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I have been working on an idea for last 2 years almost independently along with other research works. My advisor did not believe in my work much initilally, so I did not get an RA for two years even after requesting. Recently, I am getting encouraging results with some specific examples and scenarios with good hope for success to solve a complex problem using that idea. I have not published the work yet. Initially, my advisor was not interested in the idea partly because the work is not his area of expertise and insisted that I spend my time in other research projects with a senior colleague. I pursued it with my interest in spite of RA support, but with new results and potential benefits of the approach my advisor became extremely interested and even described the work as the next big idea in our lab meetings. I am happy about it or maybe he says it to make me happy. However, recently I encountered a situation which was difficult for me to comprehend. I found my advisor present a perspective paper along with many other renowned experts in the field, proposing and highlighting the approach I have been working on as the future direction and visionary in the field along with other important developments in a conference. Even though I was not a co-author in that paper and my work was not cited or even acknowledged, I consoled myself as my advisor was alluding me that he was promoting the idea; it was an advertisement of the work (of course with out any acknowledgement).

As he was not the first author of the perspective paper and there is a possibility that first/other authors can make claim of it, he asked me to file an updated technical report in the department before the paper is published. It looked to me like he wanted to promote himself among his colleagues with that idea with out acknowledging it to me before the audience and greater scientific public where it matters.

I happened to attend the conference as a PhD student, and found that the presenter of the perspective paper (whom I don't know) presented more than half of his talk on my idea with my slides that I shared with my advisor, and there was no acknowledgement or mention of my report or work. It was even worse to see that some of the terminology that I planed to use, was disclosed and few misinterpreted while explaining.

Even then, people really seemed to liked the idea and the approach and many are convinced that the idea is going to impact the field. While I saw a very drastic change in the way my advisor treated me recently, but what really made me sad was when my advisor asked me to refer to this perspective paper (to which I was not a co-author) in my impending submission (on the idea).

I feel like it was unfair but I don't know if research is done this way in academia or if it is perfectly legit to do something like that. I decided not to cite the perspective paper with possible consequences. I just wanted to know how other students handle such situations effectively and if such a thing is a common practice.

Edit: I do have all email traces and even a previous publication explaining part of the idea and a recent technical report submitted to the department with the complete idea.

UPDATES

June 2014: I have continued with the situation I described above honestly because as a student I hardly have any options and as suggested by many that it would be an academic suicide. But, it had impacted me severely, mostly because I believe that any good idea I will bring to the table will be stolen or misrepresented and there will be cleaver manipulations to take ownership of them. I will take two steps forward and three steps backward. I could hardly perform in my potential. I will let you know my ordeal soon and many thanks for your kind help and support.

  • 2
    I second the comments about the importance of evidence/paper trail. I think version control can be a useful tool in such situations as well. Version controlled data and writings can help show when you came up with stuff and what you came up with exactly. If this is a repository which other people have access to and have committed to (this does not mean the repos needs to be public) then that is even better. – Faheem Mitha Jun 7 '13 at 18:55
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    *I don't know if research is done this way in academia or if it is perfectly legit * NO. – Cape Code Jul 13 '15 at 8:13
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As far as I understand the situation, it seems to me that your advisors' behavior is borderline, even if likely on the wrong side of the border. Since it does not look like a very clear and frank misbehavior, even if you are perfectly right it would be tremendously difficult to prove it beyond doubt. In case of doubt, you could end up being seen more as the trouble maker than as the one who came up with that great idea; the surrounding people to whom you could complain (department head, etc.) would hesitate a lot to go against tenured faculty when the misbehavior is not crystal clear, etc.

With this in mind, I would strongly advise you not to confront to wildly with your advisors. You can (and should, as advised by Shion) discuss with them the fact that you are uncomfortable with the way they presented things, with the use without permission of your slides, and so on; but always let them a way to discuss it calmly. If they feel cornered, there will be little chance of the situation not degenerating into a conflict, and it would be very difficult for you to survive professionally a conflict with your advisors.

You could cite their perspective paper in a way that friendly makes explicit that the idea is yours. Your aim should be to get decent credit for your idea, even at the cost of letting your advisors benefit from it: think about what you have to gain or loose first, rather than about what they have to unduly gain or what you can cost them.

If everything goes smoothly, you can get into a good position to build on your idea, and be on track for your career. Once you're a respected tenured faculty, you should remember this episode and be supportive of young researchers.

  • 13
    +1 for this answer, and specifically for : "Once you're a respected tenured faculty, you should remember this episode and be supportive of young researchers." – Sylvain Peyronnet Jun 7 '13 at 20:10
19

I was in a similar situation before (in biology) about 5 years ago (and this was an ivy league school on the East coast of US) – I had paper A published and paper B (following from A) in the works, when the advisor tries to work on paper C (following from A, borderline with B). The deal is that neither B nor C would've been possible without A, and one of B or C was necessary to show the full impact and worth of A (think detailed theory paper A vs lab experiments B and C). For other reasons, it couldn't be written as a larger A+B or A+C paper, but that's besides the point. The problem here was that the advisor, being faster at churning out a paper, finished C before I finished B despite starting later and then he insisted that we focus on polishing and submitting C before returning to B (I was 2nd author). Indeed that's what happened and we cited C in B when B was also eventually published (thus changing the "science order" from how it was). Note: I was not actually worried about publishing C, just its appearance before B.

