Doing commercial research

I do scientific research in my job, but I don’t work in academia. I work for a company, and my research goes into commercial products. If I was in academia, I’d be publishing my work and presenting it at conferences all the time. Working for a company, things are rather different.

I have just finished (yesterday) writing a presentation that I hope to give at the Electronic imaging 2018 conference in San Francisco, in February 2018. If accepted by the conference, this will be my first conference presentation since 2014. The deadline for submission of my presentation is 15 August, so I’ve completed it more than 3 months in advance. And I haven’t just completed the slides; I’ve also written a talk script, which will be almost word for word what I say during the presentation. And in the time between now and February next year, I won’t be able to change either the slides or the talk script.

The reason for this is that my talk has to go through the company intellectual property and legal department, to make sure that I am not disclosing anything which is a corporate secret. Besides writing my slides and script, I also had to highlight everything in my talk that was about scientific or technological knowhow from my research, and cross-reference it to published patents that I have written. This is to make sure that I don’t disclose anything that the company hasn’t protected in a patent application. Note that this is published patents. The patent office publishes patent applications 18 months after the filing date. So there could be some technology for which we filed a patent a year ago… and I wouldn’t be allowed to talk about it.

The process of vetting and approval by the IP and legal department takes up to 10 weeks. Thus the need for me to finalise my talk nearly 3 months before the conference submission deadline. Assuming my talk passes the IP/legal checks to make sure I’m not disclosing anything we haven’t got protected by a published patent, the company then still has to decide if it wants to let me talk about my work, or if it would simply rather keep it a secret. (At least, as secret as it can be if it appears in a published patent. It makes no sense to me, but yes, sometimes they quite specifically do not want you to talk about work that is disclosed in a published patent application.) This is the gamble phase – it’s impossible to know if the company will approve or reject the application to publish at this stage. So the only way to find out is to go to all the effort of writing your publication and putting it through this process. I could very well have wasted the past two weeks at work writing my complete, finished talk, hoping to present it, and be shot down at this stage. The same would go for a journal paper.

Speaking of journal papers, I am going through this long process for the first time in four years because Electronic Imaging has started accepting “oral presentation only” papers. These are delivered as talks at the conference, but do not appear as printed papers in the conference proceedings. They did this specifically to allow industry researchers such as myself to give talks. Because if I had to submit a written version of my work to go into the conference proceedings (as I did 4 years ago), it has to go through the same external disclosure approval process as the talk slides and script. This makes it much more difficult to publish, because as a printed paper it goes through anonymous peer review. And peer reviewers often request small additions or clarifications to the paper before they agree it is suitable for publication. That can be the kiss of death for my paper, because (a) I often don’t have additional time to devote to revising a paper, particularly if they ask for additional experimental results, and (b) the referee’s request may involve needing to disclose further potentially secret information. I have managed to pull all of this off before, but after the difficulty I had in 2014 getting my previous paper through, I had all but given up, until Electronic Imaging instituted the “oral presentation only” papers.

Anyway, assuming all of the IP/legal and corporate secrecy checks are passed and the company is okay with me disclosing the aspects of my research in my talk script, I can submit it to the conference! And if it’s approved, I can give the talk next February.

As I mentioned, I’m not allowed to change the content of my talk between now and then. If I do more research which improves on the results I plan to talk about, or which solves one or more of the outstanding problems before February, I won’t be allowed to mention it. If I’ve already done work now which improves on the results in my talk, but which I couldn’t include because it’s covered by a patent that has been filed but will not be published by the conference submission deadline, I’m not allowed to talk about that either.

This was in fact the situation for my last talk in 2014. I presented some work, and at the end I mentioned the elephant in the room: the most obvious problem with the results. I had already solved that problem and filed a patent describing the technique. It’s a beautiful piece of science and I am incredibly proud of it – it is I think the best piece of science I’ve done at this job. But the patent was not published by the time that talk had to be submitted to the conference (in mid 2013), so I had to leave it out. And then during the talk I had to raise this very obvious problem as an “unsolved problem”, and stay mum about the fact that I had already solved it over a year earlier. And hope that nobody in the audience pointed out the same solution during question time after my talk! (They didn’t – thankfully it’s not an obvious solution. It took me a lot of effort to come up with it, prove it worked, and solve the secondary problems it raised.)

Anyway, if my current application for the talk next year, in 2018, is approved by my company, I will finally be able to talk about the solution to that problem to an audience of fellow researchers. A solution I came up with in 2012.

I’m not sure I could survive in academia with its “publish or perish” mindset. I don’t have the workaholic temperament necessary to do well there. I’m happier in my corporate research job. But this approach to publication and dissemination of my work is incredibly frustrating. I have good work that I’m proud of and want to share with fellow experts in my field, and I want to establish a reputation as a quality researcher, but I have to jump through these multifarious hoops to do it.

So, if you’ve read this, I hope it provides some insight into the life and publication trials of a corporate research scientist.

3 Responses to “Doing commercial research”

  1. Yerushalmi says:

    Would you be allowed to say, “By the way, for those of you who remember my previous talk, when I said this problem was unsolved, I had actually solved it a year earlier but couldn’t tell you at the time because of corporate secrecy”? (Obviously couched in more diplomatic language than that…)

    On the one hand, that might be taken as criticism of your parent company and be a Bad Idea. On the other hand, though, presumably almost everybody in the audience will understand and appreciate it, having likely been in similar positions themselves.

  2. I think the audience would understand, but honestly I don’t feel a strong need to say that while presenting the material. It’s kind of irrelevant in the big picture of communicating the science.

  3. BSD says:

    On behalf of patent attorneys everywhere, I apologize that you have to go through this. I tend to disagree with your legal department’s stance on discussing material disclosed in published applications, but definitely understand it.

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