Openness in academic research

by Randy Tsang

  • Can a researcher maintain a public blog or wiki related to their research or does it leave them vulnerable to ideas theft?

An interesting issue was raised today during one of my induction lectures about the possible dangers of disclosing too much information about your own research to other academics. When discussing your idea or research, it pays to take care that you don’t disclose too much information to the wrong people, as someone who is in the middle of writing a publication may be able to write about your ideas without referencing you. This may also be true of discussing ideas on a blog, as I am doing here. As an advocate for opensource and as someone who has an interest in crowdsourcing and the wisdom of crowds, it would make sense to disclose any thoughts or ideas I have related to my research. This is especially the case as the purpose of this blog is to share ideas with the community in the hope of receiving insights and comments from the online community to help enhance my understanding of the subject.

Mathworks, the company that developed the statistical programming language MATLAB have demonstrated this principle in the real world. Mathworks regularly post open competitions that aim to solve complex mathematical problems. The difference between this competition and most others is that submitted solutions are made public, allowing other contestants to see and “steal” other peoples’ solutions, add their own contributions and re-submit the solution as a new entry into the contest. These contests generally run over the course of 10 days. According Ned Gully, a software designer at Mathworks, the final winning solution is on average better than the best solution from day 1 by a magnitude of 1000 (Howe, J 2008, Crowdsourcing; How the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business).

There is also the added complication of not being eligible to receive a PhD if a large proportion of you research (roughly a third I am told) is published before assessment.