Academics are always worried about having their ideas ‘stolen’. This deep cultural anxiety affects PhD students more than almost any other member of the community.
There’s a good reason why PhD students should be anxious about protecting their ideas – examination. A PhD is meant to be a signal that you’re fit to be a professional academic researcher, in charge of your own projects. One of the tests you must pass during examination is to have generated ‘original knowledge’ and done so ‘independently’.
This requirement around originality causes almost as much angst in PhD circles as the size and complexity of the writing task.
You hear tales of science PhD students being ‘scooped’ by someone publishing findings in their exact topic just before they submit and people in the humanities having their main theoretical ideas ‘stolen’, sometimes by supervisors. Less discussed, but probably more important, is how collaborating with other people during your PhD can be problematic. How do you preserve the claims to generating ‘original knowledge independently’ if you acknowledge the work of other people?
Of course, we collaborate in academia, so there are a series of elaborate conventions and rules that enable PhD students to maintain claims to independent generation of original ideas. Author order is one of the most important of these conventions. By custom, the most important author of any piece of work should be the first one in the list, with the importance diminishing as you go down the list. However, this convention is not strictly followed in every case.
It’s common in the sciences to have lots of people on a paper doing lots of Important Things, so the author order issue can be complex and lead to disputes. Some papers have up to 200 authors – how do you arrange them all in order of importance?! The clenched jaw I get whenever I help out with one of these disputes gives me stress headaches. In my experience, if you are pissed off about where you appear, there can be a lot of social pressure to, well – shut up.
In the humanities, you’re usually dealing with two or three, not hundreds, but it’s still complicated. It’s become a bit of a custom for the most senior scholar to go last in the humanities, as a way of recognising a mentorship role. ‘Mentoring’ is a spectrum of behaviour, from being a sounding board to actively writing and editing. The last author on a humanities paper often (but not always) signals something about the ‘provenance’ of the work being conducted (where it’s come from and its ‘flavour’). Therefore, going last is something of an honour in the humanities and having a ‘big name’ as last author can be really important in getting your paper noticed by an editor.
I must point out that, in any other circumstances than PhD studies, your PhD supervisor would have a claim to co-authorship of your PhD. Yes, even if they just act as a sounding board but definitely if they do developmental editing. It’s kind of a polite fiction that we accord solo authorship of a thesis to PhD students, but let’s move on.
Rightly or wrongly, the PhD is built around the idea that knowledge can be ‘owned’ and people can profit. ‘Profit’ in academia is in the form of recognition, fame and, of course, cold hard cash in the form of promotions. Where there is a concept of Ownership and Profit, there is also the possibility of Theft. Every academic has to be aware of protecting their intellectual property (IP), but you need to be very active about it when you are PhD student because you’re facing examination.
Being paranoid about IP is not helpful, but there’s a lot of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) around. Navigating the cultural complexities around authorship in academia takes time, so if you’re relatively new and confused already by what I’ve said so far, don’t fret.
I can’t believe in 12 years or so of blogging I have not tackled this topic in any depth. Maybe it’s because it’s so damn complicated and every situation is subtlely different. I was finally prompted to write this post by an email from a student. They told me they had googled without being able to find much useful advice and why wasn’t there something on the Whisperer? Fair call. The email was a classic example of the complexity around protecting IP in academia while you are PhD student, and I have reproduced it below, changed to obscure the actual persons involved:
“I’m writing to request some advice on what appears to be a grey area of PhD practice – the concept of thesis “originality”.
I am still at the start of my PhD project, which involves case studies in which I plan to interview practitioners in the education space about [topic]. Recently, a professor reached out with a collaboration opportunity. He hopes to conduct similar interviews for his ARC grant, and he is also very interested in understanding [same topic].
Because he already has ethics approval, and I have some industry connections, he suggested the two of us collaborate on a series of interviews together. These could either contribute directly to my PhD thesis, or play an exploratory role to help me think about how I wish to conduct my own case studies. Moreover, he plans to publish a journal article based on this data sometime down the road and would love to have me on board as well.
As I lack academic publishing experience, I was very excited about this co-publishing opportunity with an experienced and supportive researcher.
