Don Withers entered Thackeray’s office.
“Cajal thinks you are, plagiarizing, his ideas,” he said straight to the point.
After learning that Thackeray applied to lock NMC’s provisional patent, Oman was furious, complaining that Thackeray had plagiarized his work. The Moroccan, who was recruited by Withers two years ago, is now part of the battery department. He was at the office at 6 a.m., almost before everyone else, in order to get ahead of the government and private companies with funding applications. These project proposals show that labs are accustomed to looking for the next big scientific achievement, linking all the hidden elements of the original scientific project in the field, and then finding the missing link. Many applications are approved, and the ensuing funding can take up to two-thirds of the entire department’s budget. Direct reports in Oman are then allocated funds proportionally to their staff. Oman is ambitious, the drive is destructive, and in front of him, the rest of the department looks reluctant to make progress. For this reason, they are concerned that Oman is exploiting the achievements of others, calling him an “opportunist”
Oman and Thackeray are so different themselves that they seem out of place, not least because these two immigrants from opposite ends of Africa are leading Argonne to push America into the next industrial age of dominance. Thackeray is approachable and slovenly — shirts are not ironed neatly and hair is combed down. He was critical of scientific research and observed things in nuanced detail. He didn’t understand Oman very well. Well-dressed, well-haired, very aggressive, Oman is keen on projects with commercial potential. Oman doesn’t appear to be interested in the details of a compound’s activity, and Thackeray doesn’t understand why. But whatever the reason, Thackeray just shook his head and continued to delve into his research project.
Oman’s charges against Thackeray are devastating. Accusing a scientist, especially a colleague of a team, of plagiarizing someone else’s work is simply the most serious charge. If Oman’s allegations are true, Thackeray’s image will be ruined. On the contrary, Oman’s reputation will be greatly reduced.
But this is not so simple. Oman also accused a supervisor of bias. Oman points out that even though he and several Chinese assistants are among the most productive in the lab, the manager still treats them as “third-class” citizens. If the supervisor doesn’t get rid of his prejudice soon, he’ll jump up the ranks. Sure enough, Oman found a superior and was promoted after the conversation.
Oman’s accusation is unfair, the manager is not biased, he just doesn’t like Oman’s aggressive style. But Oman’s charges against the mild-mannered Thackeray cross another line. The South African scientist was not only taken aback, but incredulous. Oman even forbade his subordinates to speak to Thackeray.
Chris Johnson felt he knew the source of the incident. One day, he chatted with a South Korean scientist named Kim Jae-gu. Jae-gu Kim is a postdoctoral assistant in Oman. “I discovered a property of titanium that by adding a little extra lithium to it, we could make a battery with a higher capacity,” Kim said. This discovery is the same as Thackeray and Johnson’s idea, except that it uses titanium instead of manganese. Johnson speculates that Oman may already be aware of the discovery, although he has not announced it publicly, and may be working on an improvement plan. This way, Johnson now has access to information related to major discoveries. He suppressed the anger in his heart, calmed down and thought about it, and felt that titanium and manganese might be a “match made in heaven”. Both approaches can be claimed in a patent application, so that the patent is more “tough”.
However, Johnson was clearly influenced by the ritual and emotional traditions of the American Midwest. Thackeray’s cultural roots are different from his, and he feels the event differently. Thackeray was furious.
Oman seems to be ready to fight. Thackeray had to think of a solution – if he wanted to. Legally speaking, a patent applicant must justify the attribution. Patents are different from academic papers. Anyone is eligible to sign the paper, but when it comes to patents, the applicant must actually make a contribution to the patent, explain what the contribution is, and give the percentage of the entire patent.
Thackeray considers these issues. There was no collaboration between him and Oman’s research team — people on both sides had no experience working together. Therefore, their ideas cannot be directly confused together. Oman’s team is adding lithium to the formula. To increase battery capacity, he replaced Thackeray’s manganese oxide with titanium oxide. But Oman’s hypothesis is different – like the New Zealand researchers, Oman did not describe the double lattice. Thackeray argues that Oman ignores the big picture, and that his ideas are at best the “peripherals” of the real invention — “the minutiae,” in Thackeray’s words. All in all, Oman contributed little to this patent.
However, Oman did not back down, and Thackeray also felt the smell of gunpowder. He said: “We both disagree.” In fact, Thackeray could stand his ground and follow through, but in that case, the battle between the two sides would be very embarrassing.
To keep the bigger picture in mind, Thackeray opted for a peaceful solution. He added Kim Jae-gu and Oman to the list of inventors. The great advancement invented by the NMC goes beyond their private disputes. However, the relationship between the two parties has cast a shadow. You can’t expect people to forget about this kind of accusation after you’ve made it. This NMC patent has attracted a lot of attention. At a battery conference in Boston, “people kept taking pictures and taking serious notes while I was giving a presentation,” Chris Johnson said. However, Thackeray remembers John Goodenough’s adage: After you get an invention, there is only a two-year transition period, after which other scientists will catch up.” For this Argonne team, the battery system it invented was unique, powerful, and inexpensive, so it had an advantage. But, in the patent realm, they had to be wary.