I would like to ask you for an opinion on how to act in the following scenario.

A year ago, some colleague PhD of me has suggested an open problem to me. This problem was already published in his paper, which is on arXiv.

He suggested that problem to me and invited me to collaborate on it. However, he is not very hard-working and I personally suspect that he is just waiting for me to prove it. He is working in that way quite often.

I, somewhat blindly, agreed to work on it. However, I do not like the way he “collaborates” and I would like to work on that problem on my own since he is not helping at all and only waits till the problem is solved so he can write it as a result to his grant.

We are very far from being published. Actually, not much work was done yet. I want to work and solve this problem on my own.

How should I proceed?

  1. Simply ignore him (he didn’t speak about problem for months) and publish the results?
  2. Tell him about my opinion, quit, and publish the results?
  3. Proceed and publish the results with him as a co-author.
  4. Do something else.
  • 1
    Are you at a similar point in your careers? (It sounds like he may be senior and consider his matching you up with the problem part of his contribution to the project.) Is there anyone (mutual friend, coworker, etc.) who could credibly mediate this? – cactus_pardner Apr 5 '18 at 23:19
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    "We agreed year ago .... Actually, not much work was done yet. I want to work and solve this problem on my own" Just curious: and what makes you think that the separation from the other guy will enable you to miraculously succeed after you've been failing for one year (or, perhaps, you also just sat and waited until the other guy would come up with a bright idea of how to do it? Are you sure he has no reason to reciprocate your attitude towards him?). – fedja Apr 6 '18 at 0:55
  • @cactus_pardner We are both PhD students. – user57779 Apr 6 '18 at 8:20

I will come at from the other direction. I will assume that your summary is correct, and that this person truly did nothing other than point you to a question that had already been posed in published work. In this case, you are under no obligation to work with him. You must be careful to cite his work appropriately, and probably acknowledge him in the acknowledgment section as having suggested this line of research, but I don't think he has a legitimate case for co-authorship.

That said, he could still create a messy, public confrontation. So, I would send a note like this:


Some time ago, we discussed collaborating on an effort to prove [blah] as an extension of your work in [blah]. So far I don't think either of us has made much progress, so I wanted to reach out with you about resurrecting this work.

At this point, I think it would be best if I tackled this on my own. If successful, I will write up a paper that cites your paper, and will acknowledge you in the acknowledgments. What do you think?*


Depending on whether you are willing to consider working with this guy, you could also replace the last sentence with:

If you would prefer to collaborate on this paper as a co-author, we can discuss, but I am hoping to publish in the next ~6 months, so we should meet ASAP to discuss what you will contribute and when it will be ready.

Then there are a few possible outcomes:

  • If he ignores you, or says "good", then all is okay.
  • If he claims to be interested in collaborating with you, you will have to discuss this with him.
    • You may need to be fairly aggressive in telling him that you don't think collaborating will be feasible, but better to have this argument now and in private, rather than after publishing without him.
    • If you are willing to give him a chance, you can try to define his contributions and the deadlines now, and let him know that if doesn't have satisfactory material by the deadline, you will publish your results without him. If he is serious about working with you, then this is reasonable; if he is lazy as you say, he may withdraw his objections.
  • If you cannot come to terms, or if he reacts very poorly, then you can decide whether you want to risk a nasty, public fight over authorship, or whether you want to drop the line of research.
  • Interesting ideas but wouldn't a phone call be a better medium to start a sensitive negotiation? – aparente001 Apr 6 '18 at 1:29
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    Depending on the personalities involved, quite possibly; personally, I would prefer in-person, then e-mail, then phone. In any case, I would suggest following-up by e-mail so as to have a record of the agreement in case of a dispute later. – cag51 Apr 6 '18 at 1:36
  • I agree about email follow-up; if the two people collaborate remotely, I'm thinking in person might be difficult. What bothers you about the phone, by the way? – aparente001 Apr 6 '18 at 1:37
  • Agree. RE the phone -- to me it seems like the worst of both worlds -- I don't get to revise my thoughts or have a transcript as I would in an e-mail, but it's harder to build a relationship or read body language as I would in person. But I often resort to it when the other person isn't good with e-mail...which is a decent fraction of the time in academia and government. – cag51 Apr 6 '18 at 1:43

You may like to introspect on how much you need this problem. It is not known from the question (presently) at what stage of career you are in, as previously mentioned by @cactus_pardner. If you are a busy mid- to senior- academic, this may not even be worth the time to think about. If you are in the early stages, you may be looking for problems to solve and advance your research, and may be in even if waters are a bit muddy.

Either way, as not too much work has been done so far, you are not in a very tricky spot right now. If you want to tackle it alone, do consider if you have the resources necessary for it (not just skills, even financial - as you mentioned his grant). Also keep in mind that he may bear you some ill-will for 'taking' his idea. While no science belongs to anyone, he may feel entitled since it was his paper that highlighted the problem, and more importantly, he pointed you in that direction. So consider if you (a) have a good chance at solving it, and, (b) are alright with a potentially sub-optimal relationship.

I am leaning towards (3), in the hope that if he sees there is good potential in your work together, and you bring in some interpersonal skills, he may contribute more productively. If he absolutely doesn't, maybe because he doesn't have the time, then you can publish by yourself (after telling him about it, of course).


The collaboration so far has apparently steered you to an open problem that you're interested in solving and have an idea of how to solve. You and your colleague have discussed the problem, and part of where you are is due to him.

Make note of how much you and he have each done to this point, and what interactions you've had. By the broadest definition, this is potentially joint work. Do not invest further effort into it until you talk to him about authorship and/or dissolving the partnership.

If he wants this to count toward his grant, then perhaps there's a creative way he can get credit for the purpose of the grant without being a coauthor. Or can you give a joint presentation about the problem and what you've found so far--something that gives him credit for work to date--before you take over as a solo project? Because you are both doctoral students, your supervisor(s) may have wisdom they could share, or they could help break apart the problem into two chunks, or find some other way to mediate.

If you cannot find a way to continue the collaboration on terms you both agree to, then the best course of action, though hard, is to find a new problem for yourself. This reduces the damage that may happen to your reputation.

I am skeptical that he has malevolent motives, but if he does tend to try to take credit for others' work, then he probably knows how to fight over authorship, meaning that you do not want to appear at all to be taking his work. Further, if he doesn't intend to actually do any of the work, you have the most leverage and the least to lose before you do any further work, so this is the right time to try to figure out an amicable solution.


It seems he wants to take your findings as his own. There are numerous laws against it. Consulting a lawyer might be helpful.

Scientists record everything, It's easy to record data about your findings to prove it was you who actually completed them.

Plagiarism is considered one of the worst in the scientific community. Here's a good article from Berkley: If you get caught, they banish you.


  • 4
    I don't think a lawyer is a good solution here - the collegue apparently is not a thief, but the "lazy guy in teamwork". So before escalating (=hiring a lawyer), one could simply part ways with that person. – user90948 Apr 5 '18 at 21:55

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