To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism, to steal ideas from many is research

This is a quote, of disputed origin. A very of-the-moment example of scientific theft is the Higgs boson. This was proposed by Peter Higgs and others who stole the idea of a symmetry-breaking mode and Higgs boson from another field of physics. This kind of theft is common and 100% OK – providing that you credit the people whose idea you stole. Ideas are as free as air, and are what economists call a public good. This means that you can’t stop people from using, or being inspired by an idea, and that everyone can benefit from using an idea without it being used up.

People don’t steal my ideas very often – I have too few of my own – but when they do, I am flattered. But I can still get a laugh. I have just come back from a scientific conference, a Faraday Discusion on crystallisation, particularly on crystals in biology. After one of the talks, I asked the speaker, a Prof Gryzbowksi, if the new systems of crystals coated with nanoparticles he had discovered were analogous to what are called Pickering emulsions.

Pickering emulsions are a kind of mayonnaise made with nanoparticles instead of egg, in the sense that mayonnaise is oil and water mixed together using egg, while Pickering emulsions have nanoparticles binding the oil and water together instead. Nanoparticles are solid particles only a few nanometres across.

Anyway, the Q&A went roughly as follows:

Me: Has it occurred to you that your systems may be analagous to Pickering emulsions?

Prof Gryzbowksi: No, why would that be be useful?

Me: Because you can steal ideas other scientists have developed in the study of Pickering emulsions.

ProfG: Why would I want to steal ideas?

Me: (Surprised tone of voice) Well, it is a lot easier that coming up with your own.

(Laughter from the conference delegates)

I enjoyed the laughter, I think partly what was funny was that I was genuinely surprised to be asked why you would want to steal ideas – it just seems so obvious to me – and so my tone of voice reflected that.

There is also a serious point here. Higgs and others advanced our understanding of fundamental stuff like where mass comes from, with inspired ideas theft. At a the much more modest end of the spectrum, one of my most-referenced papers, referenced in 119 other scientific papers and counting, is basically just a theory and model developed by others for liquids like water, stolen by me and applied to proteins.