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A while back I reached the stage where my ideas for research topics/papers exceeded my capacity to personally work on them. As a PostDoc, I tried to head-hunt students or more junior researchers in my area (or at conferences, etc.) to talk with them about the ideas and see if they would be interested in collaborating or co-authoring a paper. This worked well for a while.

But now (more recently) I find that I again have a back-log of promising topics that have exceeded my capacity to even advise/delegate. I have no students to work on them. The ideas are mixed in quality, concreteness, promise, etc. and I'm saving some of the ones I am most interested in for myself or for students. But I know that there are others I will have to neglect (and I often choose the "safer" topics since being in tenure-track, I have a constant hunger for publications).

Now I have a text file on my hard-drive with a list of sketches of ideas so that I remember them. But a lot of the details are left unexpressed in my head; most of the ideas in the text file would be pretty meaningless in their current form without some explanation, further development, context and/or motivation from me. At the same time, I have sufficient experience to know that there are interesting paper/thesis topics in there that I could help develop and/or advise if I had the time/money.

For some of the topics, I have been saying "some day" for too long.

In any case, I cannot imagine I am alone in this. I am sure that various researchers see many potentially promising research topics fall "by the wayside" due to more urgent, day-to-day matters. I sometimes wonder if other professors similarly have lists of research topics that just rot away in a text file somewhere. It would seem like such a waste if this were the case: think about the union of all these text files sitting on local hard-drives! It would seem to be a major flaw in the academic research system if this were prevalent: that the sharing of raw (or perhaps lightly pasteurised) ideas is not properly incentivised by "the system".


The question ...

Assuming I have a surplus of (good) ideas for research topics in my area – that I cannot work on myself and cannot delegate or even find time to actively advise – what should I do with them?

To avoid a loss of generality, a good answer should assume that I'm not a nice guy: what personal incentive would I have for sharing my ideas in this manner? I don't want to give away my ideas for free. These ideas require development and expression before they can be shared (which is difficult to do "up front"). If I am not incentivised to develop the ideas into a shareable form, the reality is that I will use my precious time to do something else I am incentivised to do.

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If you need personal incentives to motivate you to share ideas with the community, why are you in academia? :) Pretty much the only way to get measurable personal benefit from academic ideas is to publish, so if you have no intention of doing that, these ideas will never do you any good and might as well be given away. –  Nate Eldredge Apr 25 at 19:48
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Are there open problems rump sessions at your major meetings ? –  Suresh Apr 25 at 19:54
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@Suresh, not stated as such, no. My area of CS is quite applied. There are discussion fora, but they tend to talk about the big questions/community directions rather than specific open problems/topics. –  badroit Apr 25 at 20:26
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For a very interesting blog post on this matter (ideas backlog) see: this –  cabad Apr 26 at 0:45
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@cabad I think you have the wrong link. that one merely shows two pictures. –  Suresh Apr 26 at 13:14

4 Answers 4

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I believe the most 'formal' way to share these would be to write a survey of the area that your open problems relate to, highlighting each problem. This adds a publication, and anyone who solves one of the problems is likely to cite it. Moreover, if the survey is sufficiently in-depth, it can generate a large number of citations as an introduction to the area.

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Except that probably takes as long as just solving the open problems and publishing them! –  David Richerby Apr 26 at 18:02

An incentive you should recognize is time: worrying about these problems takes time away from what you do want to prioritize.

I recommend the following experiment, and will assume for sake of discussion that the ideas lie within mathematics. Take one or two of the ideas that you consider expendable, and spend 30 minutes writing a MathOverflow post about them. Post that on MathOverflow, and then sit back and wait. If you do it with proper attribution, people may solve them and give you credit for your contribution, or otherwise make progress that you might deem satisfactory. Or they might be ignored for a while. The basic idea has been put out there, and you can decide to reprioritize it and then later post what progress you have made as a partial answer.

The point of the experiment is to see how you feel about letting something go. If it works well for you, you can repeat it with other things. If it doesn't, you can stop at the second or third expendable idea this way. I have the hope that sharing some of your low priority expendable ideas will bring more satisfaction than waiting for the right time to reveal it to someone. As my background is mathematics, I suggested the MathOverflow forum. You will have to find or create an appropriate forum to share these ideas.

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The long term solution is: 1) get tenure, 2) obtain funding, 3) build a research group, and 4) delegate. (Goto 2).

Tasks 2, 3 and 4 will require coherence across your research ideas.

Firstly to have a convincing enough thrust for funding agencies to invest in you.

You to have a narrow enough focus for your research group to work cooperatively (or at least, to be able to read and comment on each other's work).

Finally, you'll need ideas to come in big enough chunks for PhD students to write dissertations on.

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I also have a long list of problems that I think

  • need to be solved and
  • where I at least have an idea in which direction a solution may be found

I tend to ask around at conferences or whenever I meet someone who may know something very much. Though we don't have "unsolved issues" sessions per se, it is not weird that a presentation points out an identified problem without solution.

What personal incentive would I have for sharing my ideas in this manner?

  • I also came to the conclusion that I'll probably never run out of problems or ideas to think about.

  • My research ideas are usually not ideas out of the blue, but problems where I could need a (better) solution.

  • So one incentive is: I need the solution.

  • A second incentive is: I've made the experience that while I can describe the problem in my field's jargon, this may not lead to search terms that find a solution which is already known in some other field.

    Sharing the problem may save me from reinventing the wheel.

  • My personal experience typically is along the lines "yeah, you're pointing out a valid problem. Though I have no idea how to solve it or whether someone else has a solution". (Ongoing situation for some years, until I had thought long enough to arrive at a solution myself). It then was my solution that enabled me to find similar approaches in different fields - so not that successful at reusing already invented wheels. SX sites may be better than conferences in that aspect.

    From that experience it looks as if I'm hunting for a rare chance that someone will step in who's interested in solving the problem.

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