At a conference a few years ago I was discussing chemistry over gin and tonics with an assoc. prof from the University of XYZ. This fellow was one of the solid journeyman chemists in our field with a good eye for projects and opportunity, but like most of us, he is a warm-up band and not a headliner.  Eventually, the prof confided that he was patenting his work partly to extend his publication list- like sawdust in flour.  He had done some interesting work with a late transition metal. As the evening wore on, I could see the fire of gold fever in his eyes.  He believed that his patents would bring a stream of money and notoriety to his program. It’s natural.

Big things can happen with university IP. Some universities have substantial royalty streams filling their coffers. The institutions are able to capture value from the inventiveness of their faculty and students. When it works, it can fund new buildings, institutes, chaired faculty, and a horde of students and post-docs. When it doesn’t work, and most patents do not lead to cash flow, universities have to pay the cost of the patent plus maintanance fees out of strained budgets. Foreign fees can add up to large cash payouts every year.

At a dinner recently, I had the good fortune to dine with one of the rock stars of our field- a true headliner. This fellow had met the King of Sweden and has basked in the accolades of we minor players and roadies ever since.  For good reason- he was exceptionally productive.

After the sixth bottle of wine had been drained at our table, jaws were wagging and bad jokes and war stories were making the rounds. Eventually the rock star lamented that he was tired of writing patents and wanted to get away from intellectual property.  Working with lawyers just took too much time.

Another acquaintance is also a rock star who has met the King of Sweden. He actually is in the licensing business with a company on the side and students who do, or at least used to do, research for their degrees that was also considered to be intellectual property.  He too has a list of patents longer than your arm.

I am betraying no secrets here. Patents are public documents. University patenting is well down the road since the public law changed.

I’ve written about this topic before. The nature of IP and the academy has changed considerably since Bayh-Dole has allowed universities to apply for patents that were funded with public funds.

But the question for today is this:  Of what value are patents on an academic resume? Should a WO patent weigh as much as a JACS paper. Should a US patent weight the same as a JOC paper? What if a candidate has more patents than papers? Should patents lead to tenure? How should this calculation work?

A patent is not trivial or cheap. A patent application has to survive a large amount of a certain type of rigor in the examination process. A patent may have involved a good deal of scholarship. A good patent may teach and claim compositions of matter and processes that are truly ground breaking.

But a bad patent based on work that was never actually done can share the same playing field as one that is genuine and valuable. The rigor of examination is more of a statutory process relating to obviousness, novelty, and utility. A citizen or organization is entitled to a patent under the Constitution, provided that certain conditions are met.

Nobody is entitled to a scientific paper. Scientific societies are in the business of encouraging scholarship by providing a venue for the screening and dissemination of written works by investigators. There is a pecking order in all fields, and chemistry is no different. A layered ordering of prestige and glory definitely exists and few are shy in their opinions about such ranking.

It is hard to argue that the scholarly path is not in the direction of maximum credibility. Patents are not officially peer reviewed by fellow workers in the field. But the patent literature is a vast reservoir of credible technical information that I think may be widely underappreciated.

So while a patent probably shouldn’t carry the same weight as a refereed paper in terms of scholarship, a patent can in principle represent a large amount of successful R&D. I would argue that it can be regarded as a type of commercial accomplishment that is worthy of a place on a resume.

A patent is, after all, a property right that can be bought and sold like a mining claim or mineral rights. It is a type of holding owned by the assignee but not necessarily the inventor. Patents also enjoy the assumption of validity by the courts, so knocking one down requires some determination and money by a challenger. A scholarly work requires only another paper contradicting the results to be brought under the unblinking eye of scrutiny.

In summary, I would offer that a published paper confers a sort of warranty of scholarship, knowledge, and expertise. A patent confers a property right. A patent may teach a good deal about certain arts and may well be bullet-proof in its authenticity. But a patent is not in the same league as a paper and shouldn’t be regarded as equivalent to a scholarly publication. However, a patent does represent a very real type of accomplishment that may be substantial, so discounting them should not be done either. Actually, a patent is one of the few real measures of accomplishment in a secretive industry. Patents are a plus and should figure into the total profile of a candidate.

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