How to protect research ideas as a junior scientist

How to protect research ideas as a junior scientist

I’ve seen PIs ‘steal’ their trainee’s ideas. I have seen trainees ‘steal’ their PI’s ideas. Both parties are hurt by these actions. To avoid this, there should be contracts in place to protect everyone.

One reason scientists get scooped is because we do not instantaneously get our ideas into the world and get credit for them. It takes time to write grant applications, get decisions on whether they have been approved, publish manuscripts and prepare talks, alongside other commitments. It’s a perfect opportunity for someone with more time, power and bandwidth to take your idea and run with it.

This article about idea scooping address a concern for many researchers, but the way it gets discussed makes me uncomfortable. It basically proposes additional intellectual property restrictions for very early-stage ideas to prevent getting your colleagues scooping your ideas for their grant proposals. Scientific ideas are traditionally considered to be a public good (non-rivalrous and non-excludable) and the problem here seems to be that credit for the idea (not the idea itself) is excludable in practice. The public benefit of scientific ideas is already challenged by university’s patenting research results at the publication stage (making use of the idea excludable), and extending IP back to the ideation stage seems like a slippery slope towards limitations on who can do what research (i.e. the patent-troll model might get extended to idea-trolls). It would probably also add a bunch of extra bureaucracy for researchers to go through when ‘protecting’ their ideas and before submitting grants (Universities may be incentivised to create a ‘idea licensing office’ next to the ‘technology transfer office’).

Until processes are put in place to protect people’s ideas, theft will continue to happen. Do not let anyone tell you that you do not deserve to get credit for your ideas and contributions. Your expertise, creativity and innovative ideas are what will make a true impact on the world.

Separately, it’s not clear to me that the researcher who develops the idea is always (or even often) the best person to actually carry out the research. The fact that ideation and execution are very tightly linked in the grant/publication cycle seems like it may lead to inefficient distribution of labour among researchers. (anecdotally, I know of some, usually senior, researchers with more good ideas than they have time to develop into projects). Getting scooped sucks and it’s great to get credit for your ideas, but to me that argues for creating easy ways to publish early stage ideas so they can be credited (Seeds of Science and RIO’s Research Idea article type go in this direction) rather than trying to add extra IP restrictions.

[Somebody mentioned to me that protecting the idea and selling the rights to conduct the research would be how the problem of inefficient labour distribution would get solved in a traditional economic setting, which is an argument that could support IP protection for research ideas.]

Do others have any thoughts on this?