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As part of my PhD, I have already published a paper and am working to expand it further. Recently, a PhD student (who I didn't know) from another university contacted me regarding my paper. He showed interest in the paper and the direction that I'm working on, wanted me to explain it further and, if possible, share the framework that I developed and used for experiment so that he could use it for his own research.

Although I like to help him as it will be nice if we can come up with some collaboration, I'm afraid that it might turn into an competition instead if he decides to pursue the same direction as mine alone. Since I'm still working on it without any concrete result, it is possible for him to solve it first and publish papers. I'm not saying that he might steal my ideas/tools since he can put my name in an acknowledgement.

So, my question is to what extent I should share or disclose my current research which is in progress.

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Nothing. Wait until you are done, and then he can read the published paper. –  Shiki May 12 at 21:24
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Does your advisor know this student's advisor? Talking to your advisor about this might be a good way to start a collaboration between all of you, and take care of things like ownership. –  Austin Henley May 13 at 0:16
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Everything. Then work together and publish lots of joint papers. –  JeffE May 14 at 4:09
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@JeffE: what if he just wants to know about my research without any intention to work with me. I believe that he has no obligation to do that. –  user12635 May 15 at 16:28

5 Answers 5

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Great question! I found myself in similar situations as a student and likewise as a mentor for other students when talking with people working on similar topics.

A favourite quote of mine is from George Bernard Shaw:

“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”

I believe this is an ideal philosophy for research in a sense that ideally, everyone should gain from the free exchange of ideas.

However, as you gain experience, you realize that it can be just an ideal.


My first experience concerning the cost of openly sharing results was when I was a PhD student. Early on, I had the basics of what seemed like an important result for the community and had some initial results. My supervisor urged me to try and publish but the paper was borderline rejected from the conference with comments like "nice idea but still too early". I thus published it as a poster in the informal proceedings. In the meanwhile, my supervisor and I had been in conversation about how to progress further, get more results and mature the work. He presented the poster, spoke with various people and told me that he had had lots of interesting conversations: lengthy conversations with two senior researchers in particular.

I continued working on the problem. My supervisor and I had some difference of opinion on the direction the work should go in (theoretical vs. applied CS basically). We got bogged down in some theoretical questions where I felt the impact could be on simplifying the problem and working on the applied side. I missed the next deadline for the conference in our area but lo and behold, two papers were published that pretty much had developed the applied side of the idea. I read the two papers and realized that both had, in parallel, at the same venue, developed the ideas I had been working on ... with one or two interesting side observations. Both works were from groups of the two senior researchers my supervisor had talked to. One cited my informal/preliminary results as an inspiration, the other didn't cite it at all.

Four years later, the first paper now has 175 citations in Google Scholar, the second paper has 100, my paper has 41. I published a later paper on the topic that's doing a little better, but for sure, the early birds had taken the worm.

In part I'm happy that the idea was developed and they did add new ideas, and I've worked on various things since, but I honestly still regret not having formally marked the idea further before my supervisor exposed it. I also regret not being more urgent in getting the full work published.


This is not to suggest that you should stay tight-lipped at conferences or turn down all collaborations, but if you're worried about someone entering into competition with you, you might want to listen to that concern. I don't think it's at all unreasonable to not share every idea you have when you attend a conference. There are plenty of anecdotes of tight-lipped researchers: for example, nobody knew what Andrew Wiles was working on for several years while he was working towards a proof of Fermat's Last Theorem.

If you think the person is someone you can trust and someone who could help in a collaboration, listen to your gut. Test the water and see how knowledgeable they are or how they could contribute. Be careful if you have co-authors, not to talk about their ideas. If you want to collaborate, perhaps publish a technical report or a pre-print to mark your ideas first.

If in doubt, you don't have to tell them about your ideas straight away. Maybe stay quiet for the conference and email them later if you think you want to work together or to tell them about your ideas.

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You certainly have no obligation to share your work before you've published it. So you can feel completely free to say "Sorry, this work is still in 'stealth' mode, I'll let you know when I can share more."

It's helpful to collaborate with someone you know and trust, if you know the collaborative direction will not conflict with your independent work. (For example, I sometimes collaborate with members of my same research group, and share with them ongoing findings on related work that I wouldn't share with outsiders.)

But otherwise, you can keep your findings to yourself until you are ready to publish, or until you feel confident that you have enough of a head start that you won't risk getting scooped.

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Let me offer another perspective.

... to what extent I should share or disclose my current research which is in progress.

To the extent you would like our society to improve, or the body of human knowledge to grow.

Having other people interested in our ideas means that our ideas are confirmed by others to be promising. Among these people, there could be those who are more capable, more intellectually gifted, more persistent, more enthusiastic than we are.

I would expect that the more people are involved in attacking a particular problem or working on a solution, the higher the chance or the faster it would take to solve that problem.

So if we think of the big picture, I believe we should share as much as possible our ideas. True, other people would probably get greater recognition than we do, but that is all right. Others' gain might be our loss, but in the end, the society benefits. And that is exactly why academic community exists---to serve our society.

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True, other people would probably get greater recognition than we do, but that is all right. Others' gain might be our loss, but in the end, the society benefits. I think my advisor (and our project's funding agency) would have a problem with this philosophy on sharing. –  Mad Jack May 14 at 0:43

As others have noted, the free sharing of ideas is the epitome of what the academic community is all about. However, as was also noted, we soon learn that this is only an ideal; reality often isn't quite like that, for many reasons.

Without getting into the many reasons--mostly involving fear of getting scooped-- for not sharing much (if at all) about your ongoing research, there are several ways to manage this situation.

First, if you truly don't want to share your ideas and/or pursue possible collaboration, figure out how to (preferably nicely!) turn someone down. Try something along these lines:

"Sorry, that's still classified information. Would you like me to let you know when I can tell you more?"

However, in those cases in which you do want to exchange ideas, perhaps with the goal of assessing the potential for future collaboration, you obviously need a slightly different approach. One approach is to share one interesting 'nugget' of what you have found/are working on, and then turn the conversation to their work.

"How do you think that might fit in with what you are doing? Do you see any other ways in which x might apply to y?"

Ask for their input on a small piece of the current puzzle;

"What could you tell me about z, in the light of what I've told you about x?"

Your milage may vary, of course, but this approach can get you many fruitful ideas (Be sure to attribute them to the proper source!), interesting responses, and even valuable collaborations. You can often get a gut feeling for whether or not you are or should be comfortable with responding frankly or whether you want to be more circumspect. In general, the value of sharing with others outweighs the potential risk, though again, YMMV!

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Did he offer you something interesting about his research? Just wait until you have finished and published. Then you can send him a copy.

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