Years ago I used to blog on a personal finance blog called Money Smarts as Mr. Cheap. One of the posts there that I was particularly proud of was called “Ideas Are Cheap“. I’ve long felt that this is an important concept that many people have a misunderstanding of. This post is my attempt to articulate this idea in an academic context.
Aren’t Ideas the Currency of Academia?
PUBLICATIONS are the currency of academia, not ideas. And a publication is far more than an idea. It’s an idea, a methodology for supporting that idea, the execution of that methodology, a clear description of all the underlying knowledge, and an engagement with the submission and publication process of wherever it is published. For anyone who has gone through this process, the idea is the easy part. Most research groups will find they have far more ideas than they can actually explore, and a big part of the principal investigator’s role is to chart a course with the most promising avenues of investigation.
But The Big, Important People Got To Be Big And Important Because Of Their Ideas, Right?
Again, no. There are kooks running around everywhere with crazy ideas who aren’t considered great thinkers – although they’d like to be considered that.
Consider the non-kook Peter Higgs of Higgs Boson fame. Most non-physicists have heard of his work, which lead to a Nobel prize and experimental verification in 2012. Does his idea of the Higgs particle have value? I would argue no. He shared his discovery with François Englert who, working with Robert Brout, independently proposed a theory about the existence of the Higgs particle. Some might argue that this is a strange coincidence, but then consider that independent of Higgs and Englert another group (Tom Kibble, Gerald Guralnik and Carl Hagen) published what is considered a more complete theoretical explanation of the particle a few weeks after Peter Higgs.
In this situation, Peter Higgs EXECUTION is what has value. The idea itself occurred to 3 groups independent of one another. Had Peter Higgs never been born, the only difference with regards to this work is that it would be called the Englert/Brout particle or the GHK boson. Peter Higgs received credit because he got the project over the finish line first.
We see similar races in business. Facebook was one of a crop of social networking sites, along with MySpace, Friendster and Orkut. It wasn’t the idea of Facebook that had value, but the site they built and how they built it which did.
Many people who play video games think up what they imagine would be the best video game ever made. Many of these people don’t have the ability to actually make their games but are convinced the idea of it is massively valuable. Tom Sloper writes highly regarded advice for people wanting to work in the video game field. The very first column he wrote addressed this idea “I have a Great Idea for a video game… how do I sell it and get rich and famous?” He answers in the first paragraph “But, by the way, nobody will buy your idea, don’t be silly!“ MANY people are just this silly. I’ve met and talked to them. I’ve also talked to entrepreneurs with a similar silly idea that someone will buy or steal their business idea.
Another point he makes in this essay that I love is:
I have heard that a friend of Frank Herbert (author of Dune) asked Herbert to author the friend’s idea and split the profits 50/50. Herbert refused, even though the guy was a good friend — Herbert’s reply was basically that ideas are easy; the writing is the hard part.
And, I’ve talked to many academics who are paranoid that someone is going to steal their research direction and beat them to the punch on an earth-breaking idea. This is just as silly.
If you’ll allow me to beat a dead horse, Daniel Solis talks about this in the context of designing board games. What I love about his article is the point that these ideas that people are afraid of having stolen are iterations of other people’s ideas – the people who are protecting them stole them from other people.
The Danger of Sharing Ideas
If someone were to get an advanced copy of a research article or Ph.D. thesis, it is POSSIBLE that they might beat the author to the punch, publish it sooner and “get credit for the other person’s work”. Once the original author’s work came out and it was realized that there is a duplication, it isn’t that the research community is going to immediately assign all benefits to the first person who published. When the original author proves that it is her work that the other person stole, the thief would be a pariah in the academic community. After some messy, unpleasant work credit would be assigned to the proper author.
The benefit of stealing work is tiny and the drawbacks are huge. Few academics would be so stupid as to do such a thing.
One actual danger is you might have someone lazy try to hitch their horse to your cart. One of my friends was at a conference and talked to a professor he’d just met about an idea he had for a research project. This professor claimed he’s had the same idea (in all honesty he probably had), and suggested the student write it up and add the professor’s name as the second author. Mystified, my friend asked him to send over the work he had on it, to which this guy responded “oh, I don’t have anything written down”.
This was awkward. Now if my friend moved ahead with it, this guy could claim it should be joint work. My friend just decided not to pursue that research direction as there could be authorship issues down the road. If he had pursued it and didn’t add the professor as a co-author, I can’t imagine he could have had any issues whatsoever – saying “yeah, I’ve had the same idea” at a conference isn’t a contribution.
I had a similar experience when I talked to a couple of women at a conference and we discussed collaborating. Once it came time to start, neither of them was willing to do anything other than set my course for me to do all the work. The collaboration fizzled out shortly after this.
In this previous case, the professor wasn’t trying to steal my friend’s idea. He was trying to steal his work developing the idea! Another possibility is that the professor might have been trolling my friend or trying to teach him that you shouldn’t talk about speculative projects too freely at conferences.
Value of Sharing Ideas
The benefit of telling people your ideas in a creative, business or academic circle outweighs the risks. The feedback you might get includes:
- Being directed to work already done on the topic
- Actual improvements on the idea, with the possibility of collaborations
- Streamlining of your methodology – better ways to validate your idea
- Suggestions of related problems or other contexts it can be applied to
- Fundamental problems with your idea that save you from wasting time on it
Have you had ideas you were afraid of having stolen? Did they amount to anything? Have you ever had a good idea taken from you?