Negative Sum Situations

Identify them as a researcher

1/ Contemporary research is a performance-based profession. To understand this I have looked at other professions, in particular, Hollywood agents and Wall Street traders. Or: Entourage and Billions.

2/ The trading psychology literature is full of insights that can be applied to developing and furthering your research career. For example, Brett N. Steenbarger’s insight that new traders develop a niche for the specific markets that they trade in.

3/ Another relevant insight is Alexander Elder’s description of negative sum situations that end up costing you in some way. Elder was considering retail traders who blow up their brokerage accounts within 3-4 months.

4/ Early on in my research career, I saw these negative sum situations in terms of the scope of research contracts, and who had control of project created intellectual property.

5/ In one case, I spent a year on a project and the corporate funder took the insights and applied it to their business, without me having a good publication plan.

6/ In contrast, other researchers had a good publication plan and filed for patents.

7/ Negative sum situations often arise in the Early Career Academic phase (the first 5 years after PhD conferral) or in navigating the complexities of commercial funder-based research.

8/ What can help in both cases is to have access to more experienced mentors who can de-risk a negotiation, and in having a good understanding of how intellectual property works.

9/ A negative sum situation is extractive. I discovered during my PhD research that this is actually a business model for some hedge fund and private equity firms. A recent book by William Lazonick and Jang-Sup Shin called Predatory Value Extraction: How the Looting of the Business Enterprise Became the US Norm and How Sustainable Prosperity Can Be Restored (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) explores this shift in greater detail.

10/ Negative sum situations can blow up a research team. If such situations are on your radar then you can identify and de-escalate them before they become a major problem.