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A postdoc joins a group with a good idea to work on, while no specific project was given to him by the PI. After recognising the potential of the idea, the PI decides to take PhD students to work on it. When the postdoc asks, the PI says that the postdoc is going to be on this position only for a short time and the project (work) may not be finished before his contract expires. The contract is funded by the PI.

What should the postdoc do? Is it right for the postdoc to give his ideas in the first instance and should he be recognised when the work gets completed? If so, what about authorship?

  • 3
    You've gotten a lot of responses along the lines of "academia is a wonderful utopia of free-flowing ideas," all coming from one reading of what you wrote (PI wants more people to help postdoc with idea). An interpretation that is less generous toward the PI is that he is denying the postdoc the opportunity to work on the project at all, and this is a very different scenario. Can you clarify which situation you are talking about? – user4512 May 29 '15 at 4:02
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When I was a graduate student, my advisor told me something that has stuck with me ever since:

I never worry about giving my ideas away. I always have more ideas than I can work on, so I give them away as fast as I can. The only people who worry about somebody stealing their ideas away are people who are afraid they won't have any more.

I have taken that to heart in my career: I give (most) ideas away as fast as I can, and it has served me well. Having ideas is not an art or a mystical experience, it is the exercise of a skill at creative thinking that can be developed and strengthened just like any other skill. Over time, giving ideas away thus doesn't diminish your stock of ideas, but instead actually increases it.

The real question, as alluded to by others, is what you do with an idea once you have it. As I see it, there are basically three honorable actions that you can take (hoarding it away not being one of them):

  1. Pursue the work following from the idea strongly yourself, heavily investing your own time. In this case, if the work is fruitful, you most certainly should get a lot of credit. These are the only ideas I might not give away, in certain restricted circumstances---usually I'll share these as well, since more people caring about my problem area is generally better for me.
  2. Give the idea away for somebody else to work on, but continue contributing to the work in an advisory or other accessory manner. This is the typical mode of operation for many professors, and can certainly be for a postdoc as well, even after you move on to another institution. If you continue to contribute in a minor way to the work, you should receive minor credit (e.g., Nth authorship).
  3. Give the idea away for somebody else to work on, but don't contribute to the work beyond that. This is great because you don't burden yourself with the extra work, but you should probably expect an acknowledgement at most, not authorship.

In short: in most cases, it's not the idea, but the work following the idea that counts. We only think otherwise because we are scared or because our myths of science frequently mischaracterize the result of work as the idea.

  • Not necessarily true, in non-academic environments I know people with genius ideas, but lacking the skill to get it running. The usual approach to solving this is carefully (not disclosing your idea too openly) finding a partner and do the work with him under specific rules you set up. Not saying the same approach is wise or would work at all in the academic world, but just saying that the idea you mention at the beginning of the post is not necessarily true at all. Blindly giving away ideas only makes sense if there are countless and they are all equally valuable. – David Mulder May 29 '15 at 12:36
  • @DavidMulder In my experience, "I have a great idea but need somebody to implement it for me..." it a big red flag for an idea having hidden catches that make it not so great. Please note also that giving away ideas does not mean giving them away blindly---I would not, for example, recommend passing interesting ideas to a person that you consider highly unethical. – jakebeal May 29 '15 at 12:41
  • Fair enough, and I dunno, a lot of people come to me with random ideas and those that lack the technical skill to comprehend their own ideas or lack necessary market/field knowledge are indeed huge red flags. At the same time I also have met some that did have all the necessary knowledge, but lacked specific skills making implementation impossible. Either way, speaking for myself there are a lot of ideas I share freely, though I also have a list of ideas I share more carefully. Simply because finding out somebody else beat you to something is no fun if you actually consider working on it. – David Mulder May 29 '15 at 12:46
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Stephanie's answer addresses a good practical course of action, but I want to add one point. In many fields (definitely in the social sciences and engineering, and also most fields outside academia) the resources required to implement an idea are much greater than those required to conceive it. For this reason, achievement is measured in terms of successful implementations rather than successful conceptions. Therefore, ideas are not currency to be saved up, guarded, or traded away but intellectual bonds to be freely shared. Rather than all sitting in locked rooms with our 5 or 6 best ideas, we offer them during the Q&A of a talk, we publish them in the future work sections of our manuscripts, and we chat about them with fellow researchers over coffee. In this way, we all have hundreds or thousands of good ideas within reach when we actually have the resources to do some work.

So, this is a long-winded way of saying that you could ask for or demand authorship on any subsequent publications, or you could just be happy that your idea will be implemented and continue searching for the project that you have the right amount of resources to perform.

