In many ways this post is a continuation of the recent one on open access. This post is not intended as a criticism of online discussions (though there are some things that I think are more genuinely problematic) but merely an observation of a problem that is novel thanks to the internet and will I suspect cause problems for people in the future. Thus its discussion (ironically on the internet) and bringing the concept to light and into the glare of a public forum is I think a good thing.
I try to be as honest academically as possible which means that even if I have come up with an idea however small, and completely independently, if I am aware of this when writing a paper, I want to cite the other researcher who also noted this point. However, time was when the only discussion of most scientific concepts was done formally in the literature, or at conference meetings, or occasionally face to face. In other words it was limited to a fairly formal situation, engaged in only by academics, and only occurred to a limited degree.
Now thanks to the internet, there are hundreds of people conversing daily on blog comment threads, on message boards, on archived mailing lists and more. Lots and lots of ideas are being bandied about constantly, but all kinds of people and, importantly, these are archived and accessible online.
Therefore the question arises of how do act if I want to be scrupulously academically honest and make sure I’m giving someone else credit for an idea we both have had? (I’m talking here specifically about independent ideas, not using someone else’s ideas as a springboard for more research when a) you already know about it and b) it’s therefore easy and obvious thing to acknowledge).
I think it unreasonable to trawl through all those message boards and go looking for every comment anyone ever made to see what they said about ceratopsian horn function say. It’s practically impossible (even with online searches) and impractical in general. As much as anything it is obviously open to rampant abuse as you can fill every board with as much unfounded speculation as you like in great detail covering every possible angle and then claim you ‘thought of it first’ if anyone ever publishes any idea or general concept that overlaps with one of yours. But I am worried that this kind of thing may come to pass, not necessarily the dishonest approach of deliberately seeding ideas, but that of ‘accidental’ appropriation of ideas.
I would, I think understandably, be annoyed if I wrote a comment on a prominent site about say pterosaur flight and then saw words to that effect appear uncredited in a paper. But of course in their own way these comments are like conference abstracts, in that they are difficult to cite effectively or confidently. They are not reviewed, their documentation is uncertain (not all of this stuff is archived, some will disappear from the net etc.) and it’s often not clear in offhand comments and discussions if people making remarks are quoting other people, or even other papers when they put forward an idea, or if this is pure conjecture or based on any evidence (unpublished or otherwise).
In short, while genuine intellectual theft of ideas is and will remain rare, my concern is that some people will get upset that their ideas have been ‘stolen’. It could be hard if not impossible for someone to prove that they hadn’t read some comment or post online somewhere prominent. Back when scientific communities were smaller and communication was more limited and formal this pretty much could not be a problem, and while I’m not aware of any specific cases of this, I cannot help but suspect it’s only a matter of time. It is, I think, too easy to dismiss online discussions as un-citeable as this prevents credit from being given in cases where people have genuinely provided information or ideas that stimulated research. In any case unlike abstracts or papers, such ideas can really be cited regardless of a paper trail as personal communications from the person concerned (though these themselves are a little more uncertain now with the influx of extra people into the discussion).
I’ll leave things, there but as before this is something I think worthy of discussion since it is another aspect of modern science that needs to be adjusted to by a great many people quickly.