Thursday, August 04, 2011


Have you ever had an idea for a research project that, as far as you knew, no one else was doing, only to find later that other people had the same idea at about the same time? Yes, there are instances of intellectual theft, but sometimes it seems like there is just something in the air (or water).

[Maybe this phenomenon is analogous to the one in which people think they are giving their baby a cool and unique name, only to find that every other kid of the same age is named Olivia or Logan?]

Some research projects arise from a synthesis of little bits of information and ideas that develop from reading, listening, and thinking -- perhaps over time or perhaps in a sudden burst of inspiration. You think you are the only one to have this idea because you haven't seen anything in the literature or at conferences to indicate anyone else is working on this.

But then, what seemed like open territory suddenly seems a bit crowded.

Has this happened to you? It just happened to some of my colleagues and me.

What you do next depends on whether you and the other researchers are interested in cooperating (or at least communicating) or competing.

Tomorrow's post: initiating communication with other research groups about parallel research


Arjun Narayan said...

"[S]urveys of hundreds of significant new technologies show that almost all of them are invented simultaneously or nearly simultaneously by two or more teams working independently of each other. Invention appears in significant part to be a social, not an individual, phenomenon. Inventors build on the work of those who came before, and new ideas are often "in the air," or result from changes in market demand or the availability of new or cheaper starting materials. ..."

Quoted from "The Myth of the Sole Inventor" by Mark A. Lemley, Stanford Law School

Yes, he is talking about patents, but this is a similar story. Funnily enough, this was blogged about 3 days ago on (where I first came across it).

Must be something in the air that got Will Wilkinson and you thinking about the same topic... :)

Anonymous said...

This seems to happen all the time in my field. My work is pretty theoretical, so I'm always interested in how much we've all indirectly been talking about the same thing (i.e., cross-fertilizing) vs. coming up with the ideas close to independently b/c they're the logical thing to do. It does put the pressure on to publish quickly and flashily, though, which I hate.

Phiala said...

That's steam engine time, and it's surprisingly common.

Pagan Topologist said...

I have solved three problems in my life (out of dozens, at least) which I believe would not have been solved for many years without me. One, because I was the only person in the field who had the right combination of skills and knowledge. The other two, because I was the only person in the world who cared enough about the answer to bother.

As you say, the phenomenon is pervasive.

Anonymous said...

I definitely came up with an idea for a project once and brought it up with my advisor... only to find out he had taken the preliminary data about a year ago. So not quite the same thing, but I'm only a student so I give myself kudos for at least thinking of one good idea, if it was a little late.

Anonymous said...

This happened to me very recently. The person who supervised my MA research almost 20 years ago either a) thought of doing the almost identical study I was doing, or (b) was the reviewer who said the work was too incremental and, when the paper was rejected, carried out very similar experiment and submitted it for publication while I ran a second experiment to make the paper stronger. In either case, this person made no mention of this work at conferences we both attend, even in a conversation where I shared a particularly interesting outcome from my experiment. This person's paper came out 3 months after mine and did not cite me. Nor did two other related papers that came out in ensuing months. I attempted a conversation with this person about their plans for this research (to avoid similar inadvertant (?) duplication) but got nowhere. I gave up and dropped that line of research.

Anonymous said...

It has happened to me a few times. usually I try to be friendly and communicate, but over the years I've learned to treat the problem with extreme caution. Once I tried to collaborate, even wrote a grant with the guy, just to realize that I was teaching him a lot and he was not putting anything original in the grant (which wasn't funded). He used tons of my info in his project... sigh. Not stealing exactly, it's just that he learned how an experimentalist would approach the problem (he's computational), and implemented it with someone else. A complication is that his student is brilliant and open, and obviously it bothers the guy when I talk to the student at conference. So now I keep some distance.
Other, happier instances are because either I know the other person reasonably well, or because I now use caution and I make sure that the other party is at least as open.

Anonymous said...

This happened to me. I decided to work on a hard question which people had given up about ten years earlier.

Within two weeks, another group solved the same problem using very different techniques. Both efforts proceeded in silence so I know the co-discovery was completely independent.

Ace said...

Absolutely, happens a lot. My phd advisor even used the exact same words (ideas being in the air) when we first noticed suddenly there were a few groups doing what we had been doing for a few years. It wasn't necessarily scoopage. I think it makes sense that people are going to get similar ideas based on the current state of the field.

I don't panic much. I've long realised, most the good ideas have been had before, sometimes decades earlier. But you can always do it better.

Anonymous said...

I'm Physics PhD student. I'm trying to come up with a dissertation topic. It seems like every time I come up with something "original," I find out a similar or nearly identical project had *just* been done (as in, within the past year).

Anonymous said...

Of course this happens all the time. As the field moves in some direction, the next problems to solve are obvious and it's perfectly natural that people start doing the same thing independently. Usually I maneuver to a slightly different angle or leverage a slightly different parameter space. But there was at least one instance where I was totally scooped and had to abandon the project -- the other party was using the exact same dataset, and they were doing a more thorough job with more sophisticated technique than we were. And they were more efficient too boot :-(