Public Scientist: FOIA and the danger of stolen ideas – UT Daily Beacon




“Competitive” is usually not the first word one would use to describe a scientist. One usually envisions scientists as inherently noncompetitive by virtue due to the collaborative nature of our field, or perhaps because of other less flattering stereotypes. In truth, when it comes to being the first to discover something, scientists are just as competitive as any other person.

At its best, this dynamic drives scientists to work harder and with greater focus, pushing scientific progress that much more. At its worst, it can drive some to be overly secretive and occasionally willing to steal the ideas of others. Without intending to, the federal government has created the perfect tool to prey on research of the former, and anyone else’s for that matter, through the use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The fear of having others publish one’s work before they do is an ever-present part of research. “Scooping” as it is generally known, more often than not occurs innocently by virtue of two scientists or research groups focusing on the same question. It is not unheard of for a scientist on the verge of submitting a paper to find that an almost exact copy of their work has already been published.

Getting scooped can cause some serious difficulties, as years of research may need to be furthered in order to add something new. In the most extreme cases, the work may need to be dropped altogether. It’s even common for presentations at conferences to often be riddled with redacted information in order to protect unpublished work. Some conferences may even outlaw pictures and recordings altogether.

The scientific community tends to look down on people who knowingly scoop another’s work. Though it is not outright plagiarism since the scooper still needs to perform the work, maliciously getting ahead of another researcher by using their unpublished work is seen as unethical.

FOIA requests add another level to the publishing chess game, as the law allows researchers to directly access the federally funded grants of another scientist. Unlike established work, grants are documents written by scientists outlining new research ideas and are funded through grants awarded by federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense. These agencies take the best grants and offer to fund the researcher’s work in the hope that they will publish papers and research these new ideas.

The presence of FOIA creates a situation where a scientist’s competitors could have access to the researcher’s ideas during the same timeframe without having to put in the initial work of coming up with the research or even writing the grant.

While most people that file FOIA requests will claim that they are only looking for example grants in order to learn from the style or substance, it is an excuse that falls quite short under scrutiny. By virtue of filing a FOIA request, one needs to admit that they either believed the writer would not want to share their work, which they are not obligated to, or they did not bother to ask for fear of being told no. If asked, most researchers would likely be amenable to providing an example grant for training purposes, so the unilateral use of FOIA leaves one feeling cheated.

To my knowledge there are no public cases of FOIA requested grants directly leading too scooping. Potentially, this could be by virtue of FOIA requests requiring the name of the person filling out the FOIA form. There are certainly no researchers who would want to be known for stealing research ideas directly from someone else’s grant. But as universities wise up to the potential FOIA could have in strengthening their own departments, especially through the use of anonymous FOIA request services, the havoc they could have on researchers could be dramatic.

With the right resources, a well-established lab or company could request grants from rivals or prominent researchers and quickly shift resources to the project described in the grant, giving them a much greater chance to scoop the work. Once more, there are no known cases of this occurring but the potential for abuse is certainly there.

Given the stress and pressure to succeed it would not be surprising if a case became public.

As with all competitive endeavors, if chance for even a small advantage exists, someone is bound to take it.

David Garcia is a graduate student in energy science and engineering and can be reached at dgarcia8@vols.utk.edu.

Columns of The Daily Beacon are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Beacon or the Beacon’s editorial staff.



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