What is the general viewpoint held in academia regarding patents, as opposed to published papers? Are patents regarded as similar in credibility to papers?

As a software engineer returning to graduate study after a long professional career, I have collaborated with colleagues on a number of patents. But I do not have any published papers. Since I want to resume my academic pursuit, how important is publishing?

  • Papers >> patents. Although schools do like to make money and patents invented while working for them are normally partially owned by them...
    – Ric
    Jun 2, 2016 at 22:17
  • I think this is highly variable... For example, if someone claims to be an "applied mathematician" or "X-engineer", and has no patents, what does that mean about the utility of their ideas? Unclear, sure. Most academics, whether in STEM fields or not, have no patents at all... so perhaps have some incentive to rationalize that patents are non-status-enhancing. But most patents don't really do much in the same way that most papers don't: just meeting some minimum thresh-hold to "be the thing". Jun 2, 2016 at 23:41
  • Musk recently called patents "lottery tickets for a lawsuit". While that's perhaps overstating it, definitely the value of patents are diminished significantly if you don't have the resources to enforce them. This is a major argument against patenting for researchers. Jun 4, 2016 at 15:47

4 Answers 4


Patents and papers are not adversary in general. One can patent and then publish. And kill two birds with one stone. Both get public after independent examination. Each settles some ground, and both can be cited. Working on a useful patent is generally harder than on a useless paper. Both papers and patents can serve very different purposes.

I have been working in industrial research for 15 years. I have about the same number of patents and papers (altogether is compared to academia).

I have observed a shift in academia. It used to consider patents were useles. It now regards patents with a gentler look. The (bibliometric) value of a single patent can be estimated, on average, between half or twice the value of a single journal paper.

Whether your patent has generated money, been cited in other patents or papers, or proved a collaboration, those are figures you can claim as an innovative value.

Having no paper at all might be an issue though. It suggests that you have not passed peer review. For some, 7 patent + 1 paper is better than 8 patents.

If you can convert part of your patents into papers, at least once, that could be a plus.

  • 1
    Good suggestion about converting patents into papers, as that provides grist for papers, and thus achieves both goals (money for patents, papers for academia). Jun 6, 2016 at 22:52

Ok, I can answer this because I went through this personally in the same field.

So my thoughts on patents vs. publications and future academic career in computer science:

Academic Currency: If you look at the university you want to attend, and then check the difference between a head of research group vs. a senior lecturer in the same research group, you will see, the publications play an important rule. People argue with me sometimes on this, but the buttom line is, you need to have a stack of publications to become a profesor.

Think About it the other way: Now in terms of intelectial properties, not all the universities have the staff to pay, so that they can draft the IP, and chase if for X amount of months to see the results. However, the publications keep the name of the university in conversations, as each author need to writes his/her affiliates; and it does not cost the university, because the academics/academics' students, who won their grants, will attend the conferences.

Get Ready To Be suprised!: From the quality of the papers to quality of softwre the academics produce, your mind will probably force you to go back to industry once in a while; because you will see lecturers who kissed programming languages goodbaye BUT they keep publishing papers and get promoted, because the game is not writting a solid backbone application for your database cluster, it is about producing research through publications.

What About Patents then? Well, there are academics I know personally, who mastered the patents' workflow by hiring other people, and they do produce a number of patents, once in a while. However, all of them are outside computer science field. It might help you to convince a good professor to take you for his/her research project, because you understand the logistics of uniquness and freshness of an idea. Also, it is also impressive to have it on your university profile, however at the moment at least, publications are still the main check point for each individual academic.


What is the general viewpoint held in academia regarding patents, as opposed to published papers? Are patents regarded as similar in credibility to papers?

I think the answer depends on which academic career phase you're talking about. Being a named inventor on several patents in my opinion says very good things about you, so it would be fantastic for a grad school application and is likely to significantly boost your chances of getting into a good graduate program (if you haven't already passed that stage) in a way that I think is probably comparable to having published several papers. It can also help you later at the postdoc phase and possibly even with tenure-track applications. However, for those later stages (and beyond - tenure and promotion to associate and full professor) the main metric by which your productivity will be measured will be publications. Even then, in disciplines like engineering with an applied emphasis, the patents (especially if you continue to produce them) may give you a certain "street cred" that can help you stand out relative to other more "boring" academics who only publish theoretical work, but again they'll only be useful as an extra thing that you do in addition to publishing traditional academic papers. Papers will remain the primary output you will be judged by, and you will not have the option to not publish if you want to stay in the academic game.

Another thing to consider is what your patents are about. Almost anyone with enough persistence and money to hire a lawyer can become the author of worthless vanity patents. In order for your patents to be helpful to your academic career they have to be related to your research area, or at least clearly seen to be about serious things related to some advanced concepts in engineering or technology (as opposed to, say, a patent for a new device to scoop dog poop or similar kinds of "innovations" that hobbyist garage inventors often come up with).

I'll finish with a small disclaimer: since you mentioned you are a software engineer I geared my answer towards areas like computer science and engineering. I'm a mathematician myself so I can't be completely confident that the way people in a CS or engineering department view patents is how I imagine they do. However, I do have one patent to my name and am sufficiently familiar with applied areas of academia to have a good level of confidence that at least a reasonable number of academics, particularly in applied areas, will have the attitude towards patents that I described in the answer.

  • I can't be completely confident that the way people in a CS or engineering department view patents is how I imagine they do — Your description is pretty accurate. I have seen successful CS tenure and promotion cases where patents (or more generally, commercial deployment) were a significant component, but still secondary to publications.
    – JeffE
    Jun 4, 2016 at 8:06
  • Most of these patents are commercial innovations for a large company. Jun 6, 2016 at 22:28

They are totally different, and thus there is no way to compare them.

It is no different to saying you won an award for some outstanding work, or showing how you turned a poorly-functioning company into a profitable one. There is certainly value - and to the right buyer perhaps even tremendous value - but it will not count for any sort of credit in lieu of a publication. If anything, a patent is the antithesis of a publication. In one you are trying to be as general and all-encompassing as possible in order to maximize your patent's coverage and/or protect yourself from other patents; where as a paper is supposed to be a very specific and target thing so as to not encroach on other people's niche.

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