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season of giving comes to a close

I will officially wrap up my holiday season today with the last installment in my “season of giving” posts.  And what better gift to give an authority figure and clinical role model than your innocence.  Yes!  Give it up!  Now, while what I refer to may be derisively called by some (such as ME), “getting my idea ripped off by faculty member who I went to for help in developing it,” others (such as the faculty member who ripped off my idea) would call it “giving a special piece of yourself to someone you look up to.”

So I used to believe in the complete purity and goodness of those in academia–the ivory tower: scholars, I said, who strive to educate.  I gave those beliefs along with my innocence to the faculty member who ripped off my idea.  Without getting into too much detail, about six years ago I had an idea for–let’s call it–a “scholarly enterprise.”  So I took this idea to one of our medical school faculty, a junior faculty member who was excited to help me (after discussion with a more senior faculty member who was quite helpful but didn’t have the time to help me).  “That’s a great idea!”  The next time I met with him, he told me that he had met and talked to someone else about this “scholarly enterprise” and found a way to turn it into a serious “money-making enterprise.”  He told me that he and this new collaborator might be meeting at place X at time Y, but that he would confirm it by email with me.   So time went by, drawing closer to time Y, so I sent this faculty an email without reply.  So when time Y arrived, I decided to go to place X just in case the meeting was going on.  As it turns out, the meeting was in fact happening and I was greeted with, “Oh, you’re here.”  Indeed, I was there.  Except that I wasn’t.  The conversation went back and forth between Faculty Mentor and the collaborator–on and on about how to transform the “scholarly enterprise” to “major money-making enterprise.”  Eventually the meeting was over–I think I was talked to about twice (once to assure me that they would allow me to be involved)–and I was left wondering what had happened.  The last thing I heard at the meeting was, “I’ll email you when we’re going to meet again.”  Indeed.  And yet, no emails. 

I still see Faculty Mentor around the hospital every once in a while and exchange pleasantries.  And sometimes he’ll ask, “So what’s going with your research…”  And it strikes fear in my heart: what he wants to steal my research ideas now?  Over the years I’ve come to learn from various people in-the-know that this individual does a lot of unethical things, in particular for money (Yeah, Bud–if you’re reading this–I know what you’ve done.  Probably the least of it too).

So what is the lesson of this story?  Easy, don’t trust anyone–especially if you are young and low on the totum pole.  If you are a student, forget about it.  You will get crushed like a bug and who’s gonna know about it?  Seems cynical, but I just showed you it can happen.  I had no recourse.  What good would it do anyway?  I took a good idea (really good, in my opinion) to a faculty member to help me develop it but my idea was ripped off and bastardized to maximize the revenue that could be made off of it.  I still remember that last meeting and how excited this guy was with his collaborator about how much money they would make.  And what is left of the Mudphudder?  Well, I plan on eventually going through with my idea.  I don’t know if I’ll really have the time again to do it, but I’ll try.  Also, if and when the bastardized version of my idea makes it to the market (if it already hasn’t), it’ll make it harder on me, but I’ll take a shot at it anyway. 

But at least Faculty Mentor has given me the gift of life-long emotional scars.  However, this is not a problem specific to or more rampant at my  institution or your institution.  It’s all over.  It’s a fact of academics–yes, I’ve met and spoken with people from all over with similar experiences.  But, I don’t honestly believe that most people in academics are like that.  In fact, probably 99% aren’t (that may be generous) but you just don’t know who the sleazeballs are.  In hindsight, there is no way I could have known.  So now, whenever I have a good idea, I either keep it to myself, waiting for the time that I become a faculty member with at least some recourse if someone tries to rip me off.  If and when I do say something about it, I only talk to a select few who I trust and even then, I protect myself. 

If you have no recourse against someone who could steal your idea and if there is no reason besides “ethics” for someone to not steal your idea, then I would recommend that you think twice before you share anything with anyone.  Unless of course, it is the season of giving and you are in a giving mood…


4 Responses to “season of giving comes to a close”

  1. 1
    Grand Rounds for January 6th: Profit in medicine and other cool stuff! at

    […] […]

  2. 2

    As they say, academia is a contact sport.

  3. 3

    Hey Mudphudder,

    I was wondering if you have any opinions on intellectual property, specifically from the vantage point of a graduate student…
    When I started with my department, one of the orientation meetings emphasized the university’s controlling stake in EVERYTHING that may be produced or derived from peon graduate students during their tenure. That’s all fine and good (the uni gets a big cut compared to the PI), but they neglected to discuss whether there are any baseline expectations that grad students can count on if their work is patented, etc. One project that I’ve been developing with my PI for two years (mouse breedings/homemade protein production/vaccinations) may have finally generated a novel gene product that would be utilized by my PI in a clinial trial. Given that he already has a few previous patents, I’m guessing that he would move to patent this discovery as well. If we are indeed so lucky, I would hope to be included as a partial owner/stakeholder. Really, though, I have no idea what to expect. Given all the leg-work, troubleshooting, and hundreds of hours contributed from my end (with zero contriubtions from other grad students, post-docs, or technicians), it would be hard to see this whisked away from me. Your entry on work-sharing vs. author-sharing was funny, but it left me wondering – do graduate students have rights beyond the good graces of their PI? Are there academic or, dare I say, legal precedents for conflicts over ownership? My worst fear is that the academic hierarchy has jurisdiction to crush those on the bottom rung….
    (Does this qualify as the record longest post on your blog?)

  4. 4

    Hi Andrew– You bring up a really good point. Give me a day or two to think about it and I’ll leave a post in response over the weekend (I’ll shoot for saturday but I have to go into work then, so it might be sunday morning).

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