Tuesday, 27 July 2010

What are the risks in sharing PhD findings before completion?

Danger sign

Last week I was at the ASME conference. The conference abstracts are available online but the conference does not facillitate or encourage the sharing of actual presentations ar this stage. It occurred to me whilst there that rather than having posters displayed in quite a small space and often lacking the opportunity to engage with the presenters, wouldn't it be much better to have these online in advance so that comments could be left for the authors.

I am suspecting that I am increasingly growing in distance from my medical education researcher colleagues. And this is the reason why. One of the presentations I attended was so good that before it ended I emailed the presenter (during the presentation!) and asked if I could have a copy and encouraged that it could be placed by them on Slideshare. This was work leading to a PhD but as yet unpublished in any other form. Today I gratefully received an email with a PDF of the presentation. But the accompanying message stated that the author had been advised not to upload the work as it contained unpublished material. They were happy for me to have it personally and share it informally.

I know that my audience here may well disagree that it is dangerous to share work in this way. But how do we manage to change perceptions? How would you counsel a PhD student you were supervising on this? Is it up to organisations such as ASME to lead the way in this? Or should institutions have policies? Is there any proof that sharing work does lead to better outcomes for students and the wider community?

I feel this is at the very edge of 'open science' and makes me realise how far there is to go.

Image: CC by Jacockshaw, Flickr.

EDIT: Here is the Friendfeed discussion that emerged around this post:


  1. One advantage of someone 'publishing' their research - or at least bits of it, before formal publication, is that it can act as a form of copyright protection, as this will date stamp the ideas in a very public fashion.

    I release a lot of the resources that I have created in my own time on my machine via my blog or website - partly as prove that the resources are mine - as otherwise there is a risk that I may work for someone else, who may then try to assume ownership of the resources and then prevent me from using them again.

  2. I've mentioned this on our PhD self help group at Reading, hoping to prompt some thinking on the subject - thanks!

    There are a number of sides to this, I think. Firstly, one might be bound by legal IPR issues - and, sadly to my mind, these probably come at the top of the priority list. If your work is funded by someone who wants the results kept secret so that they can exploit them commercially, you are probably bound by contract not to share.
    From a personal perspective, once you have shared it, you need to be sure that you can demonstrate that you were the one who contributed it to the community, and when you did so. This is necessary in order to be able to demonstrate that it is part of your contribution to knowledge, and that, after all, is an important aspect of a PhD.
    But as long as you can do that (and it isn't as simple as one might hope), sharing is, in my opinion, very valuable. I know I get great feedback from people when I share ideas and other results. People often gently point out other areas I should also be looking at, but also they take my ideas and work with them. If I kept everything quiet, and did not share, none of the material from This Is Me (for example) would be available until after I complete my PhD.

  3. I wondered why you chose the word "dangerous" here? Was that the word that the student you asked used? I think there's definitely a study in there to look at the reasons why sharing is perceived as a good/bad idea, plus looking at outcomes as a result (as you mention). By opening out research you'll probably be able to attract more readers (and commenters) than more traditional means. In the past, weren't PhDs read by something like 3 people on average?

  4. Hi this is a very dear topic for me, first because I'm doing my PhD in Medical Education, second because I think medical and medical education communities resistance to new technologies (a part from viscerally annoying, for me!!) does not make any sense and it has a negative impact on the development of the filed.

    I believe that a clear responsibility lies with ASME and other medical education associations to make this distance and encourage the community to get more techn enthusiastic. I think sharing presentations is only the tip of the Iceberg!

    Being a PhD Student myself I agree with comment form P@ but I believe that today we already have tools to make sure that the work we share is protected.
    A good example is the creative commons "License Your Work" section that allows you to "keep your copyright but allow people to copy and distribute your work provided they give you credit". There is other section that explains how to use of Creative commons in conference presentations!!

  5. Thanks Anne Maire for this post highlighting an extremely relevant and timely topic. I would not have a problem if publication times were quick, and people published their work in open, access journals. But they don't...

    I think that open publication of your work as you go along on blogs etc is a fabulous way of getting peer-review and preventing your ideas being stolen. Once you have published your results on the Internet, you have an audit trail. Does it matter if people 'pinch' your ideas? If your research is being funded by public bodies, your ideas should be free to share with the general public.

  6. @Ana CC is very useful (we've been publishing our This Is Me resources on Digital Identity under it), but the degree of protection it affords is largely related to the ratio of your bank balance to that of someone breaching the licence.
    @Davefoord The problem is that publishing to your own site means you have the power to meddle with the dates - the timestamp isn't really all that useful, as it could be questioned in a court and you may not find that you can bring enough proof to bear that you hadn't altered it.

  7. I have often wondered about this. I usually present my PhD work at conferences and have sent a pdf if requested. Abstracts are published in conference proceedings and provide a 'date stamped' record of the development of ideas. I must admit that the requirement of the PhD to be something 'original' (idea/method, etc) makes me more nervous as completion approaches but I think that this relates to my personal anxieties rather then the notion of publishing the work in an ongoing fashion. Sharing it via a blog and engaging in discussion in that way can only help to develop those ideas in more depth and breadth. One of my key aims at conference is to get peer feedback and discussion to help me but I have yet to do that due to the conveyor belt style of many conferences! I have not yet discussed much of my PhD work on my blog but think that i will. thank you all.

  8. Many thanks for all the comments. I think that those on the blog and Friendfeed show the range of thoughts on this issue. I think it does need to be pointed out that medical education research is different to lab-based disciplines. Doctoral researchers are likely to be based in or taking the approaches of social sciences rather than medical sciences. Researchers, like other education researchers, are often practioners as well, and are often under-taking insider research. This throws up many challenges which I believe we are best being as open about as possible.
    At medical education research is under-funded, the work carried out by doctoral students is often the highest quality work presented at conferences or published in journals. This isn't early work to be casually dismissed. It is often setting new standards for the integration of theory and practice. Again, I see this as another reason to start sharing learning earlier rather than later.
    I can see that this is a topic I will be returning too! Thanks again.


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