My issues were:

  • A was my idea, my work.
  • The idea for C was also mine (leading from A), but was shelved (by me) until I had the time to run the experiments for those (the assays and lab experiments weren't a small deal).
  • I'm the student needing advising, not poaching of ideas.
  • publishing order of C before B looks like it was the advisor's bright idea, when it was not (no, really... this didn't start with the "here, work on my old unfinished idea")

The advisor's view was:

  • A is already published, so it's "out there" for everyone including him.
  • B and C are not exactly the same, so what's the big deal?
  • In the long run, precedence differences of O(weeks) won't matter, period.
  • I'm also an author and I now have 3 papers instead of 2.

In the end, I came to terms with it and in hind sight (after 5 yrs), should not have made such a fuss because

  • I got 3 papers instead of 2
  • It was a fresh change of roles (he did do the work, and I was in an advisory role)
  • In the long run, precedence differences of O(weeks) didn't matter (might be different in other fields), and since I continued publishing in the same field, it now looks like I'm the man behind the plan.
  • Resentment never did anyone any good.
  • The dude is a hell of a supportive advisor in all other ways, so this wasn't worth burning bridges. Maybe he genuinely didn't see things from my PoV and didn't intend to poach.

The bottom line is – what you're describing, while borderline, might not be uncommon. Especially, using graduate students' results in a presentation to a funding agency, but passing it off as their "project" is very common, because despite what you might want to think, a lot of times, it's the reputation of the PI that brings in the money than the merit of the idea itself (i.e., a mediocre idea from a rock star PI has more chances of getting funded than a rock star idea from an unknown researcher).

However, it was absolutely wrong of them to have not included your name or acknowledged your contribution (which has never happened with me). You might want to bring that up, but you should think if you really want to burn bridges for a "small" reason. I say "small" in quotes because while yes, from a strict ethical PoV, they might be in the wrong, you're justified in your anger and is not a small issue for you, in the long run, the objective function of life is a multivariable function. Don't just fixate on one and make a decision (that you might come to regret) based on a local minimum that you're stuck in now.

  • 4
    I upvoted this because I think it has a good perspective about what happens a lot in academia. Professors often take ideas that their students develop and write grants and papers out of them, but in the end, the interest that they drum up ends up generating more opportunities for the student. At the same time I heavily advise you to speak with your advisor about it and rather than carry an accusatory tone, take one that emphasizes the importance that you be involved in any and all aspects of the project (including authorship and appropriate credit). – Irwin Jun 12 '13 at 20:35
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    +1 It's absolutely standard practice in my field for advisors to include student research as "their project" in their grant proposals. Since these grants fund the student I don't see anything at all wrong with this (unless the student is senior and heading for academia, and wants(!) to be closely involved in the grant-writing process). – user168715 Jun 21 '13 at 14:52
  • Grant fund is common practice in my area too. I am not speaking of grant proposal rather of conference/journal publication which is different. Is a grant proposal same as a journal/conference paper (where the student who has carried the work is not included) ? I may be wrong but please do not support misuse /exploitation as many students over here will consider that as the norm. – student Jun 23 '13 at 18:32
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While the other answers are good, I have an alternative approach for you.

Have you actually gone and spoken to your advisers about this? A perspective paper is just that. It talks about concepts and the next big thing - which very well may be your work.

I suggest that you have a nice, sit down, frank discussion with your advisers about this and make clear what future directions and expectations are regarding publications, collaborations and co-authorships. That would clear the air quite a bit, which frankly now, is rather hazy.

6

The only way you're really going to be able to establish some sort of claim to recognition is if:

  • Your advisors did not independently come up with the idea, and choose to change their stance and give you credit for the idea; or
  • You can establish conclusively that this was your idea, and not your advisors'.

The best way to do this is if you have a verifiable documentation trail supporting your claim. This means that you have conclusive records showing that the work exists. This would include things like emails, verified laboratory notebooks, and other documents that can be dated and that demonstrate that you came up with the idea. The challenge, of course, will be showing that you came up with it independently of your advisors (which would require that you have documented proof showing that they discouraged you from working on it.)

2

Check the policies of your university when it comes to intellectual property, specifically for the faculty you are studying under. Make sure you fully understand the guidelines, and I mean absolutely certain.

If you find that there is a discrepancy, meaning that this is frowned upon, then you have your original presentation (although, to be honest, I am not sure how credible this would be as evidence).

Perhaps, you cold speak to your supervisor about completing a co-authored paper on the topic to be peer-reviewed published in a journal (This is what my supervisor and I do).

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