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I have experienced a couple of times the following problem: I have asked another researcher to cooperate and provided mathematical results (as a basis for an algorithm). The cooperation has not proceeded as fast as expected and the other party has taken my results and integrated them into a work that he has published with other people. There are two questions:

  1. How to initiate cooperation with new people and still avoid this problem? The mathematical properties are central in our research. New algorithms cannot be created, unless we first invent some clever properties that prune the search space (so, the properties are the heart of the algorithm, the rest is usually straight-forward). So, they have to be invented first and this inventing happens to be my speciality. Unfortunately, it is easy to proceed without me, when I have done this difficult part. So, I don't know whom and when I could give the results. They should be shared pretty soon, since we should all be able to ponder together how to integrate the new properties in the algorithm. Sometimes we may also find that they are not useful or strong enough and new results are needed, so ideally this invention-brainstorming process would be iterative.

  2. How should I refer to my own results, if others have published them first? Should I still give a reference to their publication, when I use them for something new? This is now an important question since I have invented a new use for one of my previous results. (Naturally, I don't like the idea I should refer to somebody else for my own invention.)

I would also like to understand the behaviour of those other researchers. I have a few hypotheses:

  • It's possible they underestimate the invention work, because I usually present only the final results as nice compact proofs + explanation what the result means in practice. In reality, deriving the results may easily take 100 hours or more - proving by trial and error, guided by intuition and earlier results.
  • I have been only a post-doc, when this happened, so I had no authority. They may think it is easier to get a paper published if it is written with some better known researchers.
  • These people have been from other countries and had a different mother tongue than me, while they have published the results with people who were either geographically close (even the same research group) or spoke the same language they did. So maybe the question is about easy communication and cooperation?
  • The original research had suffered from delays, like rejected project application. It would have continued but not in the original schedule (from my part). So maybe they wanted to get things published faster or even assumed I won't get any funding for future research.

What do you think is the explanation? Understanding the reasons would help to avoid the problem in future.

  • 1
    Don't give out results / your work without a solid agreement that you will have an attribution or be a co-author on any paper using that material. – Solar Mike Feb 7 at 15:01
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    Have you been cited in this other work? I find it hard to understand how they could use only your results without the underlying analysis if they don't cite it. Their paper would seem very incomplete to a reader, I think. – Buffy Feb 7 at 15:37
  • No citing (no proper publication to cite), but they have given my proof of the result. After invention and explanation, the results are easy to grasp. – whamalai Feb 8 at 12:51
  • Actually, you can always cite another's work and mark the citation as "private communication". It should have been done. – Buffy Feb 10 at 12:25
  • Can you elaborate this part? "The cooperation has not proceeded as fast as expected and the other party has taken my results..."? Suppose I am that "another party". I devote my time to the project, and what I see is endless delays. What are my options then? One of them would be to publish what we got so far and close this cooperation. – rg_software Feb 10 at 13:52
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How to initiate cooperation with new people and still avoid this problem?

You need some basic trust in the people you want to cooperate with before starting to share ideas. In some cases, you might know coauthors of them. Talk to them and hopefully they will drop hints on whether the collaboration was fair or if you need to be careful. I have indeed gotten warnings from other researchers (inside my own institute) regarding who I can trust and who tries to steal ideas. And I also pass on such information (after validating it) to new researchers.

But most important: Before starting any serious exchange of information, define basic rules for all of you. For example, anything which is developed throughout this collaboration must only be published with everyone agreeing to it. Create proof of this via a digitally signed email.

Of course, you might not be able to fully trust ANY person. So take care and create proof of your initial ideas. I tend to create repositories with revision-tracking (via GIT or SVN) of the joint work during collaboration. Everything should be stored therein, for example, any paper that you are writing or simulation data. Even if you get into trouble later on, you can proof, WHEN and WHAT you contributed.

  • Create proof of this via a digitally signed email. - This seems excessive to me and would put me off. – Kimball Feb 10 at 14:29
  • If you have a digitally signed email, and somebody steals your results, what good is it going to do you? – Peter Shor Feb 10 at 21:46

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