Wednesday, September 22, 2010
The Copy-Cat Scientist
Julie, whom you suspect has few original ideas of her own, is copying your research because it is so successful and has brought you a lot of attention and funding in the past. You also discover that she has been getting detailed information about your methods from your technicians and students--without your permission.
Competition in the scientific community is normal and necessary for the field to move forward. However, within a research organization, too much competition and overlap in research areas can lead to a toxic, suspicious environment. People are reluctant to talk freely about their ideas and projects with co-workers for fear of someone taking their ideas and passing them off as their own to superiors. Such a situation often arises when science managers encourage competition among researchers (thinking that this will result in greater funding and science output).
Most scientists prefer to establish their own unique area(s) of research, but sometimes there will be one person who can only survive by copying what others do.
Most of us have so many questions and ideas to try out, that there just aren't enough hours in the day to address them. I thought everyone was like this until I had a conversation many years ago with a post-doc who asked me where I got all of my research ideas. At the time, I was a master's-level research associate, but was writing papers and proposals. I had been rattling on about some ideas I had for a study I wanted to conduct, when I noticed this post-doc staring at me with a strange look on his face. He seemed quite mystified as to how I had thought of these research questions and then how I came up with a set of experiments (so quickly) to test the questions. At first, I thought he was just surprised that someone without a Ph.D. could do this, but his later comments told me that he simply had difficulty thinking of new questions to ask. I've later discovered that this lack of creative spark/curiosity is not that rare. When such people no longer have an adviser feeding them ideas, they must turn elsewhere.
In other cases, some people are so competitive that they actively steal ideas to scoop a colleague. I knew someone like this once. He particularly liked to prey on graduate students who would unwittingly tell him their ideas. This scientist would then quickly do the study and publish it before the student could finish. He also targeted women, minorities, and visiting scientists from foreign institutions. It was a game to him, and he even bragged about it. Classic bully. Picking on the weak who could not fight back.
This type of situation is probably one of the most distressing that a research scientist can face. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but when it goes too far, you need to take action. So what do you do?
You cannot really say much against someone like this because you will look defensive and territorial, and it's really easy for the imitator to counter with the claim that they are simply focusing on important issues of the day and their work has nothing to do with you and your research. In fact, any complaints from you (to superiors) will likely backfire.
As I've been trying to point out in this series, self-promotion may not only be a good idea, but essential to protect yourself against just this type of situation--or combat it if it develops. The suggestions I made in this previous post about making sure you document your ideas or only provide them in front of witnesses so that the copy-cat cannot claim them later will certainly work in this situation. However, you may need a more comprehensive strategy. More in the next post.