A concern with internet discussions and academic honesty

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.

20 Responses to “A concern with internet discussions and academic honesty”


  1. 1 Christopher Taylor 03/11/2009 at 4:32 pm

    Something that’s happened to me a few times are occasions when I know that I heard or read someone make a certain observation or use a particularly good turn of phrase somewhere, but I can’t remember exactly who or where. And if I can’t remember the exact words that they used, it may not be possible to hunt down the original source through a Google/[insert search engine of your choice] search. I have to admit that I’m always at something of a loss on those occasions.

  2. 2 Mike Taylor 03/11/2009 at 11:24 pm

    I’m not sure I see a problem here. How does reading something on a blog cause more difficulty than hearing it in a bar? In both cases, if you happened to be one of those two read/heard, then you cite; if not, then you don’t.

    • 3 David Hone 04/11/2009 at 8:09 am

      Well Mike, for one I don’;t get to talk to many researchers much and yet there are thousands of conversations I can ‘overhear’ online. I guess as much as anything it is the potential for dishonesty by people scanning such places (or simply coming across something) and using it uncredited as a basis for their research. Alternatively I can see people coming up with ideas independently and then being accused of stealing ideas from the DML or wherever.
      I’m not saying this is a problem or will be a problem, I think it is however a strong possibility and perhaps worth a little thought and discussion.

  3. 4 Nathan Myers 04/11/2009 at 3:40 am

    For the record, anyone is free to use any idea I post, anywhere, without crediting me in any way whatsoever. Any of my ideas you publish on that are resoundingly squashed are, likewise, your problem. If I wanted credit or to risk blame, and was actually willing to, you know, work, I’d publish myself.

    I think this should serve as a general principle for blog comment postings.

    • 5 David Hone 04/11/2009 at 8:15 am

      You might take that approach but I suspect many might now, and they might not even thing to let people know that this is not how they feel. And even if they did, that might not stop others taking that idea and feigning ignorance. To follow from Mike’s ‘int he pub discussion’ – if I let out a few ideas in a conversation with colleagues I probably know and trust the people I spoke to, and if not I should at least know who they are. There are millions of people who can read this comment without my knowing and then pass it off as their idea and i won’t know or be able to prove it (if they ripped off something really important).

      • 6 Nathan Myers 04/11/2009 at 2:53 pm

        Ideas aren’t important. Ideas are cheap, they fall from the sky like rain. I can come up with a hundred good ideas in minutes when provoked, and so what?

        Work is important. Somebody who didn’t do work has no claim whatsoever. The first person to put in serious work developing an idea has a rightful claim. Somebody who does serious work and then blabs about it offhandedly in blog posting with no hint that they’re serious about it deserves what they get.

        So sez I.

      • 7 David Hone 04/11/2009 at 3:37 pm

        “Ideas aren’t important.”
        In science? No they are critical. And not just for generating research or interpreting research, but also (as I hint here) for advancing and building careers (hence my concern about misappropriation).

        “Ideas are cheap, they fall from the sky like rain.”
        Some, yes. Good ones? Probably not. It took us quite a while to figure out things like natural selection and relativity and gravity. Even apparently obvious things like sauropods not living in water or that pterosaurs could fly took a long time.

        Work is important. But it is based on an idea. You can’t just ‘do work’ to ‘do science’.

      • 8 Nathan Myers 05/11/2009 at 3:28 am

        Lots of people at the time had notions similar to natural selection and relativity, and did nothing meaningful with them. Darwin and Einstein, respectively, had them independently, but chose to put in the effort to develop the ideas and the consequences. They get well-deserved credit for it. Both of them must have started with notions that were not quite “on”, just like everyone else’s, and came around to the developed concept as a consequence of working with it.

        Ideas really are cheap. It may be that there’s not much intersection between the people equipped to develop an idea and the people who come by them easily — as why should there be? That’s all the more reason to seize the germ of a good idea wherever you find it, and pay no attention to where it originated.

        One of the lessons of Silicon Valley and the various tech investment bubbles was that if an idea is any good at all, it takes enormous effort to convince anybody else that it has any value at all. There’s never any danger of a good idea being “stolen”, because the really good ones are indistinguishable, by most, from rank nuttery until after people get very used to them.

        Darwin’s opponents at the time weren’t hostile because they were religious extremists. They sincerely found the whole schema childishly implausible, and its implications multiply repugnant. Many people who had the germ of the idea themselves felt the same way, and tried to develop it in a less repugnant way, distorting it to the point of meaninglessness.

        The idea that ideas are cheap is itself one of those that seems repugnant when you’re not used to it, but that is the basis for efflorescences wherever they happen.

      • 9 David Hone 05/11/2009 at 9:02 am

        “had notions similar to natural selection and relativity”

        But not *actually* the same. Thus proving that the idea was valuable. Your comment might well be true of engineering, but science is different. And we are not just talking about the ‘grand’ ideas but all the little ones as well that drive investigations and research. True insights, big or small are important.

