While working on my PhD I have diverged from the area of expertise of my supervisor and other people in the group. In particular that allowed me to find a near solution to a problem that was not solved for some time in the field where we all worked.

Towards the end of my PhD track I have started working on the draft for this, shared with supervisor and suggested that if they are interested, we can publish this together - even though all the work was done by me in this particular case, I still thought it would be a nice touch from my side, and also they might have given some interesting feedback e.g. regarding to connections to other literature. I did not really count on his technical feedback, as in all the humbleness I had quite some chances to see they are not very good at that - even coming to the point of making technical mistakes in the proofs, which were making the results wrong (in published papers).

So I have sent them several drafts of this paper, rather complete on last stages - just required writing some introduction and cleaning up here and there. They said that it may be a good idea to go with that. Yet, I have started working full time and as it happened, did not have enough time to complete this work (not much initiative was coming his side either). Imagine my surprise when a couple of years after I find out that the very same ideas were published in a journal paper by my supervisor and another person from a group where I have worked. No mentioning of my name anywhere (besides a link to one of my old papers, which dealt with a rather different problem).

Now, one of the things why I thought there was no rush in publishing my work is that it required me a lot of technical skills, which likely no many of the people working on that problem were equipped with - I am not sure how to make this sound less overconfident - but just let's say it was due to background, like you're having a physics degree coming to work on biology problems, and you're pretty much the only physicist in that little community. I was wrong in assuming that no one would attempt solving this problem, but I happened to be right in their technical skills: the proofs there are not correct at least in couple of places, as the authors (and the reviewers) overlooked issues there. Namely, similar results are correct under different assumptions, but not in the shape they are stated in this paper.

So what I think likely have happened is: my supervisor did not really plagiarize my drafts (otherwise I would have expected at least the proofs to be correct), but maybe looked at the ideas there, shared with my former colleagues and they redid my job in their own way.

I have asked my supervisor about what happened, and they have said that likely those colleagues just came with those ideas themselves. When I have asked, why did not my supervisor tell them to connect with me, as I have already did all this research, and we could have at least write this paper together, they have replied that they has forgotten about those works I have sent them. And did not suggest any way we could move one from there.

I think I made some mistakes myself: was too confident if not about technical skills, than amount of those required to get the paper accepted; I have not published that preprint even on arXiv, as first I have waited for the green light from my supervisor, and then I got distracted with my other job. Yet, I can only hope I will learn from this situation some thinks for myself from my own mistakes, but I still think my supervisor's behavior is rather unethical. My supervisor also works at one of the top 10 universities worldwide overall and in this field, and I certainly would not like my supervisor to teach students there this kind of behavior. So what can I do?

What do (or rather, don't) I have now:

  • there were emails with my drafts sent to my supervisor's email account; however, I have sent them from my university email address and that got wiped out after I have finished my PhD;

  • the paper published is not correct in it's correct shape: there are mistakes in the proofs - at least of the kind that stronger assumptions are needed to make the result hold, and then a rather big rewriting of the proof itself, at least in a couple of places, I did not really look into all places where those mistakes might have appeared, so maybe more, maybe not. It is a rather reputable journal, by the way, with one of the highest impact factors in my field.

  • In this paper the reuse a relevant result discovered by me, from a paper I have published together with my supervisor, without mentioning it (and essentially rederiving it anew).

What do I look for: it would be good to have this achievement attributed to me, but I am not sure I do formally deserve that (I've developed those results, correctly, but did not publish them). My main concern instead is that I unlike unethical behavior, especially in academia, so maybe some discussion with a commission on ethics would benefit my supervisor, or in the worst case awareness of the community (even though that sounds a bit nasty and dirty). I have checked out the answers in a related question, however I am not sure they apply readily to my situation.

  • 1
    You refer to your supervisor as being both male and female. Do you have two supervisors, does your supervisor identify with both, or ...? If not, then perhaps use just one (or omit gender entirely) to make the question easier to read. (There's an edit button you can use.)
    – user2768
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 14:05
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    @user2768: thanks, that was a typo, it is a single person. I have omitted the gender as it does not seem relevant indeed here. Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 14:08
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    Consider changing supervisor, the excuse “we forgot you did that” is feeble...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 14:26
  • @SolarMike: I am away from academia for some foreseeable future, exactly due to the reasons of dealing with situations of the kind described in this post. Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 14:30
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    @SolarMike Co-authors have previously reminded me of my own results that I'd forgotten...
    – user2768
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 14:38

2 Answers 2


It seems that your results have been rediscovered by "another person from a group where [you] have worked" and published in collaboration with your supervisor, after your supervisor had forgotten that you'd previously discovered those results. You think

[your] supervisor's behavior is rather unethical

But, I can't see any basis for that: The results were rediscovered and your supervisor had forgotten that you'd previously discovered those results.

