Idea Theft & Failure to Cite
Two Underdiscussed Problems in Academic Medicine.
Recently a journalist complained that citing papers breaks up the narrative flow of an essay. A philosopher replied that for those of us who make a career out of ideas, citation is important. We aren’t telling a story. We are idea creators.
I share that view. Fundamentally, I think the academy is about generating, developing and advancing novel ideas. Given that ideas are the currency, paying appropriate credit to one’s sources is key. Yet, sadly, this does not always happen. Let me talk about 2 concepts: idea theft and failure to cite.
Idea theft occurs when a colleague or collaborator discusses a topic with you. During the course of these discussions, you tell them some ideas that would lead to clever papers. For some reason or another, no further follow up occurs. To be honest, this is typically, as many ideas don’t go anywhere. Then, a year goes by, and you see they have published this idea, sometimes with other collaborators.
The part I never understand about idea theft is why the person did not include the original source of the idea. One possibility is there is a real disagreement about who devised the idea. But in my opinion it is bizarre because authorship standards are generally lax.
We live in an environment where there's rampant author, inflation. In other words, people give middle authorship people who did not contribute in any way shape or form to the publication. Yet, when it comes to idea theft, the thief usually does not even include the person who gave them. I can only speculate as to why this happens, but it does.
Failure to cite
Far more common: people borrow without citing. If you put your ideas out in any form other than peer-reviewed publications, they are ripe for borrowing. You can do a podcast or a blog on some topic, and you may be surprised to find somebody essentially transcribes your ideas and publishes it as a paper. The only antidote to this is to preemptively publish it yourself. Or to hold back your ideas. But that's not something you should accept. Because in this life there's nothing more delightful than advancing ideas.
Rarely, people who borrow, generate many papers very similar to work you have done, that does not cite that work. Even though you know they have read that work, or strongly suspect that they have. Sometimes people create their own network of very similar papers so that they can just cite those papers. I also don’t understand this because it is duplicative, and why would anyone want to work on unoriginal ideas, which is inherently what this means.
These are two things that occur in the academy, which are under discussed, yet in the last few months, I have heard many instances of it. Perhaps recognition may help others who are silently dealing with similar situations.