Jun 23, 2011Science and Technology
Dear Graduate Student: A patent search is not part of your literature survey? Then think twice!

A literature survey is (should be!) the backbone of the thesis of any graduate student.  The main purpose of a proper literature survey is to

  1. learn what has been done,
  2. find out what has not been done, and
  3. figure out what else can be done.

In essence, without a proper literature survey, it is difficult to find the “holes” in current research.

Typically, graduate students start their literature survey by reading some pertinent literature (suggested by their advisors or colleagues), looking at the references in those papers and doing a search on “Google Scholar” or through other online search tools.

The main issue here is that academics rarely read and cite patents in their papers, and thus, the students cannot find relevant patents just by reading academic papers. There are several possible reasons for this: 

  • Using current patent search tools, finding relevant patents from the pool of hundreds of thousands patents is a cumbersome task.
  • Reading patents (which are usually written in a legal language) is more difficult than reading regular technical papers.
  • And, perhaps most obviously, nobody else is doing this. Why should I!?

These can all be valid excuses. The problem is that currently, many leading high-tech and biotechnology companies do not publish their findings (certainly not all of them) as conference or journal papers. Simply blame this on the lack of time to respond to reviewers’ comments or attend conferences. The catch is that these findings are usually patented, so the ideas have been published somewhere else. As a result, consider the scenario that a graduate student comes up with an already patented idea during his studies. Because his literature survey has not included a patent search, he proceeds with this new research avenue, which in his mind is considered novel (but which is not!).

A friend of mine who attended a top electronics conference few years ago witnessed the horror of making the above mistake. A top PhD student from a top US school was presenting the latest findings of his studies. During the Q&A, a gentleman who happened to be a top research scientist and manager in a wireless company suddenly stood up and stated that the presented idea is in violation of a patent that his company had filed a few years earlier. A heated argument was started after the presentation with the student’s advisor, while the student was standing helplessly and looking devastated in a corner. Well, why shouldn’t he? Imagine that your dream is shattered just when you think you have crossed the bridge, and suddenly, you realize you might have to start all over again.

I do not know what happened afterwards. However, what I do know is that such unfortunate situations can be avoided by doing a proper patent search. Fortunately, the user-friendly tools that Patexia has generated have greatly eased the patent search process for students. As for reading the patents, it is still a challenge. However, I am sure most graduate students prefer reading the patents up front, rather than facing the consequence of not get their degree because of them.

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