You want "this achievement attributed to [you]," but it isn't your achievement, you've been beaten to publication. Nonetheless, "the [published paper] is not correct in it's correct shape," so you can publish a second paper that advances upon the published one, possibly in collaboration with the authors of the published one. (See also My work was published before me. What should I do?)

Your comment explains that your results were written in a near complete manuscript (the original question did too, I missed that) and I'm left wondering why that manuscript wasn't completed in collaboration with your supervisor's co-author (or perhaps even without them). Maybe too much time elapsed, or perhaps the co-author had written a near complete manuscript too, independently of yours and possibly even before collaborating with your supervisor.

  • Fair enough, from that point of view I may agree with you - everyone can forget about something. The reason I think it is unethical perhaps requires a bit more context (or maybe me being simply wrong): please see the edit of the post, there's one more bulletpoint in there. In that case, we can also say that my supervisor just have forgotten that we wrote another paper together. I am also familiar with the situation when have tried hiding a mistake in the proof of a paper which they wrote by themselves. So, perhaps, it's just me having little trust in their words. Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 14:20
  • I am also seeing your answer as an opinion of the community, so I am not arguing here - it is a valuable opinion to learn for me. In particular, I have noticed that you put some decent weight on formalization of the results by writing them down, even though I think here it is better to say publishing them, as I wrote those results myself as well. Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 14:22
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    Your edited question claims the published paper "reuse[s] a relevant result discovered by me, from a paper I have published together with my supervisor, without mentioning it (and essentially rederiving it anew)." There is nothing wrong with re-deriving the same result, especially if your result was unknown (albeit, it shows that a thorough knowledge of the literature was lacking). Given that your supervisor should have known, it is a little odd, but maybe they forgot.
    – user2768
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 14:28
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    A verbally explanation of an idea is very different to a written explanation of the idea. That's the distinction I was trying to make. Your comment suggests that you wrote the idea down too. Did you have a draft manuscript? That would change the situation somewhat.
    – user2768
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 14:33
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    So I have sent them several drafts of this paper, rather complete on last stages - just required writing some introduction and cleaning up here and there. That was in the OP, indeed - I had a comprehensive, 50 pages long draft with that particular result and its extensions, relations to other areas, motivational introduction and literature review, and several versions of this draft I have shared with my supervisor before finishing my PhD Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 7:53

You have a few options.

Option 1

Keep trying to convince your previous advisor to do something constructive to publish a revised version of your work. My advice on how best to make this happen is simple.

--> Good luck.

Option 2

Ask your advisor to publish an addendum/correction to the article that includes your name as co-author. The addendum can be in the Letters section of the journal. It needs only state something as simple as "The work published as ... was based on previous work that included these additional insights. ..."

Option 3

You are now a graduated PhD. You have the same authority and standing as your previous advisor. Indeed, you probably have a better appreciation of the topic that was published than he/she does because it was your focus but only his/her mentorship. Make your stand befitting your new ranking.

  • Take the previous paper and complete it on your own. Include a reference to the newly published paper. Modify your work to show how your efforts improve upon and fix loopholes in the newly published work. In other words, show that your work is worthy because it contributes new insights to the established knowledge even with the recent publication in consideration. This is what publishing in science is supposed to be about.

  • Add the name of your previous advisor as SECOND author.

  • Send the paper to your previous advisor with a deadline such as this

This is a publication of research work that we did together in the years NNNN to NNNN. I had sent drafts previously and they were unfortunately never completed. I have now completed the document for submission. I am sending it to you to review as co-author. I seek your comments and corrections as soon as possible. Your prompt consideration is appreciated. Absent a reply from you in (three to four) weeks, I plan to submit this paper as it stands to Journal (XYZ).

The one caveat here is that you may run aground due to politics or ethics at the review level for your work. That is an entirely different battle that is discussed in other threads.

Option 4

Forget about it and move on.

  • I would appreciate comments to downvotes or constructive corrections. Commented Nov 5, 2018 at 17:32

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