How to Receive Feedback From Colleagues

Without Worrying About Having Your Research Stolen

Group of graduate students take photos of academic resources in library

Research thrives on cooperation and peer critique. As we all know, being part of a collaborative research group or enlisting a colleague as an academic editor to obtain their feedback on a paper can vastly improve your work, identifying issues, blind spots, and perspectives that you may not have considered.

Despite the obvious benefits, though, many scholars don’t share their research before publication because they fear that it may be stolen or plagiarized. And that fear is not unfounded. While it does not happen often, especially in a collaborative research group—after all, collaborators already stand to benefit from sharing—there have been many documented cases of scholars stealing others work and claiming credit for it.

But there are ways to collaborate and solicit feedback while ensuring that you can keep your research safe. This article will give you some useful tips and tricks to do just that.

Do your homework

The simplest way to determine whether it's safe to collaborate or share with a peer is to look at their record. Academic forums tend to include profiles on researchers, and you can check your potential collaborator’s recommendations to determine whether you should share your work with him or her. In an intra-university setting, simply asking around about the colleague can provide you with the information you need to make the right decision.

Publish a pre-print

Even before official publication, you can prepare an initial draft with a description of your idea and outline the sections of your research. By posting this draft on a preprint server, an archive that makes such preliminary drafts available online, you will have proof of the originality of your idea. Moreover, readers and scholars who visit preprint servers like ArXiv or PhilArchive will be able to offer feedback and criticism while you further develop your research. Many journals accept papers developed from preprints, so you can rest assured that you will be able to publish your ultimate findings later.

Digital signatures and timestamps

A digital signature is a cryptologic tool for verifying the authenticity of messages or documents. By digitally signing your paper, you establish proof of your authorship. In addition, you can add a digital timestamp to your document. Timestamps are issued by trusted third-party services and establish proof of ownership at a particular time. Without the timestamping authority reading the contents of your file, it creates a unique string of numbers and letters (known as a cryptographic hash) that is stored for future comparison. Any alteration of the data, such as academic editing or changing a text file, would result in a completely different hash.

You can use such measures to establish your proof of ownership if it is ever disputed. If you can, seek legal advice to ensure that your chosen method creates a high enough standard of proof so that any theft can be clearly identified.

Patents and provisional patents

For ideas that can be patented, especially in the exact sciences, acquiring a patent is a highly effective means of securing your research. However, the process is prohibitively expensive, and your idea would have to be potentially lucrative enough for your university to underwrite the patent. It is important that you first research existing patents to see if someone else has already patented your idea, or something close to it. If your idea is deemed too similar to an existing patent, your application will be rejected.

You can get around the high cost by applying for a provisional patent, which is less expensive but lasts for only one year. Provisional patents cannot be extended.

Establish a start-up

It may seem ambitious or daunting, but establishing a start-up for a commercially viable idea frees it from any clauses your university may have about the ownership of research done by its faculty. This reduces the chance of your university refusing to act on possible incidences of plagiarism by your colleagues since the intellectual property of your research will be owned by your business, not the university. It is not unheard of for professor-student pairs to establish start-ups to protect their combined research.

Regulation and documentation

Innovation is a precious commodity for universities. Being known as the home of original research and new discoveries greatly enhances their reputations. For this reason, it is in their interest to help you create a framework in which to safely collaborate with colleagues at other institutions.

In the more common scenario of intra-university collaboration, such as between colleagues in a department, you can ask your supervisor or administrators to help set up non-disclosure agreements to protect your work. This may not be an option at all institutions, and you should evaluate whether your idea is unique enough to warrant full credit since university officials are less likely to set up measures of this kind if the returns from your research do not justify the effort.

Involve mediators

In the event that your research does get plagiarized by a peer, your first step must be to report the incident to your supervisors and request that action be taken. Your supervisor may choose to explain the consequences of plagiarism to the offending peer and give him or her the opportunity to redact the publication. If the dispute over the ownership of the research continues, you can involve the university administration and argue your case.

Collaboration is advantageous for research, but protecting your ideas is necessary in a competitive environment. With proper precautions, documentation, and awareness, you can ensure that you receive due credit for your important scholarly work.

Publish your research today!