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Protecting Research Openness by Not Stealing Other People’s Ideas

I was on the phone with a dear friend. We were having a delightfully unguarded and unfiltered rant session about intellectual property theft, when she said to me, “you should do a blog on it.” Here I am.

What’s the issue? The issue is stealing. Since the time most of us were around 4 or 5 years old, we have been told that stealing is a bad thing. We’re variously taught that it’s dishonest, harmful and/or immoral and that it's an act that reflects poorly on our character. And yet, all of this seems to go out the window when it comes to other people’s ideas. For some reason, stealing someone’s wallet is bad, but stealing the products of their thought, their creativity and, in many instances, their hard work, is seen as perfectly acceptable or, maybe, not great but not so bad. As a result, we have a flagrant problem with intellectual property theft.

Let me provide just one example. My friend's colleague, a frontline police officer, came up with an ingenious idea to reduce robberies. In the spirit of collaboration and openness, she shared her idea with individuals from another police agency with an eye to seeing if they were interested in co-developing her ideas into a full-blown research project. Her proposal was promptly dismissed. They didn’t see any merit in her ideas (I believe the technical term is 'pooh poohed'). Fast forward a couple of years and that same police agency is running a trial of those very same ideas, her ideas, a project from which she has been completely cut out. This is what we call intellectual property theft. Or, if you prefer another term, “douchebaggery.”

It’s happened to me innumerable times. Each and every time it happens, there is a steep cost: I stop trusting people as much, I stop being as open with my thoughts, and I stop wanting to collaborate and/or share my ideas with others. Why is that necessarily a bad thing? Because in the ideal world, research is a collective enterprise. You know the expression, ‘it takes a village …’? For evidence-based policing to truly succeed, we require a community of people who are able to trust and rely on each other to produce work for the greater good. We need people with good ideas to be unafraid to share them, so that others can help realize them into actionable research. It’s not about So and So’s next promotion. It’s not about whether Researcher Y wins a prize. It's not about how Organization X wants to be the big national agency on Z. It’s about how to we work together to improve policing.

Policing research already exists within silos. Police Agency A has conducted important research of which no one outside the agency, and few within, are even aware. Researcher C has published a highly interesting paper on a significant problem that exists only in a journal behind a paywall. Policing conferences are typically stacked with the same 4 people we see at every conference, and the token academic speaks in such jargon-ridden dense language no one understands the point of his or her presentation. And I could go on … and on … and on. Forcing people into defensively hoarding their ideas does little to undo this silo effect. It just makes it a thousand times worse.

What can we do to stop this theft? As a community of practice, we need to start calling it out when it happens. And agencies and institutions need to not only support victims of theft, but also work to prevent future thievery by developing internal cultures in which collaboration is rewarded and cut-throat self-centredness is not.

The alternative? A endless game of tit-for-tat, in which we all steal from each other*, which is where we're currently at. Game Theory 101, also known as the Prisoner's Dilemma. If everyone cooperates, then it's wins for everyone. But if one person defects and shanks the other player to secure themselves a better deal, they win ... but at a cost: they set up a situation in which no one cooperates and everyone is out for his or her self.

*And yes, if you shank me, I shank you back. Nice girls finish last.

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