By Keith McDowell
Don’t tell anyone but Academe has a hidden secret that few talk about or admit, but one that every scholar and every researcher learns about early in their career through hushed whispers and their own experience. It’s a secret that affects and impacts daily behavior and the course of academic scholarly activity and research. And, of course, it’s a secret that transcends Academe and infects the business world as well. What is that secret? People steal! They steal not just pencils, paper, or other trivial resources found in the workplace but, most important to a proper functioning of the innovation ecosystem and specifically for R&D, they steal ideas and they steal knowledge, almost always for personal gain. And it’s a story with a long history.
Who invented the calculus? Was it Sir Isaac Newton or Gottried Wilhelm Leibnitz? How about the radio? History books claim Guglielmo Marconi as the inventor, but the U.S. Supreme Court after a lengthy court case supported the prior work of Nicola Tesla in 1943. And who can forget the more recent public and acrimonious dispute between Robert Gallo and the French as to the discovery of the HIV virus?
Is the theft of ideas a rare event trumpeted by headlines and mostly ignored by individuals as something that “can’t happen to me” or is it a common place event so ingrained that we have altered our behavior to account for it? I vote for the latter. It’s happened to me. Twice! After the first instance, I should have known better than to talk with anyone but the most trusted of friends about a new scientific idea, but I did it again and it cost me a research publication, credit for a new idea, and a new area for research since I didn’t have the resources at the time to compete. And I’m not the only one. Most of my closest friends in the science community have told me stories and proven beyond reasonable doubt to me that their ideas have been stolen.
Such thievery most definitely affects our behavior and ultimately innovation! How is that? Every researcher knows about the most common mechanism for theft of an idea. It’s called a research proposal for Federal funding. No matter the pledges taken by proposal reviewers or the care of Federal program managers – all done in good faith by all for the most part, the truth is that once an idea is out, it’s out! It’s a fact of life and a factor in the lack of truly transformative proposals. It’s a game where one completes research before proposing it. And in a similar manner, the same can be said for the world of scientific publications through the peer review of research papers.
But as annoying as the ordinary theft of ideas has been throughout the history of humankind, another more troubling pattern is beginning to emerge in American society as innovation through the creation of ideas assumes an ever more important value proposition for global competition. And it comes with the patina of a liberal and progressive concept otherwise known as open government and transparency.
For many decades, researchers and scholars in American universities presumed that they owned their research as manifested by logbooks, data files, strip charts, and all the other accoutrements necessary to maintain the record of their efforts. Many, like me, packed up and moved their ever increasing research baggage with them as they moved from job to job. But then, Federal bureaucracy encroached as everyone learned that ownership of federally funded research resided with the university, not the researcher. Indeed, the notion of “data retention” in such research and fidelity thereto became a grant condition to be monitored and reviewed. As a former university vice president of research, I can cite from experience specific research programs whose records were reviewed and where audit findings were reported on the quality of the data management. Sadly, the time-honored presumption that “my research is mine” has been booted into the trashcan of the past.
And then “climategate” occurred in November of 2009 with the posting of hacked emails showing that scientists can sometimes behave like ordinary and even venal people. But that wasn’t the real message. The real message was that emails between and among researchers and others are part and parcel of the record of a research program and are accessible to the public through either the Federal or state Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA).
In 2011 the American Tradition Institute (ATI), a group dismissive of human-caused climate change, issued just such a request against the University of Virginia and the emails of a former professor, Michael E. Mann, an international authority on global climate change currently employed by Penn State University. The FOIA request followed on the heels of an attempt by Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II to obtain the research records and proposal documents of Professor Mann using a Civil Investigative Demand (CID) under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. That CID was eventually denied in a court action. For those interested in the details, the Mann case has its own wikipedia page where one can access a plethora of documents and read all the pros and cons of exposing the working records of research in progress to the public eye.
Despite the political trappings of the Mann case and the hoopla surrounding it, the case is of profound importance to our American system of performing research and how we protect our laboratories from the prying eye, not only from the eye of those with a political agenda, but from the eye of those who would steal our ideas and our research. Even worse, have we inadvertently awakened a new threat: the research troll?
Let’s suppose for a moment that you are one of two entities, either a large and very competitive corporation (think the IT sector) or a foreign nation such as China eager to gather information about early-stage research to obtain a competitive advantage. Why not secretly fund “research trolls” or entities that gather and collect early-stage research through FOIA requests, the use of “bots” to datamine faculty webpages, and other such legal, but ultimately nefarious endeavors, not to mention hacking. Bundled together such knowledge packages would have value.
We already have ample proof that various nation states send “graduate students” – people who already possess a doctorate degree – to America to gather information in our university laboratories. Why not add the mechanism of FOIA requests to the arsenal? In fact, for those with a short memory, such FOIA tactics have been around for some time and used by serial FOIA requesters such as the infamous Sunshine Project.
The time has come for America to create the bright line between transparency and open government and our need to carry out research and create new ideas in a protective environment, free from harassment and abuse by our current FOIA laws, free from disruption of the scientific process including dialogue through emails, and free from the ultimate theft of our ideas. Whatever one’s views are on where the bright line should be – and there are many points of view including the impact on academic freedom, this debate must be had. The problem is not going away and it is likely to metastasize into the appearance of research trolls, if they don’t already exist, selling our nation’s ideas to the highest bidders.