Why do academic researchers find patents SCARY?

31 October 2021

1. Researchers wish to publish and disseminate their findings, not to hide them in a secret vault. In order to patent, no publication, in whichever form, can have previously occurred. However, once the patent application is submitted, not only can researchers publish those findings, but the patent document itself will be published and made freely available for whomever wishes to learn from it.

2. While a scientific paper usually describes a journey towards a discovery, a patent application shall describe how to implement a novel technical solution. Thus, a manuscript intended for submission to a scientific journal needs extensive re-writing to be turned into a high-quality patent application. While in a scientific publication the researcher acknowledges that he/she is “standing on the shoulders of giants”, in a patent application it must be shown why the invention is new, different, and nobody else in the state-of-the-art would have come up with it.

3. The patent examiners are not really assessing whether the invention has any value. It does not matter if it is based on a good idea. In fact, many inventions lack novelty precisely because they are based on good ideas, but are not different enough. The examiners are not assessing whether the underlying research is high-quality science. The examiners do not care at all whether the inventors have a great team or a brilliant academic track record.

4. Unlike scientific papers, where acceptance for publication in a peer-reviewed high-quality journal is a reason to celebrate, filing a patent has a threshold that only includes novelty, inventiveness and industrial application. Acceptance of a manuscript guarantees a published paper, while a patent application does in no way guarantee a granted patent.

5.  Patents are expensive. During its lifetime, patents can cost many thousands of euros to maintain. The cost is merely administrative: it doesn’t matter if the invention is a new type of office clip or a drug that can cure cancer. Examiners are not worried about whether the invention solves a tiny technical problem or a major one. However, patents can and should be licensed to external parties (namely companies) who can not only cover the costs but further develop the invention. Researchers can’t be expected to find creative ways to fund patenting beyond early-stage filing.

How to reduce the SCARY factor?


Keep in mind that:

  • Patents allow users/buyers/partners to protect the investment required to bring innovations to market, knowing that there are legal proceedings that can prevent others from copying innovations for commercial purposes. Patents are essential to support innovation.
  • Patents are instrumental in securing funding for innovation: most funding schemes expect the researchers to be able to guarantee that their results are novel, inventive, and that other parties won’t be able to unlawfully profit from their investment.
  • Patents can make researchers rich! Inventors should (and must) benefit personally from their contribution, and Intellectual Property Regulations are in place to support the inventors’ claims.