right or wrong, people on the tenure track receive a constant barrage of advice about proving their independence as researchers.

That doesn't reflect the post-tenure reality that, in most fields anyway, collaboration is increasingly common and beneficial to all involved. But it does reflect the warped realities of the tenure track.

Anonymous said...

You mentioned this colleague was male. I'm curious if the differences between expectations of collaboration/sharing could be due to the differences in the way men and women think about projects. As a female scientist I too, have generally collaborated when someone else broaches an idea. All the women I've given ideas to (granted my department isn't big) have offered to collaborate. However, the opposite is true with my male colleagues. I'm sure it's more complex than can be stated in a comment, but the scientist in me is now intrigued. I would guess there is some research somewhere on this very issue.

Micro Dr. O said...

I gave some good ideas away last year to our newish grad student (starting her 3rd year now) in the lab. Her project was falling apart, she needed a new one, I already had plenty to do, and I didn't have time to work on those great ideas. I figured she needed them more than I, and one of them has taken off for her.

When she was telling someone else about her project (from my great idea) and how it came to be the other day, I was left out of the equation entirely. It hurt a bit, but not much. Of course, I know she's not a very collaborative-minded person, so it's probably better that I let it go completely. Oh well...

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Anon at 6 am: I was wondering if there was a gender difference, too! In my experience, ideas that I've shared with female colleagues (research and service) get shared or credited back to me in some way. The males that I have shared (not given) ideas to take 'em and...erm...run with them.

This might not be a true gender difference, of course, but my experiences do make me wonder....

Greg said...

Science is always a discussion and we all help each other. Perhaps I'm a bit idealistic, but I think we should all be engaged in the conversation of science and "give away" good ideas. This happens frequently in seminars and conferences during the discussion periods. That being said, if it is an idea that you really want to work on prefacing the sharing of the idea with an offer to collaborate is great. What I think is bad for science is that ideas are not put out there and acted upon. Keeping an idea to yourself and never getting around to doing it is a travesty.

Anonymous said...

As an assistant professor, I would take the collaborative approach. not just because it's ethically the right thing to do, but also because I wouldn't want to risk pissing off a senior professor who might have a say on that upcoming tenure case (either directly with a vote, or indirectly by the gossip line to people with a vote) - a grudge to deal with would be far worse than one less solo-authored paper.

Anonymous said...

Ideas are cheap in my mind--the hard part is getting the experiments to work, and dealing with the fact that the results almost never are entirely what you expect.

If she/he could have done the work quickly with you as a genuine experimental collaborator, and you have no previous mentoring relationship (including being in the same Department) that might reduce someone's view of their independence, I agree they would have been wise to go that way. But getting co-authorship for a good idea that nudges someone in the right direction is simply not my idea of how things should work.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

You say you gave the idea to you colleague. Are you an Indian giver?, let it go.

GMP said...

Well, he may not want to collaborate up front , but that does not mean he will not give you credit. For most d00ds (well, at least all whom I have ever dated or collaborated with, for sure), admitting they need any help in any aspect is just impossible, unless they are hopelessly and painfully stuck.

It sounds like he wants to give it a go on his own, which I understand: he does not want to admit (to a senior scientist, let alone a woman!) that he's anything but entirely independent. But I wouldn't be surprised if he contacted you a few months from now, referred to your conversation, and tried to engage you in the project. That happens (often when the person does get stuck). Also, it is possible that he will offer you coauthorship when a paper is nearly ready for submission (I have had that happen too).

But of course, it could be he's just an idea hog. Let's hope not. You are certainly due for some type of acknowledgement.

Dave Backus said...

You've done a wonderful thing.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I give away dozens, even hundreds, of "good ideas" a year. Sometimes someone offers a collaboration, sometimes not. Most of the time no one has the spare time or money to follow up on the idea, no matter how good it is. Sometimes someone suggests a collaboration and I decline, because the idea was easy to come up with, but I don't want to do the hard work of doing the experiments to test it.

There is a big difference between having someone steal nearly finished work and tossing out an idea that someone decides is worth investigating. It is nice to get an acknowledgment, and co-author credit is sometimes justified (if the idea is really novel and makes an important breakthrough), but ideas are really a dime a dozen.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I've been on both sides of this, FSP.

1. An article I published just as I was finishing grad school was going to be the basis for my second book project. But I didn't do anything else with it, and 5 years later, I find that someone is working on a dissertation on it (with my article heavily cited in pieces of it). Fine, I let it lie fallow for too long. And honestly, I'm not sure what I would have done with it. But what I would have appreciated was something like what I did...

2. Working in the archives, I stumbled across Really Interesting Document that I wanted to work on. But I kept hearing "Big Deal Professor is working on that." So I filed it away, but I kept getting drawn back, and BDP kept not publishing on it. Finally, I approached Big Deal Professor at a conference, and explained what I was interested in doing with Really Interesting Document. Was he still working on it? "Oh, no... I haven't thought about that project in years. Go for it."

It's just a matter of professional courtesy.

Of course, in the Humanities, we rarely do coauthored papers, and that seems to be what your situation may demand.

Silver Fox said...

Is there something wrong with saying, at the time or shortly after, that you want to be included as part collaborator and author? Obviously that wouldn't work when someone has already gone and done the work and quickly published, as in Anonymous 2:57pm.

Anonymous said...

Ok, this interesting post makes me think of a tangential question...

Were you assertive when you gave out this idea? Meaning, did you expressly convey to this assistant professor that you wanted to collaborate, or that you want acknowledgement for the idea if articles are forth coming?
Without this type of clear message, the recipient of your great idea must guess at your intent...

