Is there any research/study/survey that looked at how often academic inventions have already been in private companies (or public but secretive organizations, e.g. the RSA cryptosystem was first discovered UK intelligence agency GCHQ)?

I am most interested in the field of computer science.

  • 2
    It's not a study, per say, but you might be interested in "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation"
    – Ric
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 17:37
  • Related: academia.stackexchange.com/q/7360/65
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 4:19
  • 3
    I do not get the (-1)-votes, please explain -- (+1)'ed for me.
    – A.G.
    Commented Dec 20, 2015 at 1:07
  • In theoretical computer science, if an algorithm is invented in a private company, it almost never has an associated proof or a solid argument that it works properly and/or efficiently (the RSA cryptosystem is a notable exception, since GCHQ probably knew just as much, if not more, about it than Rivest, Shamir, and Adelman). And such a proof is a very important addition to our knowledge about the algorithm. Commented Dec 25, 2015 at 19:48

2 Answers 2


I expect that such a study cannot, in fact, be effectively done.

The reason is that academic re-invention of a closely held secret will be virtually impossible to reliably document except in particular anecdotal high-profile cases, such as RSA.

  • Most secret information probably does not become public at all: I suspect that most obsolete trade secrets in companies eventually simply end up in the trash or shredder, because why would anybody bother doing anything else?
  • For any secret that does become publicly available, there generally will be a long delay before that occurs. At that point, the relationship between two independently invented decades-old technologies will be difficult to detect by anybody not specifically motivated, since they likely would have very different terminology and specifics.

As such, I would expect that it is impossible to do any general study on the frequency with which academic research is a re-invention of secret work elsewhere.

  • 1
    How about asking the guys in industry? They possibly cannot give you an answer to the "what" in all cases, but most certainly to the " how many".
    – Gerhard
    Commented Feb 6, 2016 at 18:24
  • @Gerhard Speaking as a researcher in at least one flavor of industry, I can say with absolute confidence that I cannot possibly answer that question even for the company that I am part of. Any company with a significant research division has a lot of different things going on in it, and it's very difficult for people to stay informed about what other people are doing even if there isn't any particular reason to keep things secret. Collective memory is very lossy as well: heck, the company I work for created GenBank and then forgot about it!
    – jakebeal
    Commented Feb 6, 2016 at 18:38

There are plenty of documented instances of excellent computer science research done in private industrial research organizations. For instance, IBM Research is the largest R&D organisation in the world in the general area of computer science .

In particular, some of these are:

It happens and has happened often, historically.

  • I don't think this actually answers the question, which is about how often academics create something that has already been created, but has been kept secret.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 2:22

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