Where's the line?

Apr 09 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

One of the things I like about reading grant proposals is that it makes me think. I'm asked to read and judge topics that can be far flung from my field and interests. But part of that process is, of course, the generation of ideas.

Some of the proposals are closer to my wheelhouse and I would be lying if they haven't made me ponder some alternative approaches to what we do. How could they not? One proposal, in particular, introduced me to a system that I was vaguely aware of, but not in any detail. While the proposal and questions were quite distinct from anything I do, the system piqued my interest as a vehicle to demonstrate principles we are working on in other systems.

Herein lies a dilemma with all reviewing - determining where the line is between stimulating independent thought and leaning on someone else's ideas. In science, we lean on the work of others all the time, but not in its nascent stages.

So, readers, how do you draw the line when reviewing?

12 responses so far

  • Namnezia says:

    You could argue that it's like insider trading. But on the other hand, if your goal is to do the best science possible, and this best science is for the good of everyone, and the impact of you using this already published system would be none on the applicant, then things looks a little different.

  • Namnezia says:

    By the same topic, if you go to a meeting and get an idea from a poster and repeat the experiment better in your own lab, is this stealing?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    In this particular case, I could use google to get the answers I need. It was simply that I hadn't considered this particular system in the past, but it is well-characterized. However, there is clearly a slippery-slope aspect to this stuff.

    WRT the presentation analogy, I see that as very different because the intended audience is people in the person's field. It is a public presentation, whereas a grant proposal is not at all and the ideas are likely less developed.

  • The same problem arises when refereeing papers. I have heard people complain - it has never happened to me - that they have had papers held up by referees, only for their work to be scooped by another lab. And they have had the strong suspicion that the obstructive referee was one and the same person as the one who published the paper which stole their thunder. That is certainly behaviour on the wrong side of the line. But if, like Charles Darwin, you are holding back publishing and you suddenly find someone else (Wallace) might be about to pip you to the post, is it unethical to rush your own work into print?

    What you describe just sounds like one of the many ways creative ideas are generated and flow, but if you were actually working in an overlapping area, then it might indeed look like taking advantage of your privileged position. But, once you've read something how can you not store it away for future use? I believe this is equally a problem with composers.

  • warpedellipsis says:

    Why not just contact the person and talk to them about it? Exchange of ideas is what the research/science/creative fields run on. They could get more ideas from what you think, and you from them. I'd suggest contacting them after the paper is out of your hands, though--less reason for them to think the process was held up. The contact itself also states good faith.

    The real problem here is whether you'd be accused of something akin to plagiarism or holding up the process to cash in on it. For students, citation* to obvious resources of inspiration fixes the former accusation, and in citing it I don't think there could be a problem of the latter accusation either. This way, the person gets credit for coming up with it, just as happens when after a paper is published and everybody swoops down to gobble up ideas for their own use--all citing back to that paper.

    *I'm not sure if grants are done like journal article reviews; if so, contacting and proper citation will be....impossible. If there's a way to figure out who it was after the fact, that'd be useful; if not, perhaps just saying "got the idea from a grant proposal I read, thanks to the author" would be enough.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    The post was more intended to stimulate some discussion on the topic. I am confident that my own situation is above board, since it does not take ideas, data or research direction from the proposal at all. Contacting the individual would do nothing for me, since they could not contribute to the work that I am considering.

    In more direct cases where the ideas overlap, a mutually beneficial collaboration might work out well, but the initial conversation could be a bit awkward.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Golden Rule and whatnot, people. Categorical Imperative. This is not difficult....

  • With the thousands of information bytes that we receive daily during readings, viewings, and discourses with others, it is hard to tell when original thoughts truly emerge as opposed to ideas that were forgotten and triggered for remembrance. Creativity in scientific thinking seems to stem from the ability to string diverse ideas together in novel ways that explain observations or reveal previously unappreciated relationships. It is indeed a grey area when building on the ideas of others crosses the line to become outright stealing. Proper acknowledgement of other's work provides some alleviation of this dilemma.

    A grant application or scientific paper reviewer happens to be someone with a prepared mind that can easily absorb new ideas and observation, because the work under consideration is usually within their expertise. A good reviewer does not just take information, but also gives useful feedback to the authors. Therefore, there should be an exchange of ideas that transpires with the review process. The major flaw in the system is that peer-review is usually anonymous, which places the reviewer at an advantage if he/she decides to be exploitive and competitive with the authors. While anonymity does allow the reviewer to be frank in their criticisms, it also means that there contributions will not be acknowledged in the final published work.

    While individual scientists should be acknowledged and sometimes celebrated for significant contributions to our understanding of the workings of the universe, we should appreciate that building this knowledge is really a team effort that is ultimately financed by society at large. One would like to have the satisfaction knowing that his/her work is meaningful and makes a real contribution to scientific advancement, and that this is recognized by others. In the big scheme, however, it is more important that there is a free flow of ideas and information than who thought or discovered it first.

  • Martini says:

    As long as it is not a "direct ripoff" and in an mostly unrelated filed I'd say you are ok.

    This is one of the key reasons for being on grant panels is being exposed to wide array of science and ways of thinking. Every grant panellist I know comes home with new ideas that influence their research, even though the proposals they are reviewing are likely mostly unrelated to their direct reserach.

    Again, as long as you are not repeating Fig. 1 in someones proposal, only in your model system, I think it is ok.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    PLS: ACS ethical guidelines say that you can ethically abandon research when it is shown to be unproductive in a work you review ("However, if such information indicates that some of the editor’s own research is unlikely to be profitable, the editor could ethically discontinue the work."). Would using a different, better technique or system to study a phenomenon fall under this guideline if you were introduced to said technique during your reviewing?

  • Lifeisgood says:

    Reading papers, listening to talks, reading other grant proposals or manuscripts, it is all the same. It is the inspiration we need for our brain to work at its best. The copy-kid is part of human nature, but we are also able to transform it into something new, and this is the really important part. This discriminates the average from the brilliant scientist. I was always wondering, why the study sections are full of all these very well-known and famous scientists and even people from industry. For one, that is how they get new ideas, and as a currently very welcome side effect, it also keeps the possible competition where it belongs, out of the race. For me the problem starts when a grant proposal would be directly in my field, let's say about the proteins I am working with, then it is simply a conflict of interest, and it should be obvious what to do. I am afraid most people in the current system won't see it that way. As a psychologist would tell you, lying is also part of human nature, even our best (political and society leaders) do it. If the reviewing system would change to a non-anonymous system, like some open access journals start to do it, things might change. Meanwhile, we simply have to deal with human nature. What to do, is everyone's own decision in the end. Belong to the 99% or to the 1%. It's our own face we have to see in the mirror every morning.

  • anonymous says:

    What drugmonkey wrote.

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