Anonymous said...

Yeah I'm not sure. There's a lot of context-dependence here.

For example, let's say that you get a question after giving a seminar proposing an experiment you should try and you honestly hadn't thought of the proposed approach. I feel like it's totally legit to say "wow, that's a great idea, we'll definitely try that and I'll let you know how it turns out" and not feel obligated to give credit to whoever it was that asked the question.

If it's something a lot more general like an idea for a whole research program, collaboration might be more warranted.

Anonymous said...

I am caught up in the thought of "giving away an idea" and wondering if I have ever "taken an idea" from someone else without realizing it.

I once gave an idea to a fellow postdoc - he was preparing proposals for job applications and I (in preparation for my own job apps) had been kicking around an idea for a while that I didn't really have the skills to execute, but he did. It would not have made sense to collaborate, and we verified that he could "take the idea" and use it without looking back.

On the other hand, I just returned from a conference where a collaborator and I brainstormed for a while and came up with some good ideas (his ideas? my ideas?). Since we already collaborate, it's not a big deal, but we did come up with some things that only I could do or only he could do, and I'm not worried about proper attribution of the ideas. If we collaborate, we co-publish, if one of us does the work, acknowledgement could be given but isn't necessary.

I fear that, because we spend so much time thinking about things, there are ideas that I think are "mine" but may have come from an outside source (a comment at a conference, a journal article, a question from a student).

Anonymous said...

I've been in a similar situation, twice, with a younger assistant prof with who's my co-PI on a grant. BTW we are both women. Both times I would enthusiastically talk about something, she would act uninterested, run with the idea without my knowledge, etc. All sorts of nice things like that. The first time she did the work, and then offered me authorship; I was hesitant because it was her first independent paper, so I asked to see the draft; 6 months later, I asked again. The paper had been submitted with me in the acknowledgments. And rejected :-) :-)
The last time she initiated a collaboration with Really Famous Guy on my idea, without disclosing anything to me. I found out by accident, and when I confronted her she told me in tears that she didn't think I was interested in my idea!!! isn't that something?! So we agreed on a plan to go forward, then we both left for several trips.... And now she acts like nothing had happened....
I mean, had I done something so appallingly unethical I would lay really, really low and do everything I could to have the other person forgive me....
I'm so tempted to kick her off the grant. What should I do?
@#&&@&

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 2:53: two words: Cat Fight

GMP said...

Anon @ 2:53: I think her view of the situation may be drastically different than yours...

I wouldn'd try to kick her off the grant -- I don't even know how one does that, you probably must justify total lack of activity or something to the granting agency; however, being a co-PI, she's not really a subordinate but a partner. Simply live and learn: take this as a lesson and do not participate on new grant proposals with her.

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:07:
right, so it's a cat fight because we are both women. Had we been two guys, I suppose you'd advise us to take it outside.
Thanks for the constructive comment.

Anonymous said...

There are ideas and there are ideas. Some ideas are really really original and profound, and some are only slightly different from things that are already out there. Some are so easy to execute that the idea is almost the paper by itself, and some will take so much work to execute that the idea is really a tiny part of the work and doesn't deserve co-authorship on its own (which some are suggesting, though I don't think FSP was).

Yes, sometimes idea recipients are not sufficiently grateful and don't offer to collaborate when they should. But it can go another way too. Sometimes senior people who are too over the hill to do any work themselves "give" a lot of ideas to junior people as a way to try to get the junior people to do work for them. This can actually put the junior person in a difficult position, esp. if they are already working independently on things somewhat close to the "given" idea.

I am midcareer seniority and I have been on both sides of this too. But I think if you give the idea away and ask for nothing in return you have to be prepared to have the gift be accepted.

Anonymous said...

He may not have realized you wanted to go further and collaborate with him on the idea. Maybe he just took it as a technical discussion with a helpful mentoring senior presence far too smart and busy to be interested in collaborating with him.

Anonymous said...

What's with the passive-aggressive "test him to see if he offers a collaboration" dealio, FSP?

People offer advice and ideas all the time in my world. If they intend a collaboration, they say so. I think it not unreasonable to conclude that you were not looking to be involved, given the way you describe your approach to this person.
DM

Female Science Professor said...

It might be hard to imagine, but my description of my interaction with this guy was just a synopsis of our conversation. In fact, it was a bit more wide ranging. He specifically indicated that he wanted to work on this new project all by himself (after thanking me for the idea) and ignored my very direct offer to collaborate on this with him if he wanted. I did not push the offer or make him feel bad about it. I look forward to his results.

EcoNerd said...

This doesn't exactly apply to the situation at hand, but in my experience, good collaborations make it very hard to pin down the exact origins of 'an idea'. Most of the time, the new idea arises from the interaction of two or more people's views on a problem. Creating an atmosphere where that sharing occurs is the challenge.

Anonymous said...

In any case, Assistant Professor is a jerk.

Anonymous said...

Make him pay on his tenure review.

Anonymous said...

It is good to see that consensus here seems to be that if a paper is born co-authorship is warranted. In my own academic career so far I have seen more cases behaving like the assistant prof you describe than I would have liked. This is unfortunate because I do think good science comes out of the resonance of interaction between scientists. A particularly touchy manifestation of this issue the following: You are leaving your mentor's group to found your own lab. To whom would the ideas you have generated belong? Given my own experience in this regard I have made it a point to discuss this openly and in detail with my post-docs when they are leaving to start their labs.