Academic job applications usually require the submission of a research statement, which describes not only the applicant's research experience, but also future direction of their work. As such, it may contain some novel ideas.

Considering that a research statement is not a publication, and therefore, can't be cited, how does a selection committee ensure that nothing in an applicant's research statement (especially those of unsuccessful applicants) will be stolen by anyone in the selection committee who reads it?

I mean, since the applicant's submitted documents are probably only known to the selection committee and the applicant him/herself, isn't it easy for anyone in the committee to copy those ideas without being found out?

A related question, if a member in the committee identifies an interesting and promising idea of an unsuccessful applicant, and is keen to pursue the idea, what should the committee member do? How do you give credit to the unsuccessful applicant when the research statement is the only document where the idea is described?

To be clear, my concern is more on the committee, not how I can prevent the committee from stealing my idea. One day I might be sitting as a selection committee member myself, and I'd like to know what I should do in this situation.

This question is related to Research statement ideas got used by interviewing committee, but looking from the perspective of the committee.

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    Isn't it like most ethical issues in academia? Nothing prevents a person from breaking the rules, but there would be dire consequences if they were found out. Jun 24, 2014 at 3:17
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    @Nate: Yes, I think so. Moreover, like most of these issues: if we actually trust academics to behave ethically, the system works great. If we don't, then it is very difficult to imagine how to modify it so as to correct for this unethical behavior. Jun 24, 2014 at 3:20
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    Maybe my view of academia is too rosy, but assuming that a selection committee will first reject you and then steal your excellent ideas seems unlikely enough that no specific counter-measures are necessary.
    – xLeitix
    Jun 24, 2014 at 8:46
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    More generally, I think many people spend way too much time worrying who might all steal their ideas (reviewers, advisors, colleagues, selection committees, etc). In the end, if you never tell anybody about your research, how will you ever get feedback or collaborations?
    – xLeitix
    Jun 24, 2014 at 8:50
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    @Trylks: I have never had anyone steal my ideas, and I am having trouble thinking of anyone that I know personally in my field who had their ideas stolen. So I don't think it's my imagination that academics behave ethically in this matter the overwhelming majority of the time. It may be my delusion, or a limitation of my own experience, but I tend to agree with xLeitix that people (especially, some poeple on this site) seem overly concerned that this will happen. Jun 24, 2014 at 15:06

2 Answers 2


Academics are presented with confidential material all the time. We review manuscripts and grants and we are expected to not steal those ideas. A research statement is very similar to a grant proposal. When we are given applications to review we are reminded that they are confidential and should not be circulated. This is the same as when reviewing a grant. While many funding agencies and publishers have clear statements that reviewers must agree to, departments generally do not produce such guidelines. That said, a department would likely come down very hard on an individual who did not respect the confidentiality of an applicant.

With that out of the way, it is often that a reviewer has similar ideas as an applicant. On the face of it, it may appear that the reviewer has stolen the idea from a proposal, when in fact it was an independent idea that the reviewer had already had. One question is should reviewers decline to review based on a conflict of interest when the proposed work is similar to their current/future work. In my opinion, they should not since they are in the best position to review the work and the similarity is likely the reason they have been asked to review. This then does leave the burden on the reviewers to be able to document that the research agenda is in fact their own and not stolen from the confidential proposal.

The final issue is to document anything that is unique to your proposal. Saying you want to study topic X does not make it yours. Saying you want to study topic X with method Y, isn't much better. If the proposal says I want to study topic X with novel method Y because of reason Z, then the linking of X, Y, and Z might be important. If you document this, then at least if someone studies X with Y, you can get the credit for coming up with the brilliant idea of using method Y on problem X. In some ways realising that problem X can be solved with method Y is more important than actually solving the problem.

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    Thank you for the answer. Do you mind explaining more what you mean by documenting?
    – adipro
    Jun 24, 2014 at 14:21
  • Also, do you mind elaborating more on "department would likely come down very hard on an individual who did not respect the confidentiality of an applicant"? How to find out?
    – adipro
    Jun 24, 2014 at 14:29

Best way to prevent ideas from being stolen (IMHO): write them up and make them public. You don't need to publish them in a top journal or conference, simply write them up (as the research statement is probably already written) and put them on arxiv, figshare or whatever suits you (I think we need a list for these services). Short and simple.

I was told once that one difference between science and engineering is exactly that. The engineer will have an idea and protect it by not telling anybody and patenting it. The scientist will protect the idea (the authorship of the idea) by publishing it and telling everybody. I don't fully agree due to the characteristics of software engineering, open source and copyright, but I think it serves to illustrate the point.

Sure publishing on a journal or conference requires telling some people before that (the reviewers) and not all ideas are suitable to be published in such places (any reputed venue will reject most of the submissions, there are usually associated costs, etc.) There is the risk of reviewers stealing some ideas (not in a completely straightforward way, to abide the rules) and I think the main reason why there is arxiv is exactly that.

Publishing online is free and immediate. It won't give you much impact and it won't count for some metrics, but it will provide testimony that you had that idea at that time (even if more people could have had the same idea in an independent way, as @StrongBad pointed). Then you should find a venue that accepts what you already published in this manner, not all venues will do so and depending on your area most venues may reject such papers, but the fact that most people do something doesn't mean that thing is right.

Finally, the problem (IMHO) is that we are giving great value to something as intangible as ideas, because they are important and have great impact on the progress of society and the career of those who are responsible for those ideas. However, as a society, we are not really prepared to handle intangible things properly, there are attempts to improve that, but all of them are still falling short in some aspects.

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    Where did you get the idea that arXiv is there to prevent reviewers from stealing ideas? Jun 24, 2014 at 10:57
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    It has the purpose of making research papers available to the entire research community as soon as they are ready and without being behind any paywalls. Without the arXiv, papers in math, for example, would end up not being available until usually at least six months later (sometimes much longer). Sure, it also serves as a means to establish precedent, but that is in no way the main contribution of it. Jun 24, 2014 at 18:08
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    I am not disputing that the best way to establish precedent is using the arXiv. I am just saying that this is a positive side effect of the main purpose of the arXiv, rather than actually the main purpose (as a side note, I think that if I saw a research statement on the arXiv, I would most likely consider the person who put it there overly paranoid). Jun 24, 2014 at 18:21
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    I agree other services (e.g. figshare) may be better suited for anything besides papers. Even a blogging platform could be nice if there were trustworthy time-stamped diffs (at least as posts here…), unfortunately I couldn't find any. WRT paranoia, if this is something that can award a job, I think it can be plagiarized. How could that be detected if it is not public? Not too long ago a political party [plagiarized ](goo.gl/fsG4xk) the program of another party in the EU elections… If that happens for stuff that is public, what could happen for everything that is not? I don't wanna know.
    – Trylks
    Jun 24, 2014 at 18:40
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    Publishing on the arXiv won't protect the research idea. People can still come up with similar ideas, it if they claim that they had not seen your work, there is no responsibility for them to even mention your work.
    – gastro
    Aug 18, 2016 at 9:42

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