Since other PhD students routinely publish collaborative work alongside their PhD thesis, I did not see many complications. However, when I brought this proposal up with my primary supervisor, they warned me that I should worry about the “originality” of my thesis. They said that if these interviews were conducted with someone else as part of their ARC project, and as part of a journal article where I would not be first author, I cannot use the interview data at all in my own thesis.
In essence, they suggested that any time I take up any collaborative work, it could potentially endanger the “originality” of my thesis, because I may have difficulty establishing that the conceptual ideas or data in my thesis is purely my own, and not the result of someone else’s influence/contribution.
This, to me, raises a whole lot of concerns. I want to collaborate with others on topics related to my PhD, and I am also considering doing some part-time work where I would contribute to co-authored policy papers on education. I believe that my thesis will be enriched by these collaborations and external experiences, rather than being harmed by them. Would you, or anyone on your team, be able to provide me with some guidance on the issue of thesis originality and collaborative work?
Perplexed PhD student.”
In my opinion, the supervisor is right to be worried in this scenario.
First of all, let’s get clear on what ‘originality’ can be in this circumstance. The most helpful reference on the topic of originality is the classic How to Get a PhD, by Phillips and Pugh, (which is due to be re-released in July this year, now authored by Phillips and Johnson, so maybe wait if you are going to buy a copy). In chapter 5 of the new edition (which I received as a review copy), they give 15 ways to be original. The list includes the thesis having “… many original ideas, methods and interpretations, all performed by others under the direction of the postgraduate“.
In the situation proposed above, the other academic is clearly providing direction, even if it’s a collaborative process, so the work arising possibly fails the first originality test. Additionally, if a paper was published, the academic could (rightly) expect to be recognised as first author. If they insisted on this claim, it undermines any claims the PhD student has to originality. Further, because the work is a pilot study, the mere existence of this work muddies claims to originality of any work built on top of it.
Here’s the rub: remember I said the ‘polite fiction’ of the PhD is that the supervisor is not considered an author? If this work was carried out in exactly the same way, but with the supervisor panel playing the role of mentor, the claim to originality is much less likely to be challenged. That’s because the examiner would assume supervisors encouraged and facilitated the ‘independence’ piece. Anyway, most supervisors automatically give first authorship to their PhD students for collaborative work that might end up in a thesis (if your supervisor doesn’t do this, red flag!).
Confused yet? Yeah – it’s not an easy area to get your head around.
I advised this particular PhD candidate to bring the academic onboard as part of the supervisor panel, if possible. And to put an authorship agreement in place that promises the student will be first author before starting the work (here’s a link to the ANU standard Authorship Form – your institution probably has one too). I further advised that, if the academic in question does not want to either 1) join the supervisory panel or 2) sign this form, the PhD student should politely say ‘no’ to the offer – no matter how tempting the offer of mentorship might be.
To me, it was a sign of inexperience of the academic in question not to think carefully about these issues and include these two suggestions in the initial offer. I am extremely careful when I do any work with a PhD student because I know the situation can get complicated very quickly.
So, does this need to claim ownership over knowledge inhibit your collaboration with others, especially people who are not your supervisor?
Well, clearly – Yes.
The PhD student is right to point out that the structure of the PhD, as it is currently imagined, can work against collaboration and even against their own learning needs. I wish I had better advice, honestly. I have many problems the the conventional structures of the PhD (see my post Where I call Bullshit on the way we do the PhD – or listen to my sound cloud recording of the same). This problem of authorship is third on my list after ‘why the hell – why even academic writing?!’ and ‘can we please, pretty please, get rid of the dissertation!?”
But I don’t make the rules – I just try to help people live with them. Accordingly, I’ve certainly counselled many a distressed PhD student through worries about being scooped or having their ideas stolen. At the risk of oversimplifying this hugely complex area, here are some basic principles to guide you in protecting your IP when you are a student – and beyond.
I offer this advice with a caveat: ALWAYS CHECK WITH AN EXPERIENCED PERSON ABOUT YOUR INDIVIDUAL SITUATION IF YOU ARE WORRIED. If you are at ANU, you can email me because it’s a role I play as part of my oversight of the Research Integrity Training course. But the matters are so complex and steeped in disciplinary norms and customs, I usually provide some high-level advice and pass the person on to the research integrity advisors in each college.
