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About a month ago I had a phone call with a research funder (RF) and an academic in my field (A), initiated by RF. I've been working publicly on research question X for some time, A has not. A is from a more prestigious institution than me.

During the call RF said "Richard [me] has been researching systematic approaches to X, using methods Y and Z". (This research is under way, and I have a funding bid in with RF for it, although we didn't mention that on the call. Methods Y and Z are original and I'm quite excited about them.)

A said they thought X was interesting, and they'd been thinking about another method to approach it - I think this won't work as well, though I didn't say that.

After the call, I said to RF I wished they hadn't been so explicit about Y and Z, since I was concerned that A would use them, and I would have preferred to keep them confidential. RF apologised, and said that they'd had bad experiences with A using other people's work.

I have since had a short email from A saying they've successfully begun working on systemic approaches to X, and asking if I'd like to collaborate.

Obviously, there's no patent on the idea of systematic approaches to X, and I don't even know if A wants to use methods Y and Z. However, I'm concerned that there's no acknowledgement that I'm already doing research on X, or of the call.

I also don't want to collaborate, since I already have a bid in, and even if that fails I feel dubious about A.

My goals are now:

  • Have A reflect on why they didn't acknowledge my work
  • Make it clear that any use of Y and Z will be unwelcome, and ideally dissuade them from using them (if they are)
  • Sound clear, professional and positive
  • Not antagonise A unnecessarily.

Questions:

  1. Is there a way to achieve this?
  2. It would be useful to understand: is this normal behaviour from A? If the situations were reversed, I would acknowledge A's work and wouldn't use methods they were using. But perhaps I'm just naive?
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    This all seems quite bizarre to me; what was the purpose of the call with RF and A, and why did you take this call?
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 13, 2022 at 18:38
  • @BryanKrause because RF suggested the call, and they are a funder so I try to keep them happy. They wanted to introduce us, and for me to give feedback on a draft paper by A related to X. (In case it's relevant, RF are a philanthropic funder, not a government funder.) Why do you find it bizarre?
    – Richard
    Apr 14, 2022 at 18:58
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    Mostly that it wasn't clear why a funder would be talking about your methodological details with a possible competitor without clearing it with you first. I know such things happen, but it shows they are either a bit clueless about etiquette themselves, or just don't care. I was trying to suss out whether they possibly think you incapable of doing this work and thought you'd have more success if collaborating with A and are trying to nudge in that direction. Their motives could be pure there, too (promoting mentor/mentee relationships), or impure (racism, sexism).
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 15, 2022 at 18:26
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    @BryanKrause thank you for the explanation. I hope it isn't that they think us incapable (RF invited us to submit the bid, and didn't mention collaborating with A then). I think it is just that the funder is inexperienced and keen to make connections between people in general.
    – Richard
    Apr 17, 2022 at 10:22

3 Answers 3

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This reads very much like a thinly coded version of “No thank you. By this email I am hereby recording the fact that this phone call with RF occurred and that methods Y, Z were discussed.” Now, you might think you have good reasons to want to have a record of those things. But it still comes across as a bit aggressive and mistrustful IMO, and also shows that your actual goals are a bit more than just being “clear, professional and positive”.

If you want to decline the collaboration politely and professionally and that’s it, I would send a much shorter reply saying something like “Thanks, I’m really flattered by your offer but feel like I have a bit too much on my plate right now to consider starting a new collaboration”, and leave it at that.

If you have other goals, like “marking your territory” in connection with methods Y and Z to discourage A from working on them, it would be best if you make that explicit in the question so that we can think what course of action is most appropriate. But I have to say, from my limited understanding of the situation, it sounds like now that A is aware of Y and Z, you have no way of stopping them from using those methods or submitting a bid for funding with RF that competes with yours, and you have no way of claiming any special ownership of the idea of using those methods. Maybe it sucks that that’s how it is, but I don’t see how having an email record that some phone conversation took place where some topic was vaguely discussed is really going to help you in any meaningful sense.

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  • Thank you. My goals are as described in the paragraph starting "Ideally I'd like" - I'll edit the question to make it clearer! And yes, as it says there, these goals include trying to dissuade A from using my methods, if possible. I agree there's no formal way to stop this, but I was wondering if there was any other, less formal, way - e.g. by making it clear that any use of the methods mentioned on the call will be unwelcome.
    – Richard
    Apr 17, 2022 at 10:28
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Here is an almost-useless general evaluation of your situation: either methods Y and Z are difficult to apply to X, or they are easy.

Y and Z are difficult

If Y and Z are difficult to apply to X, then you are in little danger of being scooped by anyone. Even if someone has had the idea, they will have dismissed it by now, either completely out-of-hand or after initial experimentation. By persisting in Y and Z you have developed comparative expertise which has left you with unique insights into X.

In that case, a rising tide raises all boats. Collaborating with someone who has complementary expertise will increase your own skillset, and the freedom to specialize will let your team outcompete other groups working on X.

As an example: while working on my own research, I found that another group (which wasn't even on my radar!) had published about their software development which very closely paralleled mine. Thankfully I was spared the agony of decision because they reached out to me, after learning of my work from a professional contact.

