If I come up with a great new research idea, sit on it for a couple of years, and then someone else publishes it before I do, then I got scooped. This is unfortunate but as long as the ideas were developed independently, nobody has done anything wrong. Of course, in the real world, establishing independence can be hard and sometimes this causes nastiness like the Leibniz-Newton controversy. This piece is about some flavors of scooping where ideas are not independently developed.
First I’ll quickly summarize the ground rules. It is always OK for me to publish work that builds upon someone else’s ideas providing that the earlier work has been published and that I properly acknowledge it. It is sometimes OK for me to publish ideas building upon someone else’s work without citation, for example if the work is old enough and well-known enough that it can be considered part of the common knowledge. Without this loophole we’d have to cite a pile of Knuth and Dijkstra (and Leibniz and Newton and Aristotle…) papers almost any time we wrote anything. It is never OK for me to publish ideas that build upon someone’s unpublished work that I acquired through unofficial channels such as reviewing a paper, sitting on a grant panel, finding a paper at the printer, or similar.
These rules are pretty simple and usually there’s no trouble following them. But how do they interact with newer publication possibilities such as arXiv or blogs? I recently heard about a case where a professor placed a paper draft on arXiv. Subsequently, this professor submitted a revised version of the arXiv paper to a conference where it found itself in competition with a different paper, also based on his work that had been posted to arXiv, but which was written by someone completely different who had simply read the paper from arXiv, liked it, and wanted to extend it. Was this OK? How about if something similar happens based on a blog post? What if I host a paper that I’m working on in a public Github repository and someone reads it there, extends it, and wins the publication race?
I propose that the guideline for “proper use” of someone’s ideas should be based on a standard similar to the public disclosure rule for patents in the US. In other words, if a researcher has publicly disclosed his or her ideas—in a blog, on arXiv, in a technical report, on Github, or anywhere else—then I am free to build upon them, provided of course that I cite the source properly. Conversely, a confidential disclosure of research ideas (peer review of grant proposals and papers would fall into this category) would not give me the right to scoop a researcher.
The patent analogy is not perfect but I think we should borrow the general idea that any disclosure is public unless it is explicitly confidential. I’ll be interested to hear what people think. Finally, to return to the example, posting the work on arXiv constituted a public disclosure of the ideas, so the competing researcher was perfectly within his/her rights to submit a paper that would potentially scoop the original author.