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Should Young Researchers Be Paranoid About Their Ideas Being Stolen?

Being “scooped” is all too common in the publish-or-perish world of research.

01/02/2017 8:01 PM IST | Updated 07/02/2017 9:20 AM IST
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The Huffington Post published an insightful article back in 2014 on plagiarism in the context of a case against George Harrison and his solo hit immediately following the break-up of the Beatles. The psychological term "kleptomnesia" was used to describe the likely biological cause of the tendency of humans to plagiarise. The brain is apparently wired to remember the content rather than the origin of what we consider interesting. To avoid kleptomnesia, we need to be really mindful and pay attention to the origin of the material we see so that we don't simply steal the creations of others.

In many cases, plagiarism is much more deliberate than simple kleptomnesia which almost sounds like a harmless evolutionary instinct.

I was thinking of writing about plagiarism in scientific publications for a while but wasn't sure there was something new to say. But then my friend Elizabeth sent this image of some homework done by my goddaughter Ravenna. It is stunning that Ravenna ribbed her brother Saar in a sentence where she was asked to use the word "stop: she wrote, "Saar stop plagiarising me." Pretty amazing for a 6 year old!! That goaded me into jotting this blog down (and hope that the editors would let it through despite the "unoriginal" aspects of it).

I suffered my own depressing episode of plagiarism early on in my career. Armed with a fresh PhD, I was raring to start publishing, not only to establish myself in the US but also to start working with colleagues around the world. I naively shared an idea I thought was great with a senior colleague and he immediately caught on to it. After doing some preliminary work with me, the person went on to publish the work with some other people without including me on the authors' list—quite perplexing to me to this day after 20 years. The paper went on to become big and that felt even more egregious. But I had to decide quickly how I was going to respond to this blow at the very beginning of my career. I wasn't as concerned about what to do with the person who hijacked my idea as I was about the question of what my philosophy of life would be. Would I continue to share ideas with friends and colleagues or would I become secretive and avoid discussing my nascent thoughts with others? Without any idea about what would happen in the future, I decided that it was way more fun to discuss ideas and work with as many people as possible instead of becoming paranoid because of one bad experience. I am happy to report that this choice has served me well in terms of having loads of fun and working with some pretty amazing people and making friends all over the world.

Sadly, complaints from young scientists continue about plagiarism in the peer-reviewed publication business, which is a cornerstone of any research field. Nearly all peer-reviews are anonymous to the authors but the editor obviously knows the reviewers. There is a certain blind trust involved since the reviewer is expected to keep the ideas private—not only in terms of not discussing the submitted manuscripts with others but also not usurping them and passing them off as one's own. But it is obviously too tempting for some to break this trust. Plagiarism now takes many forms—ranging from cut and paste to rewording or rushing it to another journal as one's own while the review process of the original manuscript is underway, etc. In many cases, plagiarism is much more deliberate than simple kleptomnesia which almost sounds like a harmless evolutionary instinct.

Be careful about plagiarism but never let worries about it get in the way of thoroughly enjoying the exploration that you worked so hard to pursue as a career choice.

In fact, one theory suggests that cooperation among humans evolved as a protection against plagiarism. If one prehistoric human invented a spear to hunt or fish, then another human could watch him or her and improve upon it and outdo the originator of the idea. It would thus be wiser to simply share the idea with a group and build a team of hunters or fishers. But the super-competitive publish-or-perish nature of research may now be bringing out the worst in some. The most fun part of research is to present interesting thought experiments at meetings and over coffee or a glass of wine to get feedback or develop collaborations. It is distressing that this joyous part of research is often decimated in young researchers by reckless plagiarism by some.

As Melody Wilding suggests, one of the ways to avoid being scooped is to discuss the idea with a group instead of individuals and keep records in emails and memos. It is unfortunate that one has to worry about this, especially at the very outset of one's career. My advice to youngsters is very simple. No matter how intelligent you are, there will always be someone more intelligent. No matter how rapidly you innovate or generate new ideas, there may be someone who is even faster. But if you enjoy what you do, then it doesn't matter how much fun someone else has! So be careful about plagiarism but never let worries about it get in the way of thoroughly enjoying the exploration that you worked so hard to pursue as a career choice. Life is a marathon and not a sprint. There is plenty to publish even if you lose an idea or two to some kleptomnesiac. Have fun!

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