26

I am on an R&D team in industry with no formal connection to anyone in academia. However, a professor wrote a paper on implementing idea A. I have an idea B that extends idea A, but I am unsure about some practical implementation details. I strongly suspect that the aforementioned professor would have some intuition about implementing idea B as they did a very good job of implementing idea A. Moreover, the paper containing idea A did not get very much attention (i.e. has a low citation count and no follow up that I can see). It seems to me that if I am right about idea B, then they might enjoy having found this new application area.

I have written up an explainer on this idea which has the rough form of an academic paper -- though in its current form it would not be publishable. I would like to email this professor, give a brief explanation, attach the explainer, and ask -- if they have the time to spare -- that they look it over and comment if it catches their interest. Is this an acceptable thing to do? If not, are there alternatives and, if so, are there faux pas that I should specifically avoid?

5
  • 29
    If this falls in your company's revenue stream, offering the academic a small consulting arrangement would enable making sure all the IP gets addressed, and will float your needs higher in the priority list. Nov 13, 2023 at 23:56
  • 1
    What exactly is your goal? Nov 14, 2023 at 23:39
  • Acceptable practices likely depend on the country. Furthermore, some countries have public-private partnership programs which could be of interest. Nov 15, 2023 at 8:19
  • 2
    Sure! I (an academic) had someone in industry contact me in a somewhat similar circumstance. I always had the right to politely decline to engage; as it turns out, we had a pleasant email exchange followed by me visiting their workplace for an afternoon (which was quite interesting to me even aside from the mathematics), giving a talk, getting two free meals, and having some interesting and interested discussions with people I never would have otherwise met. Nov 15, 2023 at 9:28
  • @user2705196 My main goal is to get advise on implementation. But other valuable outcomes could be anything from a collaboration to the academic in question pointing out some substantive flaw in my work. I think the extension is straightforward, but it's hard to know how good the idea really is without a more robust implementation.
    – TJM
    Nov 16, 2023 at 18:00

4 Answers 4

34

This is quite acceptable. I suggest a preliminary email saying that their paper touches on (is close to) some work you are doing in your company and you have an idea that might interest them. Perhaps a brief sketch of the idea, sufficient to show them you're not a crank. Don't include the (draft) paper. You could offer to send it if they are interested.

If this should progress to joint work you will need to be careful about the IP. The professor will want to publish results, the company may want to get something for nothing.

On the whole this kind of collaboration is good for both parties.

1
  • The OP could also provide a link to the draft, which would allow the professor to read it or not at their convenience.
    – terdon
    Nov 15, 2023 at 18:11
15

Agree 100% with Ethan's answer, but let me phrase it slightly differently.

ask -- if they have the time to spare -- that they look it over and comment

Professors never have time to spare and have little interest in unsolicited manuscripts. I won't go so far as to say that you definitely won't get a response, but it's probably 50-50, and it'll almost certainly be a brief reply rather than an in-depth review of your paper.

Is this an acceptable thing to do?

Yes, it is, just approach it slightly differently. I would send a brief e-mail in which you ask the technical question you want to ask (i.e., "I am wondering how you implemented A; in my work implementing B, it seems there are several options....").

This has the advantage that it's a light lift for the professor, so they are likely to respond and give you something helpful. And if they express interest in B, then your manuscript will no longer be unsolicited when you send it (though I would still consider sending a one-page summary with your most exciting results, rather than a full manuscript). The usual cautions about protecting your IP apply.

3
  • 2
    I understand why you both want to avoid sending the manuscript. I would just like to mention that not sending the manuscript, i.e. adding at least one round, can be an obstacle. A not unlikely scenario: I read the question, need more details, don't find any attached manuscript where those details would likely be, don't want to engage at this point, forget about the email, the end. Nov 14, 2023 at 18:41
  • 3
    The problem with "unsolicited manuscripts" isn't that they are unsolicited, but often written by cranks or clueless amateurs and have no value to this professor. Someone doing serious work on a problem who has read the previous paper and tried to expand on it, that's a totally different matter.
    – gnasher729
    Nov 15, 2023 at 2:43
  • Both valid points, but I think an initial e-mail with a manuscript is more likely to be overlooked. Either because it will be misclassified as crankery or spam, or because the recipient will say "oh! this is interesting! I'll come back to it when I have some time"....which never happens.
    – cag51
    Nov 15, 2023 at 5:34
6

are there faux pas that I should specifically avoid

There is a potential one. Have you discussed this with your company's legal department? You have just generated Intellectual Property which the company may want to use in some way (either to generate revenue, or as patent ammunition). Your legal people may not want you to share that with an external party, or at least not without an NDA and/or an arrangement in place between your company and the university which spells out in detail how any further IP resulting from this contact would be split up.

Note that while contacting legal may protect your employer in the long term, in the short term it can only put a damper on your plans, so you should think carefully whether you want to wake up these particular sleeping dogs. However, simply sending this out without covering your behind first may get you into hot waters internally, depending on your company's culture.

Of course, if you have to write in your email to that professor with "before I can share that paper, you will have to sign this NDA", that will drastically reduce the professor's willingness to collaborate with you.

1
  • 3
    Thank you for this observation, but I'm covered on the legal side.
    – TJM
    Nov 14, 2023 at 14:51
2

As others have said, this sort of thing goes much easier if you can provide a consulting arrangement, which will both reimburse the professor for their time as well as set out the legal boundaries regarding IP and publication.

There are also dedicated programs that are there to explicitly fund this kind of academic-industry collaboration. One such is the Small Business Innovation Research program . For this particular program, you write up a proposal to the Department of Energy, who then releases funds to your company for the R&D, some of which ought to be a subcontract to the professor. It's certainly more work than just cutting a check, but it may also be easier to get your company behind you if someone else is paying for it. In my experience the award rate is fairly high for this particular program.

4
  • 1
    Both are valid approaches, but very different. One way, you're hiring the academic as a free agent, in a fairly lightweight agreement. The SBIR would be a sponsored project, and the contract (or one of them, anyway) is with the University, and involves writing a solid grant. Each has it's place. Nov 15, 2023 at 0:19
  • 1
    @ScottSeidman that's a good point. I suspect most universities will want to have some input in consulting gigs, but much less than a full grant Nov 15, 2023 at 0:28
  • 1
    Some lay out a maximum amount of time faculty spend consulting. Mine does that, and is very liberal about it, but does suggest we run our contracts through their counsel, without giving them any right of refusal at all. Nov 15, 2023 at 1:02
  • 3
    Things get more complex with International Contracts, though. Some new laws absolutely need to get followed. Nov 15, 2023 at 1:04

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .