Thursday, 4 August 2011

Subparallel Research

Let's say you heard a rumor that another group of researchers was working on a possibly identical, or at least very similar, project to your own research. You had both been working on this project for about a year, and had nothing published yet, not even a conference paper or abstract.

Would you:

- Contact the other group, seeking to open lines of communication? Possible motivation for this approach includes a desire to minimize overlap, share resources, and avoid negative consequences for students involved in the research.

- Do nothing and continue to work separately, waiting for a publication by you (ideally) or the other group (alas) to indicate results? Possible motivation for this approach includes a distrust of others and a wish to keep ideas and results confidential until it is time to submit something for publication.

In a recent experience with this situation, a researcher heard that we were working on something similar to his research project. He told mutual colleagues to ask my group to contact him. OK, so that was a bit indirect, but it was a way of opening communication without officially taking the first step: a sort of testing the waters without committing too much.

So we contacted him, and subsequent communication has been very friendly and interesting, with a bit of territory marking, but nothing too extreme. In the end, it will be particularly important for our students that our groups are now in communication and discussing complementary vs. overlapping research efforts.

In other cases, however, I have not been as interested in communicating information, although I typically don't mind giving general outlines of what I am doing.

For me, a key factor in my enthusiasm level re. communication is what I think of the other group -- that is, whether I think we are likely to have open, sincere, constructive discussions about our subparallel research.. or not. Sometimes you can't predict that if you don't know someone well, but sometimes there are clues (or prior negative experience) as a guide.

If you have heard rumors of possible or definite identical/similar research by others, what have you done?

And what influenced your approach? Whether/how well you know the other researcher(s)? Paranoia level? Desire to get the scoop? Other? Or does your research group (or field) have a particular philosophy of non-communication from which you do not stray (until you publish) no matter how nice the 'competing' researchers?

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