Rules for Corporate AI Researchers

Reading time
2 min read
Many research papers

Dear friends,

When a researcher works for a company, what rights should they have to publish their work, and what rights should the company that sponsored the work have? This issue has come up many times in the AI community across many companies, most recently around Timnit Gebru’s very public departure from Google, which involved a disagreement over research she was preparing to publish.

Researchers and companies often share a desire to contribute ideas that move AI forward. At the same time, they can also have completely legitimate interests that may differ. Researchers may want to make their work available to the community, while the organizations that fund that work may want to keep certain inventions secret or patent them. Researchers and companies may be willing or unwilling, to varying degrees, to point out inconvenient truths that need to be addressed.

It’s not always obvious how to balance these interests. For example:

  • Should researchers be allowed to release any technology they wish, as long as they don’t publish confidential information?
  • Alternatively, should companies (and universities) have the final say, including the right to stop publication of papers when it’s in their interest to do so? (This is the de facto policy in many companies today.)
  • Should a company be responsible for ensuring the quality of research published under its name, or should this be left only to peer review? Conversely, If a researcher publishes a scientifically flawed paper, does the fault lie with the researcher, or with both the researcher and the company?
  • What would be a reasonable prepublication review process within companies, and how can we ensure that it is applied fairly and consistently?
  • What rights and responsibilities do researchers and companies have with respect to patent filings of inventions in which they both played a part?

I’ve submitted publications for review, and I’ve set policies that govern how others’ work should be reviewed. As a co-author, I’ve also pulled publications when I felt they were not up to standard. These experiences have shown me that the answers to these questions may differ, depending on the parties involved.

What is clear, though, is that researchers and companies need to set clear expectations ahead of time, and then abide by them consistently. Both parties have an interest in avoiding situations where a researcher spends substantial time and energy working on ideas with the intent to publish them, only to be surprised that they’re unable to do so.

I would like to see the AI community get together and establish a fair set of rules that balance everyone’s interests. Every researcher, company, and university is different, and possibly no one-size-fits-all answer will work for everyone. But if we set expectations collectively, we might be able to nudge companies toward a balanced set of policies around publications.

What rules do you think would be fair? Let me know via social media or by sharing your ideas here.

Keep learning!



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