Socialise your ideas, but carefully
My basic advice is this: while you are a PhD student, the only people you can talk to really freely about your ideas are your supervisors. You should have more than one, so there will be a depth of experience (hopefully) to draw upon.
While there are accusations made by PhD students against supervisors, there is a framework for working out these disputes. After you graduate, only circulate valuable ideas within trusted circles of confidants. Outside of these two circumstances, you have to have more careful conversations. Again – I only say this to be pragmatic. I wish we weren’t so uptight about knowledge ownership, but that’s Capitalism and here we are.
Now I’m beginning to see why I have avoided this topic for 12 years…
This brings me to conferences. We need to talk about them as some at least are back in person, kinda. Many an accusation of plagiarism has been made about senior academics stealing ideas told to them by junior scholars in bars. If you are new to the business of protecting intellectual property in academia, perhaps avoid drinking too much. (Yes – I’m quite serious).
All this *gestures wildly at everything written so far* is why we researcher developers drone on and on about the importance of networking. If you want to ‘own’ an idea, and it’s not in writing, only socialise it within circles of trusted confidants. Spending time talking with people about mutual interests is a way of developing trusted relationships. Conferences are great places to meet the kind of people who become trusted confidants – just maybe hit the zero alcohol drinks so you can make more accurate character assessments.
Speaking of conferences.
Get it in writing early…
Conference presentations are very useful for socialising early work at the same time as laying claim to ownership – even if it’s not a peer-reviewed conference.
You can’t protect an idea under copyright law – you can only protect a form it takes. In academia, the form really matters. If you get your thoughts in writing early, you lay a claim to the knowledge, even if it’s underdeveloped. This doesn’t stop anyone else from taking the idea and running with it but it does help you evidence a later claim of plagiarism if it’s warranted.
Even a blog post or opinion piece (which is dated and in the public domain) can help establish your claim. But remember that journals want to publish original work. If you have already ‘released’ the idea in a too developed form, you might lose your chance to get it peer-reviewed later. When you are socialising ideas in non peer-reviewed venues, try to be a bit more vague than you would be with your supervision panel. As Mr Thesis Whisperer says: be a bit ‘arm wavey’, by which he means don’t get down in the details too much.
While you are a PhD student, always get a more experienced person to check your presentation and any written material before you go public. This reminds me of an important caveat…
… don’t get it in writing too early!
There is a balance to be struck between socialising the idea so that you are laying a claim to inventing it, and circulating ideas that turn out to be plain wrong, or just poorly expressed. You don’t want your early work to leave a bad first impression. Also, once stuff gets onto the internet it can be very hard to take down. A good supervisor can help you find the balance here. Trusted confidants can be an important sanity check once you’re graduated.
Gah! Inger! But I just want to talk to people about my ideas!
Hey, cool – I feel you. So do I.
But you know what is better than telling people about your ideas? Listening to theirs.
If you encourage people to talk, by being obviously interested in what they say, you learn all kinds of things. You also build those trusted bonds I’m talking about. If you are brewing an idea, you can get oblique feedback by throwing clever questions at people, rather than just spouting facts and opinions.
For example, I have been working for years with the PostAc team on developing an algorithm to ‘read’ job ads and rank them by nerdiness (my last post was on our latest findings). We started this project by creating a conceptual model of the ‘ideal’ PhD graduate which we used to hand-code thousands of job ads. We then taught the machine how to mimic our hand-coding using machine learning / natural language processing (ML-NLP). The ML-NLP model attempted to capture the skills and attributes such a person would possess.
I was under strict instructions not to reveal the ‘recipe’ for this ML-NLP process – I still can’t tell you; it’s now a Trade Secret. But I did get a lot of useful feedback as we were making it by my asking Colleagues and Employers what THEY thought the ideal PhD graduate was like. We then convened an expert panel to sanity check our hunches. We used all this insight in our ML–NLP ‘recipe’.
Okay. I need a lie down after all that. Good luck out there and try not to be too paranoid!
Comments are still off, but you can tag me on Twitter and I will no doubt respond because I can’t help myself. I hope all this Covid nonsense is not affecting you too much and that you are in a place that is safe from harm. Take care out there – it’s more than ideas that are at stake!
An audio piece where I call bullshit on the PhD and dissertation writing for an upcoming Cambridge debate series.
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