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    I agree with the first paragraph (and in fact I don't know any academic field in which implementation of ideas is not at least as tricky and difficult as coming up with them). I think the second paragraph may impose a false dichotomy: your idea can be implemented by others and you can get authorship on the work. Having the idea is not the only contribution, but it's an essential one, right? – Pete L. Clark May 28 '15 at 17:34
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    @PeteL.Clark Yes, it's an essential contribution and in a healthy working environment any supervisor will ensure that people are rewarded for ideation. However, I think my main point stands that the although the value of ideas is high, the cost is very low. Personally, I would approach the situation of wanting to be included in a project the same regardless of whether I was the first person to voice the idea, that is, by demonstrating that I would add value and asking that I be involved. – Tim May 28 '15 at 17:40
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The supervisor is unlikely to reassign project ideas carelessly that weren't their own. It is also worth attempting to use this idea to try and obtain more funding/a longer contract if it is possible at the location.

If the postdoc is not worried about completing all the work themselves then they can follow the PI's plan but should clarify at the start of this process that they want to be involved in working on it for a time and to be recognised at publication for their practical and intellectual contributions.

If, for example, the postdoc could take this new idea to a position in the near future and work on it there themselves and do the main work and publications, then they would understandably have reservations upon sharing it in the first place.

It is basically important to make ones intentions clear at the get go when sharing an idea, and to understand the scope of the idea, appreciate how novel it actually is and what is needed to follow it through. I would make it clear that you want as big a part as possible in the idea because you believe in it and then share it or not depending on whether the current position/group/lab/PI is essential for completing the work or whether there would be other more independent possibilities in the near future.

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To address the question:

What should the postdoc do?

Short answer: The postdoc should come up with evidence-backed rationale why they should be listened to in this situation at all. Since the cat (idea) is already out of the bag, it's too late to think about whether it's right or not to share the idea, or for the PI to take and run with it. It's a judgment call and it's up to the PI at this point. From this point, it makes sense to adopt a future-oriented perspective.

Should the postdoc meet and directly address the issue of getting credit for the idea, specifically in the form of authorship on future publications? Yes, that makes sense. But I would do so only after taking some steps to increase the likelihood of reaching a resolution in the postdoc's favor. In this regard, my answer centers on the notion of negotiating leverage.

Worst case, the PI could completely usurp the idea and leave the postdoc hanging after the contract is up. Best case, the postdoc would get an extension and co-authorship invitation for major publications emerging from the project based on her idea.

To increase the likelihood of best-case scenario, the negotiator needs leverage, i.e. other options or resources to bring to the table.

From the description it seems the postdoc does not have leverage in negotiations in this case. Such leverage could include solid leads for other positions with favorable terms for developing this line of research.

Lets imagine the PI suspects you might have solid options or offers on the table to leave the job for another position that will give you more resources to build out the program of your research (employment at will allows you to do just that, unless you care about a good recommendation from this PI). If so, they will either (a) not care and let you go your way, or (b) recognize your value and be more willing to negotiate an arrangement where they would try to make an offer that competes with the offer you have from somewhere else, thus creating conditions in your favor.

It's a gamble, but if push comes to shove, it is better to find yourself in a stronger negotiating position that truly does give you a feasible Plan B if a compromise is unlikely. Good luck!

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I think that the PI has not behaved very well. Postdocs need all the help they can get with establishing themselves in order to secure further positions and develop their careers. The PI, as the postdoc's superior/mentor, should be involved in helping to develop and promote a good postdoc wherever possible. If a postdoc has a great idea and one that would result in a long project, a good academic would help the postdoc find ways of funding the project in such a way that the postdoc could stay working on the project. The PI would likely remain as PI, but the postdoc would do most of the work and perhaps supervise some PhD students. That way, the institution has the chance to attract further funding, the PI still has their name on a project and the postdoc is given the opportunity to see their idea through and develop many more skills and experience that will help to further their career.

For the PI to take the idea away from the postdoc and tell them that they're not going to be around long enough to see it through seems very short-sighted to me. If I were the postdoc, I would have a look for possible funding opportunities that could fund the project, such as an early career fellowship, and then suggest to the PI and perhaps the Head of Department that I'd like to try and apply for additional funding for the project to extend my contract and have a role working on it. There are benefits there for the Department and for the PI - the PI can be on the project as a mentor/advisor which looks good for them without demanding much extra work, the department would get extra funding, and perhaps even a PhD studentship or two, depending on the scope of the project.

It may be that the field matters in this instance, as different disciplines have different ways of doing things. Computer Science, for example, is very different to Psychology, which is different to Physics, etc., in terms of how these issues are handled. In my experience, when starting out in academia, you need every drop of experience and every demonstration of merit you can get. It would be wonderful if academia was only about freely sharing ideas and working towards the common goal of enhancing collective knowledge, and everybody giving credit where credit is due, but in reality there are many who will not act that way and will actually give no further thought to quashing your career before it's even started just to get themselves some extra kudos in the eyes of their peers.

My advice would be to share ideas by all means, show your value by providing useful input to discussions etc, but if you have an idea for a project when you are just starting out, take ownership of that idea and bring it to your superiors with the stated goal in mind of securing funding for the project that you will work on. A good department will be eager to demonstrate that they make an effort to support their postdocs in securing a position beyond the postdoc, and will particularly be keen to keep hold of a good researcher while attracting additional funding.

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