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I have a theory that I cannot test myself. A group that doesn't know me has the proprietary data needed to test it, and I think they could test it fairly easily (hours to weeks of work, I think). I plan to reach out and pitch my theory to them. My only contributions are the hypothesis and an argument for why it's plausible, and so worth checking out. Is it appropriate to discuss academic authorship off-the-bat in a situation like this?

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  • Could this group just allow you access to their data?
    – cag51
    May 20 at 22:13
  • @cag51 I don't think they could.
    – MWB
    May 21 at 1:49
  • Can you check your LinkedIn and see if you have anyone in common with that research group? What are your academic credentials? I know you don't need to have academic credentials to do research, but it can make things easier. Personally, I don't work in academia, but I've worked for a company that did its own R&D and we were weary about receiving ideas from perfect strangers because we didn't want to get sued. The thing is. Many ideas are obvious. And it could put us in awkward situation if a stranger told us an idea we were already planning to investigate. May 22 at 16:55
  • @StephanBranczyk As far as I know, there would be no basis for such a lawsuit, unless the idea is patented.
    – MWB
    May 23 at 4:39
  • @StephanBranczyk The only potential legal issue I can think of is if they try to patent my idea themselves, but then, by legal definition, the idea must be non-obvious.
    – MWB
    May 23 at 19:31

2 Answers 2

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It is not only appropriate, but essential to discuss authorship when you propose a collaboration. Pre-agreeing authorship arrangements will solve any number of problems down the track with any collaboration.

However, it is a bit tricky in this situation becuase once you've explained your idea, I guess they can say "no", and then go off and do it anyway (not that that would be very nice).

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  • 2
    Regarding the latter point, though unlikely, it might be worthwhile writing up a short paper with the idea, hypothesis and planned experiments in order to (i) publish is on a preprint server like arXiv and, (ii) share the preprint with the group. They are even more unlikely to "steal" an idea that has already been made public, with authorship and timestamp. (The trade-off is that the idea would then be public, where it would be valid -- though again not so nice -- to just cite the paper and do the experiments. At least in this case credit for the idea remains clear.)
    – badroit
    May 20 at 19:10
  • @badroit That wouldn't really work for a number of reasons. The Arxiv isn't there for research proposals or to let you stake your claims, but for early versions of otherwise complete papers/research. If you want to stake your claim on an idea, you probably just want to ask a lawyer. They can make sure you have the appropriate records to prove you had such-and-such ideas and communications and writing at such-and-such times. I also think it's bad to assume bad faith on the part of other professional researchers without good cause, but that's another matter. May 20 at 23:00
  • 3
    as for the idea from @badroit, there are other ways to do that which can be meaningful, or even help move things forward, such as a social media post where you outline your ideas and tag those people with the data. This gives you that public presentation to show it came from you, and can start the conversation. With this, be very complementary to the other folks, here the data folks.
    – Mike M
    May 20 at 23:42
  • Not sure I understand your “when you propose a collaboration”. While I agree that authorship should be discussed as soon as possible, one presumably needs to have discussion about feasibility etc of the proposal because diving in the collaboration itself. May 21 at 19:42
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Yes, I think it is appropriate. But authorship also is not set in stone at the beginning of a collaboration -- it is contingent upon doing the work. One way to phrase it would be like "I have an idea related to XX that I think can be tested using data that you've gathered. I would like to perform an analysis and write up a paper. I would be honored if you would collaborate with me on this paper if you would agree provide the data and check that I am interpreting it correctly. Please let me know if you would like to discuss this collaboration."

This says:

  1. You would do the analysis and write the paper -- being first author.
  2. They would be collaborators.
  3. I also lays out expectations for each groups -- they could look at your proposal and conclude that it might only be a few days work (that's simply to transfer the data, explain it, review your analysis, and review the manuscript you write).
  4. They could steal your idea, but only after you two have had a kick-off meeting to discuss the ideas. Don't send the hypothesis in an email, and definitely not the analysis plan. Make sure they get it from direct discussions from you (ideally with at least a couple of people from their group, so that nobody on the team can claim to have come up with the idea). Maybe you could share the hypothesis in a phone call, but any description of the analysis should be to a few people. Ideally you already have the software written and maybe have some simulated dataset to go with it -- stuff they could not replicate easily. At least in my field, I wouldn't be too worried about someone stealing my ideas -- people have their own ideas and existing commitments; writing a paper is always at least a few weeks of work.

Aside from that, one way to claim the idea may be pre-registration.

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  • Why phone vs emailing several group members at once?
    – MWB
    May 21 at 1:46
  • 1
    It depends on if you know the people. If you are a stranger to them, I think that someone who agrees to a phone call is less likely to steal your idea. If you just email your idea to the group -- they may just read the message, think "I'm not interested" and ignore you. Two months later, they may remember your idea and think that they came up with it themselves. If they only hear the idea after arranging a call with you, they'll think more of you and be less likely to just walk off with your idea. But maybe sharing a little more info up front would make them more interested in collaborating.
    – adam.r
    May 21 at 1:57
  • 5
    writing a paper is always at least a few weeks of work oh my goodness I should switch to your field lol May 21 at 2:18
  • @AzorAhai-him- … but if one stole someone else’s idea one might just cut it. May 22 at 13:39
  • @AzorAhai-him- Tell me about it. My papers take 5 years on average. May 24 at 9:07

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