Theft or inspiration? – How good ideas spread

By Joern Fischer (apart from the bits I stole from Ioan Fazey)

Academic work, ultimately, is all about good ideas. But how do you know an idea is truly yours? In this post, I reflect on some of “my” best ideas, wondering where they came from – and posing a few different hypotheses. Perhaps there’s no such thing as an original idea…

So let’s take a few examples first, as a little reflection that serves to show that some of “my own” ideas probably have not been mine at all. I’ll then get into a few hypotheses as to what might be happening.

But first some ideas. A nice hierarchical survey design of nested triangles was used by me and my co-authors in a 2004 paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology (Fig. 1). This idea came up in a meeting with my co-author and statistical advisor at the time. Later, I learned that a very similar design had been used by Josh Dorrough, who had previously worked with the same statistician. So perhaps it had been his idea? Interestingly, a broadly similar design is also used in the large “safe project” in Indonesia (see linked Fig. 1). So perhaps there is an altogether different source of this “idea”, which neither Josh nor I knew about?

Another example is the notion of slow, substantial but difficult-to-implement change, versus rapid but easier-to-implement change. This notion was captured in Fig. 1 in a 2012 paper I published with a bunch of co-authors. But a very similar notion had been communicated by Donella Meadows a decade earlier, in her paper on leverage points.

Or take our literature review on cultural ecosystem services, published in 2013. This paper came a very short time after a paper by Terry Daniel and others on the same topic; and a very short time before a paper led by Mónica Hernández-Morcillo. I could list many more examples from my own publications, or I can extend this notion to colleagues of mine – noting for example, that Ioan Fazey was working on evidence-based conservation in the early 2000s, quite separately from work by Andrew Pullin who later set up a whole centre around this notion. And so on.

Such examples are common, and if you write a lot, invariably, sooner or later someone will come to you and wonder – more or less politely – whether you stole her or his idea. Or you might see your own idea in somebody else’s work, and wonder whether they stole it from you. (If you’re fast, you’ll experience others accusing you, if you’re slow, you’ll experience feeling they stole your ideas…)

So what’s going on here, and what do we do with it? I want to lay out four different hypotheses for what is happening, and why this is happening.

Hypothesis 1: People like me consciously steal other people’s ideas. Perhaps I liked something that someone else is doing, and I think … hmmm …. perhaps I can get a paper out of something like this, too? And then I use that idea, and bingo, track record is improved and nobody noticed. Hooray.

Hypothesis 2: People like me sub-consciously steal people’s ideas! Perhaps I liked something that someone did. I then forget about it … and then later on, it comes back into my conscious mind, and I turn it into some kind of product. Possible? Yes, this is quite possible. We hear a lot of things, all the time, and I at least can’t remember all the different places in which I hear different things. These ideas all go into some giant sub-conscious storage space, and then later get drawn on, but re-combined in new ways and without explicit reference to where they had originally come from – because there is no conscious process of tracing their origin.

Hypothesis 3: Sometimes, things are simply “ripe” for a certain idea, and different people realize this at the same time. So for example, Carl Folke was writing on “environmental services” in the mid 1990s, just before Bob Costanza published his famous paper on ecosystem services, and before Gretchen Daily published her book on ecosystem services. Earlier examples of such parallel processes abound, for example Wallace’s work on evolution being at a similar time to Darwin’s.

Hypothesis 4: The universe is all just energy, everything is connected to everything else, and good ideas float about in the ether – we just need to open ourselves to them and let them flow through us. What?! Admittedly, this hypothesis is mildly less grounded in conventional physical evidence, but there are a number of spiritual thinkers who would probably support this idea. When you have a good idea – one that feels truly original – where does it come from? Where do brilliant ideas of artists, musicians or scientists come from? What, really, is a “moment of inspiration”, what is it we are accessing then? Perhaps knowledge is there, always, and when we are in a state of flow, we can access the right knowledge to make progress at the time?

I won’t be arguing for or against any of these four hypotheses. In the scientific circuit in general, I actually think it’s a combination of all four of these going on. What’s more interesting is the question, what do we do about this?

What becomes highly evident is that ideas rarely originate in one individual. Our system of giving credit to individuals (or sets of authors) is flawed. “Breakthroughs” of any kind happen on the shoulders of many who have been there (or very close) before – funnily enough, google scholar acknowledges this when it says “stand on the shoulder of giants”. We’re all standing on each other’s shoulders, all the time, whether in physical space, or metaphysical space. No idea is truly yours, or mine, or anyone’s. And yet, we operate together in a world, and some of us have decided to operate together in ways that try to make the world a better place. It makes sense then that we should work together, rather than get hung up about who contributed what, precisely.

And yet, we live in a world of institutional incentives, and it’s probably only expert thieves (or highly inspired people? Hm…) who can afford to “not care” about who did what. The challenge thus appears to be to try to be explicit about which idea comes from where; but also to recognize that ultimately, we’re in this together – as all of humanity, that is!

So: credit where credit is due … but preferably in full recognition that we have no idea where that actually is.

(I wonder where the idea for this blog post came from. Parts for sure I stole from Ioan Fazey, and he even paid for my coffee. Pathetic, really.)

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2 thoughts on “Theft or inspiration? – How good ideas spread

  1. I always think about it as: adopt, adapt, improve. Like a good recipe that you like, you adapt it and make it better (even if just a tiny bit) to fit your needs/ taste, obviously with giving proper credit to the original creator of the recipe.

  2. Pingback: Dbytes #326 (12 April 2018) | Dbytes

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