How much are the ideas of your competition worth to you?

Scientists are typically rather secretive about whatever they are working on right now. While in most universities, you can at least see where the researchers work, in some government laboratories, such as NRC, you would think that Russian spies are on every corner: how else can you explain the armed guards you find at the entrance of some buildings? I bet that some private laboratories are even better protected.

Initially, when I started this blog, I wanted to tell the world about what I was working on. Somehow, on paper, it sounded like a nice approach. By sharing my ideas, I could get some early feedbacks, some extra references, I could maybe even get some collaboration going.

While it may work for some, opening up my research ideas simply does not work for me. Explaining, clearly, what I work on is hard. I could sketch my ideas, but only a handful of people would grasp even half of what I would write. Moreover, many ideas never make it outside my office. I abandon most of my ideas, eventually. Thus, taking the time to explain my current set of ideas would be very wasteful.

So, you simply cannot tell what I am working on. I just won’t tell you. I will tell you to go read my papers.

Most researchers behave the same way. Interestingly, however, many researchers have another reason for behaving this way: they do not want to give their competition an edge. They do not divulge their ideas for the same reason they keep their data and their software secret: they want to make sure nobody can catch up to them.

Whenever several researchers are working toward the very same goal, this a sensible concern. After all, being the first to solve a given scientific problem, is important. Science is a winner-takes-all game, at least some of time. Other times, people are simply misguided: keeping yourself out of the information-sharing loop only makes you less useful to the community and, ultimately, less important.

Me? If I were able to read minds… if I were able to see what other researchers are thinking about… I would most certainly not bother. I am already overwhelmed with carefully crafted papers on Google Scholar, I would certainly not care for the early drafts of my competitors. It helps that I do not feel like I have competitors. This is no accident since I apply Dijkstra’s rule:

Never tackle a problem of which you can be pretty sure that (now or in the near future) it will be tackled by others who are, in relation to that problem, at least as competent and well-equipped as you.

3 thoughts on “How much are the ideas of your competition worth to you?”

  1. I have seen cases that the mere act of explicitly stating that “I am working on this problem” gives too much hint on actually solving it. The problem could be a “currently low-hanging fruit” to those who are up-to-date on the literature, and if one is reminded of the problem, then one can solve the problem in a matter of days or even hours. So it can degenerate into a competition on who gets a preprint on arXiv first… The lower the fruit is, the less you want to tell people.

    Flip it around: if you are working on something high up, then even though you can tell everyone about it, you may not solve it in the end… So you don’t want to tell people just yet so as to “protect” your own feelings. I think this is perfectly human.

    What’s left is the middle ground, which I think contains the problems that are really worth working on and it’s also quite safe to tell everyone about it. But to identify them is very hard…

  2. I often don’t know what I’m working on until I spend a few days implementing something that works vis a vis the concept. At that point I can usually explain what I am doing in fairly clear and simple terms. Maybe this is validation of a constructivist view of knowledge…

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