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Long time lurker first time poster (to this specific Stack Exchange that is). I think its best to start with some context:

I am currently an undergraduate student at a fairly decent computer science school in the US. Over the past few years, I have been extremely fascinated with certain subfields of CS and have been self-studying on my own as well as reading new research papers (just keeping up with the literature in the field I guess you can say). Over the months, I sometimes get some ideas that I think can offer either a. improvement over some result or b. an entirely new, novel approach (more of the latter). To be more specific, at my level of knowledge in the subject, any idea that I have is usually 'applied' (i.e. using computational techniques to solve a problem in another field). I have a bunch of ideas. I am well aware that most are probably not good at all, but I reckon that some have potential (I would also like to clarify that I am not - not even close - claiming that I've found some magical solution to a well known problem like the P NP problem).

So here is the concern I am addressing:

With the pandemic, it is has been quite difficult to collaborate and form connections (especially at the undergrad level for research). I also don't think I have enough theoretical rigor to formally write about a paper, run the code, and publish by myself. I also dislike the feeling of waiting a few years until I gain some more skills and knowledge for two reasons: a. the longer I am removed from my original thought, the less likely it is that I will recall what exactly I meant at the time and b. the (admittedly probably not that high) risk of someone else publishing something similar before me.

In sum, I have thought of a couple of methods for addressing this concern that include emailing around to get some more senior collaborators (I am assume this is the recommended approach) and also this: What if I post my initial results and/or raw ideas on something like a blog? More specifically, what sort of intellectual property can I claim? Would such material be citable in actual papers? Or would doing this effectively just give away my thoughts for free and allow someone else to take on the initiative without ackowledging my work? If some writeups are longer, serious, and paper-like, can such things be linked on Google Scholar, DOI, etc.? I have come across several posts of similar nature that include things like Bibtex citations at the end (examples: here, here, and here).

So... what advice would you give? Again, I am very young in terms of the academic world, but I don't want that to be a hindrance—I just feel a little weary not actively pursuing my ideas.

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    "Or would doing this effectively just give away my thoughts for free and allow someone else to take on the initiative without ackowledging my work?" Imitation is supposed to be the best flattery. Apr 26 at 2:33
  • I don't think we can give you a useful answer to a question this broad or personal. You need a mentor. Apr 26 at 2:35
  • "I will recall what exactly I meant at the time and b. the (admittedly probably not that high) risk of someone else publishing something similar before me." b. is not a risk. It is a certainty: why do you think that you will be the only one drawing certain conclusions or having some ideas being exposed to some material?
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 26 at 9:48
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Ask your professors if it would be possible to do an internship over the summer.

If you're an undergraduate student who is really eager to do research, and you've demonstrated your academic talents in your studies, I think that your best course of action would probably be to contact your professors and ask them if it would be possible to do an internship with them over the summer. Many universities have summer internship programs for undergraduates, and your professors might be able to point you in right direction for applying for one.

Then, once you've finished your undergraduate degree, if you've still got a desire for academic research (rather than going into industry to solve problems in "the real world"), you could apply for postgraduate study at your university of choice, and having completed a summer research internship would likely assist you in that.

If you really want to be taken seriously in academia, I would strongly recommend that you do a postgraduate degree; it's very easy for "independent researchers" to wind up getting written off as quacks because they often lack the skills to properly write a high-quality research paper. You're in computer science, however, so if you wind up employed by a company in industry who is performing research in an area, you might be able to use your company as your affiliation to get started in academic publishing rather than that of your university.

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I have to preface my answer by saying that what you're doing - independent reading and trying to solve problems - is exactly what PhD programs are for and I strongly encourage you to consider pursuing a PhD :)

It sounds like your post boils down to 1. "is finding a more senior collaborator a good idea and how would I do that?" and 2. "is posting my ideas online going to backfire". In short, yes I think finding a more senior collaborator is a good idea, and yes people might take your idea if you post it online, but I don't think that will happen. The dominating factor is that, as someone relatively new to academia, your ideas for a research project probably need a lot of adjustment before they can really contribute to your field (nothing personal about this - I'm basing this judgement off of how much my own ideas have needed feedback).

So what is the best way forward: Finding a good mentor is the best outcome. They would be able to give you feedback on your ideas, help you learn any new skills you need, and hopefully connect you to other people in the field. A mentor could either be a professor you like personally, or the professor at your school who's subject matter is closest to what you're interested in. If there's no faculty member at your school familiar with the subjects you've read up on, posting your idea online might be your best option for feedback. I doubt people will steal your idea because as someone new to the field, there's a real possibility other people have already considered it. And if it is a novel idea, it probably requires a lot of work to turn into something that can be published or monetized. I would still recommend you go to one of your professor and ask to do research with them. Even if the research isn't actively pursuing one of your ideas, it will still help you learn about the field, best research practices, and prep you for grad school if you decide that's what you want to do.

I think you're right to want to follow up on these ideas now rather than put them off a few years. Even if they don't pan out, you'll learn some great skills along the way.

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  • What OP is describing may or may not be be PhD work, what you and the OP together are doing is best described as putting the cart before the horses.
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 26 at 9:51
  • OP is new to undergrad so of course they're not doing PhD work. I'm saying if they enjoy doing independent research they should consider a PhD eventually. With all due respect I don't think looking for a mentor is putting the cart before the horse - the whole point of college is to push yourself and explore even potentially misguided ideas.
    – Giesbrecht
    Apr 27 at 18:15
  • I see, there may be a cultural difference as big as the Atlantic ocean between our approaches :) I am only skeptical of the push to PhD or even worse to simil-PhD (research work, in brief) for every curious person: it is just pushing more people to get engrained in a system of work exploitation, without tangible benefit to the society (disclaimer: I survived my PhD, I do not say academia & research are not important, on the contrary, they are absolutely fundamental).
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 28 at 8:21

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