Rules of the game

Tim Birkhead asks: When does being inspired by another's idea turn into theft?

February 7, 2008

Imagine that having completed his voyage around the world and formulated his concept of evolution by natural selection, instead of keeping quiet about the idea for 20 years as he sought to consolidate it, Charles Darwin told his colleagues what he was thinking. Now imagine that one of those so-called colleagues, recognising the significance of natural selection, decided to make it his own and publish ahead of Darwin. Knowing the facts as we do, we would be outraged by such presumptuous behaviour.

In fact one person - a certain Patrick Matthew - claimed natural selection to be his idea since he wrote about it in 1831 in an appendix to a book on naval timber and "arboriculture", and he was outraged that Darwin had failed to give him credit. So obscure was Matthew's book that it is unlikely that Darwin ever saw it and could hardly be accused of having stolen the idea. Matthew, of course, felt otherwise. Be that as it may, it is generally agreed that stealing ideas is both verboten and commonplace in science.

For many areas of scientific research, ideas, rather than facts, are the currency. One only has to think how vital the notion of the double helix was for James Watson and Francis Crick in their elucidation of the structure of DNA.

Scientists walk a tightrope: they rely on other people's ideas to stimulate their own but are wary of giving their own ideas away. Yet their day-to-day existence requires them to expose their ideas - when they discuss research with colleagues, make a grant application, offer a PhD placement, submit a paper for publication or give a presentation. We go to conferences for intellectual stimulation; to get ideas - not to steal them, but to trigger associations and generate our own ideas. Often, if someone discusses a topic, and in doing so discloses an idea, the unstated "rule" is that the idea is their intellectual property and it would therefore be wrong to steal it. For the unscrupulous, however, such interactions are a gift, a shortcut to success.

Deciding what's right and what's wrong is difficult precisely because there exists a huge grey area. Professor X, who has been thinking about a particular problem for some time, goes to a conference where Professor Y, who has been working on a similar topic, is giving a presentation. During the presentation, Professor Y says something that triggers a train of thought in Professor X allowing him (or her) to solve the problem (and publish ahead of Professor Y). Professor X does not feel that he has behaved inappropriately, but Professor Y feels - like Patrick Matthew - that his idea has been stolen.

As science becomes more competitive and the rewards from cheating increase, the risks of having ideas stolen increase. Certain disciplines are notorious: my medical colleagues tell me that no one in their field ever discusses an idea in public unless it has been accepted for publication or is published. In other fields, researchers have got their acts together: ideas are discussed openly and, critically, those who abuse the system are punished.

Another strategy is to blog - see

During my career I have had instances where prospective PhD candidates have stolen ideas - probably innocently, or at least naively. At one level, these cases are trivial, albeit illustrative. The way PhD studentships work in my discipline is that supervisors think up a research problem. It is inevitable that ideas are discussed in candidate interviews and suggestions are made for how the research question might be tackled. In one case I recall, a PhD candidate failed to get the studentship on offer, but nonetheless assumed ownership of the PhD topic that I had suggested. That candidate then went to another potential supervisor in another institution who, knowing nothing of the previous interview, was impressed by the candidate's apparently novel ideas. However, unknown to the candidate, both potential supervisors knew each other and later exchanged notes, resulting in the candidate not being offered a position at the second institution. Undaunted, the candidate took the project idea abroad, and succeeded in persuading another potential PhD supervisor to take them on. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, the candidate failed to live up to expectations and did not complete the PhD. I suspect that this candidate's behaviour was a mixture of naivety and opportunism: initially naivety but then, seeing the effect on potential supervisors, opportunism.

If it was naivety, it stemmed from being unaware of the rules. Which are what? If an academic discusses a PhD project with a potential candidate, does that mean the topic is up for grabs? I think not. What about an idea given in a talk at a conference? Is that in the public domain? Possibly. What about ideas discussed in conversation? I think here the rule is that if the conversation is between friends the recipient will respect the ownership of the idea, but if the conversation is between strangers, it is up for grabs. In fact there are no rules. Some scientists even use ideas to enhance their status and literally gush with ideas - the inclination then is for others to think they don't value them, and assume they are for the taking.

Darwin had a great idea and sat on it, barely breathing a word of it until he was sure, and only then to trusted colleagues. That he feared being scooped is clear from his later response to Alfred Russel Wallace's independent discovery of natural selection. But it is also clear that those discussions Darwin had with his academic buddies were crucial in honing his ideas. Progress in science relies on the exchange of ideas, and it will be a sad day if competition and fear of theft inhibit us from engaging in this most stimulating aspect of academia.

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