Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Dangerfield Syndrome - To Patent, Publish or Present?

Before we start, as always, this tab entry is purely a product of personal opinion, watching much comedy central, and is solidly based on the wild conspiracy theory (if this isn't dual noise, what is?) It is completely unrelated to any real-world company or university, including the ones I worked for in the past or present. On the other hand, it is well and truly dedicated to every Rodney Dangerfield in O.R. practice (you belong to this club only if you already knew that).

In academia, a professor would be happy to get their work published in a leading peer-reviewed O.R journal and often, this acceptance defines the degree of success or failure of a research project. Almost all new ideas in a university make it to some journal or conference, but very few practical innovations in the industry gain visibility. They are either patented, or remain hidden as a company's intellectual property. At the end of the day, the Edelmans, like the Oscars, are as much (and probably more) a tribute to an organization's upper management for being O.R. friendly, as it is to the guys in the trenches who actually pull off the O.R. innovations.

So how does the common O.R. guy in the company gain peer-recognition? (suggestions most welcome here :-)
After prototyping is done, what does the practitioner do? Sit around tooling, while waiting for analytical support calls ? There are a few choices (or few choices if you have a bad boss), depending on when your next project starts. You can try to patent the most practical approach. After all, in practice, the proof is in the pudding. Or you can publish a non-proprietary version of your findings. A cynic may say that what this really means is that you released an 'unpractical' version, but this not the case - at least not always. Patenting is common place in the IT world, but a relatively less popular option in the O.R. world. A patent in your resume can make you look more 'result-oriented'. A future employer may be worried if he/she observes way too many publications during your past job ("so did u do any real work this millennium?").

On the other hand, if you plan to move on to academia after a while, publishing is not such a bad idea. And it's not bad for a future industry job as well, since it serves as a solid, peer-reviewed reference for your scientific skills. It's also a good marketing and recruiting tool, since your company gains recognition in the scientific community as a place that promotes cutting edge R&D. A good manager would recognize these benefits. A common fear that is unfounded is that publishing = giving away your intellectual property. As long as you keep your engineering ideas out of scope, my own experience is that it can be counter-productive for a competitor to try and directly reproduce a product from a journal paper that appears in print 2-4 years after the idea was implemented in a product (or not). Add to that a couple of years that it takes to go from idea to finished product, and you get the picture. Then you realize that you would have been better off building something for today's customer on your own, rather than relying on recycled ideas.

Patenting versus publishing is a personal choice. Acads are shocked to see frivolous patents. But for every seemingly hideous patent, there exists a new publication for yet another factor-of-2 approximation algorithm for an NP-Hard problem that can be readily 'solved' in milliseconds for real data instances. The answer to the original question is not clear cut. And what about presenting at conferences?

Nowadays, companies count the number of patent applications filed by their R&D group. If such a metric is employed, perhaps patenting should be the first option. This scenario is more likely if you work in a non-traditional O.R. industry, and in such a situation, presenting at a conference can provide visibility and is a nice trade-off. Conference presentations takes up much less time than publishing, and you can get your ideas out there quickly. On the other hand, conference proceedings seem to be valued less in our field. Perhaps practitioners can present more of their work at a dedicated conference. These should be a conference of practitioners, and organized by, and for the benefit of practitioners. That would be wicked. Why the Gettysburg clause you ask? When profs meet, its an conference, but when practitioners and engineers meet, its labeled a workshop. As we all know, when the rocket stays up, it's hailed a scientific success, and if not, its an engineering failure. There's still no respect for 'R&D'.


  1. Anurag:
    thanks for the kind words.
    - shiva

  2. Good article.

    There is also an issue of ethics along worth business:
    Patents might be a good business strategy, but it kills the idea eventually. In short term it might be profitable, but in long run, people always prefer an open system. That was our experience till now tith Linux and various free programs.

    Also please notice that many patents are also done to prevent others from doing it. not merely for profit :-)

  3. anon: great points. Yes, I can see situations where patents can be innovation killers. This looks like an occupational hazard for analytic practitioners, and i have had to think hard about this as well.

    Interestingly, there is no guarantee that a patent is really going to protect a company's value in today's world. If any thing, a rival company (say, one on foreign soil) can take your invention and happily hide it deep within their product code. What can u do? With O.R stuff, its really hard to tell what's the exact solution procedure that's being used etc.


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