Did you know? In the United States, the Patent and Trademark Office is responsible for issuing three types of patents:

  • Utility patents: machine, process, chemical, computer software, or a living organism
  • Plant patents: new and distinct varieties of plants, including seedlings
  • Design patents: new, original, or ornamental shape of a useful article

Any of these three types of patents might be of interest to an organization conducting research, regardless of the industry.

Why are Patents Important for R&D?

R&D departments are very comfortable searching the scientific literature to inform their innovation efforts.  However, according to a study published in World Patent Information, the first public disclosures of new chemical entities are typically published as patents prior to their publication in scientific journals. And the study goes on to say onlya small fraction of the new science and technology first reported in patents is subsequently disclosed in scientific literature sources.  

By excluding patent searches from a literature review, therefore, you could be missing an entire corpus of information that will never appear in the traditional biomedical databases.  As a caveat, patent applications are subject to examination by patent examiners but not by peer reviewers and may not provide the context and consensus that are the hallmarks of scientific research.  Therefore, it behooves information specialists to search patent information as an adjunct, not as a replacement for, scientific literature review. 

There are four key reasons why information specialists and research scientists should search patent databases:

1. Maximize your budget

It has been estimated that up to 30% of all R&D expenditure is wasted on redeveloping existing inventions. Most of these unnecessary costs can be avoided by searching existing knowledge on a topic first. While many researchers diligently go through scientific literature, they often forget about patents. Patents are a large source of information on science and technology, and should be included in all state-of-the-art searches for molecular compounds, devices, or other inventions.

2. Find relevant and high-value information not found elsewhere

Patents contain volumes of information that are not available from any other source.  Estimates from the European Patent Office (EPO) claim that up to 80% of current technological knowledge can only be found in patent documents.  This is due in part to the fact that it is easier to file a patent than to publish a peer-reviewed paper, and patents typically have no restrictions on the number of pages used to describe the experiments and results.  There are also some companies that choose to disclose their R&D results only through the issuance of patents.

Because filing a patent costs time and money, companies will generally file only when they believe their invention is of some value to their business.  If it has value to them, you should probably know about it, too!

3. Scope out the competition

Patent searches are the perfect way to gather business intelligence and monitor innovation strategies of other players in the field very early on in research.   By searching patents similar to your own proposed invention, you can focus on what may make aspects of your invention unique. You can use this information to adjust your R&D strategy or find potential collaborators.

4. Search the full text, not just the abstracts

For commercial reasons, the full text of scientific articles is often locked behind a paywall. As a result, popular literature search tools will only let you search abstracts, resulting in a lot of missing of important information in the rest of the article. Patents, on the other hand, are always available as full text, giving you the choice to search both abstracts and full text. Recognize, however, that some elements of a patent may include non-text elements such as images or gene sequences and may require a more sophisticated search tool.

Using Semantic Search to Find Relevant Patents Quickly

Semantically-enriched search allows researchers to find relevant patent documents quickly, easily, and with greater precision. While some keyword-based searches for patents aren’t reliable, semantic search can uncover hidden connections by cross-linking equivalent scientific concepts in different patents. And with tools like synonym type ahead, you can control your search by filtering out the noise, and get to the right content faster.

The Right Tools for the Search

Years ago, patent searching required extensive training or the assistance of an intellectual property specialist.  Researchers can now use a variety of web-based tools that can help you search multiple patent databases around the world.  The U.S. Patent and Trademark OfficeGoogle Patents, and the European Patent Office are good launching sites for performing initial free patent searches.

Interested in learning more about Copyright Clearance Center’s enhanced patent exploration options? Contact us today.


Author: Jill Shuman

Jill Shuman is a former Director of Product Engagement at Copyright Clearance Center and currently a CCC Consultant. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University School of Medicine, where she has taught courses in grant writing, searching biomedical literature and expository writing. Prior to her role at CCC, Jill headed up the corporate library and Knowledge Management Centers at Shire, and also served as a healthcare research analyst and an award-winning science journalist. She is active in SLA, HBA, and the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). In 2016, Jill was the recipient of AMWA’s lifetime achievement award for her success in teaching more than 40 classes, workshops, and seminars. When not at work, she can be found reading (on an e-reader to make the print bigger), looking for her glasses, or writing children’s mysteries that feature sick children as super sleuths.
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