        In any case you utterly ignore my point about ideas being worth something to those who come up with them. Plenty of people have lost out when others steal their ideas, hence my concern as echoed by others here. Even if it does take a huge amount of work to get them through (something I am not convinced about based on my own experiences as a researcher – many people are too quickly convinced of new ideas in my experience), getting a good headstart by stealing someone elses concept would still give them a huge advantage, thus the theft of that idea is still critical.

      • 10 Christopher Taylor 05/11/2009 at 9:25 am

        There’s also the point that opportunities for working through an idea are not equal. For instance, I’m currently in a small university department, working as an assistant with limited time to conduct any personal research (I’d pretty much have to do it outside working hours) and without anyone I could directly shanghai into doing any of the work for me. Even with all the will in the world, there’s no way that I’d be able to work through the testing of an idea of mine faster than someone in charge of a large laboratory with five or so grad students at their beck and call.

      • 11 David Hone 05/11/2009 at 10:17 am

        Exactly Christopher – hence your ideas are especially important (to you!) and giving them away by accident (i.e. having them taken) could be pretty damaging.

      • 12 Nathan Myers 05/11/2009 at 3:20 pm

        Darwin’s and Einstein’s own ideas weren’t the same as what they ended with, either. Each idea developed as it was worked on, and became what we think of as their idea. When they started, their ideas were no better than those of lots of others, and if those others had developed theirs, some of them would certainly have ended in much the same place — as, in fact, Wallace did.

        If you are nursing a belief that “scientific” ideas are somehow more valuable, or harder to come up with, or harder to develop than mere “engineering” ideas, you are indulging an ugly vice. I hope I’ll not need to say any more about that.

        Of course we are proud of our own ideas. We each fondly imagine that a hundred other people aren’t thinking the same thing. At issue, here, is whether anybody else has any obligation to cater to such a whim, particularly at the expense of Science. The answer is easy and practical: an idle idea, however great its potential, is just a noise. The person who actually put in the time and effort to develop it is the one who has something valuable, and the only one whose feelings have any bearing.

        Chris, that boss “in charge of a large laboratory” is being bombarded daily with requests from people hoping to get some of those grad students chasing their ideas. The grad students, if they’re any good, have their own ideas they want to work on. The boss is lucky to get his or her own ideas pursued with the attention they must surely deserve.

        Even Gallo only stole ideas from his own employees, and then only after they had done the work. He also stole cell samples, and lied about results, but he had (wrong) ideas of his own and simply wasn’t interested in other people’s ideas.

        Dave, any idea that is easy to convince other people of is one they are just as likely to come by on their own. There’s no point in keeping track of who came up with it first or how many did at the same time, because it’s in the air. The ideas that change things are exactly those that are hard to convince others of, and are thus in no danger of being misappropriated.

      • 13 David Hone 05/11/2009 at 4:48 pm

        “When they started, their ideas were no better than those of lots of others, and if those others had developed theirs, some of them would certainly have ended in much the same place — as, in fact, Wallace did.”
        -That is certainly not always true, I’m sure it is in some cases but not all. Look at the work on Poincare and his writings on how his ideas developed. Regardless, one must still have the idea to being with. The assumption that you have that these are cheap and common is, I think, not true. I certainly do not believe that their ideas were no better than others initially either – the leap from ‘evolution’ to ‘natural selection’ was a huge one.
        Your case that they then had to ‘work on this’ is misleading. Sure Darwin was working on his ideas, but he was *thinking* about them. He was having ideas. And thinking about those ideas. He didn’t just work, separate to the actual thought process of intellectual thought and inspiration.

        “If you are nursing a belief that “scientific” ideas are somehow more valuable, or harder to come up with, or harder to develop than mere “engineering” ideas, you are indulging an ugly vice.”
        – That is not what I said. I said that it might be true of engineering (i don’t know, hence my phraseology), but I don’t think it’s true of science – I do know what science is like. I am a working scientist, have been for some time, and know lots of others. Do not accuse me of something I plainly did not say.

        “The person who actually put in the time and effort to develop it is the one who has something valuable, and the only one whose feelings have any bearing.”
        -You can think that, but I (and clearly others) do not. And if you look at the ethics guidelines of any science group or committee or university you will see just how seriously plagarism is taken. You rather suggest that it only matters who publishes first and that is frankly ridiculous.

        “The person who actually put in the time and effort to develop it is the one who has something valuable, and the only one whose feelings have any bearing.”
        -Except as I have already pointed out it DOES matter. It can and does affect your career (rightly or wrongly). To pretend that it doesn’t matter simply because you don’t care is pointless. You are the only one making and defending this point in the face of comments by other scientists on here (not to mention frankly the whole recent saga of Aeteogate which demonstrates just how seriously the palaeontolgoical community takes these issues). Fine, you don’t care, but we do, and indeed all of science seems to. And frankly and bluntly, we are the ones that are affected and work in this environment so our opinion matters very much.