Our subsequent collaboration has resulted in both myself and them each saving months of work -- I have learned a great deal about good software development practices, while they have benefited from my theoretical and practical insights, and we've both made new friends that have opened much wider potential networks to us both.

They've benefited, and so have I; it feels very silly to even try to think about which of us has benefited more.

Y and Z are easy

On the other hand, if Y and Z are easy to apply to X, then you're in mortal danger of being scooped at any moment. It's only a matter of time before someone else has the idea and publishes.

In that case, a race to the finish is what you must win. You simply have to publish first. If Y and Z are really that easy to apply to X, you should be able to publish quickly! Even if it's just a preprint to mark your priority.

As an example: There was a bit of theory in my field that I worked out months ago, in a few days. I still haven't published it, and every time I check my Google Scholar alerts I fully anticipate that someone else will have gotten there first.

But while I wait, I am furiously putting together my manuscript. I've already finished writing everything but the results, and I anticipate only two or three weeks' more work to finish those. Once I'm done I'll run it past my supervisor, and then we'll get it out.

Interestingly, I've examined my feelings about what will happen if I'm scooped, and they aren't actually too bad! One does get used to the sting (or leaves academia, which frankly is a rational and wise choice these days). In part it's precisely because this idea was so quick and simple to write up that I'm confident I will have more ideas like this.

Indeed, I have two or three topics that I want to pivot to after I've finished this one -- or, if I'm scooped, after it's finished with me. Interestingly it's precisely the collaboration I mentioned earlier that's given me the time and headspace to plan my next steps and give me confidence. So if I'm scooped -- au revoir! It's on to my next gig.

But what about A and their email?

Interestingly, your best response to this situation depends very little on A and their internal state. Either you'll decide that collaborating is best (my first suggestion), and send a short and simple email stating your choice and asking for next steps -- or you'll decide that collaborating is a choice you "currently don't have room for due to the various priorities already present, despite what an honor it is to be offered the collaboration opportunity!"

In either case you don't need to spend time and energy worrying about what A is thinking and why. That's time and energy you're not putting into research. And indeed, telling A that "even though PR mentioned methods Y and Z to you, I'd really rather work on them myself" -- in any wording -- is simply drawing unnecessary attention. (After all, if A is a nice person, you run the risk of needlessly offending them; if A is a nasty person, you've just drawn more attention to an area ripe for exploitation!)

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  • I think this is really good advice, thanks!
    – Richard
    Apr 22, 2022 at 10:53
  • Y and Z are fairly easy, so I should crack on and do a preprint asap. Follow-up question: am I missing a trick by not doing the same to others? Currently, I wouldn't pick up an idea or method that I knew someone else was working on first - it would feel rude. But is this just How Academia Works, and no-one else considers it rude?
    – Richard
    Apr 22, 2022 at 10:59
  • But having an idea is the easiest part of doing research. You have to implement the idea, validate it, and build a network of peers who would use it and cite you (and who would review your papers, read your students' theses, speak at conferences you organise ... ). Also, I presume you will hear most ideas at conference talks where speakers will already have done some legwork preparing to publish those ideas, meaning you might work to "take" that idea only to have waste all that work when they publish ahead of you. Maybe your area of academia works differently -- it couldn't work in mine. Apr 23, 2022 at 6:07
  • I agree that having an idea is the easiest part. I'd note that implementing and networking is easier for more senior academics - they have RAs and existing networks. Does that mean it's ok for to implement an idea that one heard about by chance from a third party, as in this situation? That still doesn't feel right to me - but perhaps much of the 'work' of academia is in acquiring seniority, therefore anything not illegal is fair game, and I need to be a realist about this and just focus on acquiring my own seniority!
    – Richard
    Apr 24, 2022 at 9:57
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However, I'm concerned that there's no acknowledgement that I'm already doing research on X, or of the call.

I think this is an uncharitable reading of A's emails. I agree with Bryan that it is odd for the funder to discuss methodologies in such a way, and I believe you if you say A has been known for stealing methodologies, but this sounds like an offer to work together because you have been working on the same problem, even if it wasn't as explicit as maybe you'd have liked.

Ideally I'd like A not to use Y and Z (if they are).

You can't really ask for this - I would consider accepting the collaboration so you can continue using Y and Z and they use Y' and Z' or method E.

Personally, I find your email a bit confusing, how can a work be "fairly advanced" if you've not heard back about the funding? Maybe this is field differences. The hints toward "I think you were using [their method]!" also come off a bit patronizing.

You two seem to beating around the bush with each other. You are either going to have to accept the collaboration, which you can establish ownership over Y and Z, or ask them not to work on your approach, which may not be successful depending on A's personality.

I would lean toward accepting the collaboration, and then you can ask them to leave you Y and Z as colleagues, rather than enemies.

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  • Thank you. I'm definitely not keen to accept the collaboration - partly because it benefits A far more than me, and partly because I don't think their email is a good basis for a collaboration. Thanks for the feedback on tone, that's useful.
    – Richard
    Apr 17, 2022 at 10:35

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