Backstabber? Really?

September 4, 2015

iBAM is pissed off!

A couple years ago I was applying for personal fellowships …I talked to a junior groupleader (JG)…we brainstormed about what I would write in my fellowship. I wrote the fellowship and asked JG for feedback because they had experience with said fellowship. I submitted the fellowship and it got rejected. Twice. ….JG told me they were doing one of the experiments that I had proposed in my fellowship. And recently I saw that they had published the results. …….
What is the worst academic backstabbing you have experienced?

Look, I grasp that there are many situations of intellectual theft in this wide world of science.

But for every actual intellectual theft, there are scores of people who are deluded about their own unique special flower contribution and refuse to understand that many, many people probably had the same thoughts they did. People in your field read the same literature. They are interested in what you are interested in when it comes to understanding biology or whatever. How can you be shocked that someone else conducts the same experiments that you plan to conduct?

I have on more than one occasion read a grant proposal chock-a-block full of ideas that I’ve already thought up. Some of these never escaped the inside my head. Some were expressed to lab members or colleagues during conversations. Some were expressed in grant proposals, either submitted or left on the editing room floor, so to speak. Some of the ideas were of current interest, and some I’d dreamed up years before.

Maybe I have a lot of ideas about what science should be done next. Maybe more than most of you, I don’t know. But I rather suspect that most of you also have way more thoughts about cool experiments to run than you can possibly get around to completing. Is it unfair if someone else completes a few of them?

And yeah. There have been cases where I have been unable to get a grant proposal on a given topic funded and lo and behold someone else later gets “my” grant to do the work I thought up…OUTRAGE! There must be a CONSPIRACY, maaang!

um. no.

It sometimes smarts. A lot. And can seem really, really unfair.

Look, I don’t know the particulars of iBAM’s case, but it doesn’t generalize well, in my view. She “brainstormed with” this person. This person told her that they were doing the experiments. Is there maybe a wee hint of a chance that this person thought that the “brainstorming” session meant there was some co-ownership of ideas? That in mentioning the fact that they were starting to work on it this person thought they were giving fair warning to iBAM to assert some sort of involvement iF she chose?

The dangers of going overboard into the belief that the mere mention of a research plan or experiment to someone else means that they have to avoid working on that topic should be obvious. In this case, for example, iBAM didn’t get the fellowship and eventually exited academic science. So perhaps those experiments would not have been completed if this sounding board person didn’t do them. Or maybe they wouldn’t have been done so soon.

And that would, presumably, be bad for science. After all, if you thought it was a good experiment to do, you should feel a little bit of dismay if that experiment never gets completed, right?