        You are welcome to suggest otherwise, but don’t expect any support and don’t expect me to have to put up with these kinds of posts. I’m sorry (in a way) to bring this to a head, but I find you comments to be damn near deliberately provocative most of the time and of little substance. I’m sure you are unhappy to hear it, but I am a simply bored of having to respond to endless nitpicks and what come over as arrogant “I’m right and you’re wrong” statements. Please don’t do it. I’d be more than happy not to see your comments on here again quite frankly.

      • 14 David Hone 09/11/2009 at 12:43 pm

        While I hope this thread at least is finally dead, I did come across this today from Kevin Padian (http://caliber.ucpress.net/doi/full/10.1525/bio.2009.59.9.10):

        “There are many other Darwin myths, but most have been long discredited. One is the idea that evolution was “in the air” at the time, and if Darwin had not thought of it when he did, someone else soon would have. Although the idea of evolution, in the sense of transmutation of species, was broached by Buffon, and was openly advocated by Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck, as well as by the anonymous author of Vestiges of Creation ([1844] 1994), no one had proposed a plausible mechanism by which such change could occur.”

  4. 15 Mickey Mortimer 04/11/2009 at 11:52 am

    I completely understand the concern here. I know I’ve had ideas of mine appear in the lit without citation (e.g. Shanyangosaurus as a possible oviraptorosaur, not that I even necessarily believe that now; or more recently Orkoraptor and Aerosteon as relatives). But I figure it’s my fault for putting out ideas without publishing them, though I would enjoy credit if anyone is publishing my DML or Theropod Database ideas in the future. And like you say, it’s not like I can prove any author read my posts or site.

    • 16 David Hone 04/11/2009 at 12:27 pm

      Well that’s just it. I dip in and out of the DML but I don’t subscribe or read it. I don’t even read everything on here in full and of course I have my own ideas and plans. Even if someone did mention something on my blog that I later wrote about, if I had already thought of this before and was working towards it, does that oblige me to credit an anonymous comment on a thread for the same idea? I could steal my own thunder from myself for crediting someone I don’t know who came up with an idea I’d already had! Hence my concern that if people were determined or silly enough they could make like awkward for authors or editors.

  5. 17 Casey 06/11/2009 at 11:03 am

    This is a very relevant topic for everyone that participates in the listserves, blogosphere and Facebook even when it comes to sharing ideas, and even data. The anonymity of blogs and listserves easily enables anyone to yank anything anyone suggests that has merit (hopefully) and easily claim ignorance. I have outed my own ideas mistakenly or hastily before and now I am quite careful about replying to listservs etc.

    A recent example has be the resurgence of reptile lips and cheek talk (which reappears about every 1.5yrs) on the dinolist. This is a project I am keen on and have relevant insight on, but as much as I’d love to discuss the topic online… I’ve had to keep the cards close to the chest except among personal interactions..to make sure they don’t leak before I’m ready. It sorta sucks because a discussion would be fun, and good exercise for the ideas, but likely only for a little bit before it got off topic, and a “wait for the paper” line would have to be cast out.

    I’ve put (pretty) images of data on my FB page only to realize that it might easily steer particular “friends” in directions that I’m not ready for them to pursue yet. I made a very specific but exciting status update once (well, exciting to about 3or4 people, like previous labbies, who I trust), and then someone a bit peripheral but who could be considered competition (or admittedly a potential collaborator) chimed in, and I realized i had tipped my hand, and I took the image down, alas too late. Silly me.

    I like to share new data/ideas (like many researchers and their eureka moments), but ethics are fleeting on the internet and acknowledgments (or citations) don’t have nearly the same value as co-authorships. And once something is out or published, its out regardless of how it got there. All that said, hopefully most people are too busy with their own projects and ideas to hijack those of over-sharers, or indeed they do maintain a degree of academic honesty regarding this glut of information available nowadays and discuss it with the other ppl privately. Ideas are not cheap and many come only after months or years of observations, and many fail, or need to be shelved. So, sadly, I’d be careful sharing too many of them, at least to anonymous, public chat rooms.

    • 18 David Hone 06/11/2009 at 2:39 pm

      That is almost exactly my feelings on the matter. I too have been in that position and even on the Musings here more than once I have skirted very carefully around an issue only for an insightful reader to posit a question that exactly mirrored something I was working on or intend to. So even in answering that I think theirs is a good idea that I intend to work on tips my hand a little to a lot depending on the situation. it has yet to bite me back, but it may only be a matter of time.
      I should remind readers of course that these things are relatively rare, but there are (sadly) people out there who can and will steal ideas and while you do trust your colleagues it is too easy to tell someone who tells someone who tells someone and then suddenly your idea is out there. Of course online the situation is far more out of your control, and as Casey notes, even with ‘groups’ on things like Facebook can get tricky.


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