How to protect research ideas as a junior scientist

From Nature Careers

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Ideas...I use community-based participatory research methods to work with youth Black children and their families on issues such as substance use and HIV prevention. When I was applying for my first grant in 2019, I spoke to many mentors, community members and non-academic friends — and basically anyone else who would listen to my ideas. I took two months to write the proposal, much improved by their advice and feedback, and received funding the following year.

In 2020, I planned to apply for another grant, in response to a request from a federal funding agency for proposals investigating protective factors against substance use in young people in minority ethnic groups. As in my previous grant-writing journey, I shared my idea with anyone who would listen, but after realizing that I didn’t have the capacity to take on the project, I had decided to wait a couple of months before applying. I thought I had time because the closing date for grant applications was a few years later.

To my surprise, earlier this year, I saw a multimillion-dollar grant awarded to someone whom I didn’t know professionally, for aims that looked almost identical to mine. I was shocked and upset — but felt it might have been partly my fault for sharing my ideas too early. I had sent my project to many people, including senior scholars whom I didn’t really know, after colleagues had suggested that I contact them. Of course, it is possible that this person came up with the idea on their own — although, personally, I doubt it.

Why stealing ideas does not advance science

Scientists can and should be inspired by the work of others. Our overall goal should be to make an impact. But there is a big, definable difference between being inspired and treating someone’s ideas as your own.

Your work and ideas should be informed by your experiences, expertise, intelligence and passion. Scientists receive promotions, grants and tenure on the basis of proof that their work is innovative and that their ideas have contributed to change in their field. So it is important that established scientists understand the concern that junior scientists have when sharing their ideas. We have a legitimate reason to fear that our ideas will be stolen.

In my line of research, the ethical damage of running with others’ ideas is even worse: there are possible risks to the target populations of the work. One example is cultural appropriation, which can lead to flawed research designs and contribute to further mistrust of researchers. I am not a specialist on Native Americans and disparities in substance use in Indigenous youth — so if I write a grant proposal using the framework and research aims of someone whose body of work is focused on substance-use disparities in this group, I might get the grant, but I’ll start the work without the knowledge and cultural expertise needed to avoid harming this community. I might not be aware of cultural norms and areas of sensitivity. A scientist who is immersed in the culture would have a better understanding and should have been prioritized for such a project, or, at minimum, invited in as a subject expert.

The same holds true for my study area. I am a Black female scientist and do community-engaged work with youth of colour. It takes time to build meaningful relationships with these young people, and to collect meaningful community input — which is necessary to execute thoughtful research ideas that truly focus on community needs. I spend a lot of time in the communities I work with, meeting with the leaders and members, joining already-established coalitions and volunteering with organizations to truly immerse myself. Although these aren’t requirements for every research project, I find that immersion humbles me, shows me gaps that I could have missed and provides me with context. It helps me to remember that my data actually represent real people. And I become attached to the community, and want to make sure that my work has clear, positive impacts.

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.

Here’s some advice to minimize the risk of being scooped….

Read the article in full on the Nature Careers website to get all the tips

To give you a hint…

  • Prioritize disseminating and publishing your research
  • Have verbal and written contracts in place
  • Create a trusted circle

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