Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Derivative Schemes

From the moment that I was introduced to the television show, The Big Bang Theory, I became a fan. A show about a cadre of nerdy physicists and their hijinks is something that I can personally relate to as my occupation as noted on tax forms is "nerdy physicist". There was one line from the show that has stuck with me. The character of Leonard, an experimental particle physicist, was telling his mother about his research. His mother, a famous and well respected psychologist, is a humorless, distant, analytic cold fish. After listening to Leonard, she was clearly unimpressed and responded dismissively, "So your work is largely derivative?".

This response resonated with me because I have experienced this first-hand several times in my career. Specifically, scientists who seldom have any particularly original ideas of their own, but who, more often than not, seem to end up involved in high-profile, cutting edge work that brings them notoriety, prestige, and, of course, additional funding for their research program. Witnessing their approach reveals a few clues about their methodology.
  • Step #1: Repeat some of the original work in a hasty and ham-handed manner. (Plan)
  • Step #2: Align themselves with the original researchers by giving public presentations noting that they had been working on these ideas for some time. (Scheme)
  • Step #3: Suggest to the original researchers to merge their efforts. (Infiltrate)
  • Step #4: Inflate the level of their contributions and take credit as an equal partner of the
    original researchers. (Manipulate)
Even though these folks have done nothing wrong or illicit by the letter of the law, their approach does border on somewhat sketchy ethics in my book. However, sometimes justice hoists these parasitical types by their own petards. A colleague of mine who has repeated this strategy multiple times, became known for what at first seemed to be an important discovery. He took every opportunity to make sure that he received every shred of credit and that every spotlight was directed firmly upon him. However, when the research results were later discredited, he was the only one upon the stage to face the music.