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I'm a PhD student, and my advisor published what appears to be the theoretical frame I came up with for my dissertation as a standalone paper with some other people (not me). It seems (to me, though who knows) like I was going to make a reasonably important contribution to my subfield, so I'm even more cut up than maybe I would have been. And now I have to finish my dissertation as other people are now using this theoretical frame on data similar to mine. There is also, of course, a small chance that my advisor came up with the same idea as me, but it smells wrong, since we don't work in quite the same area. (My feeling that something is wrong is bolstered by knowing that he very definitely screwed me over in another incident.) How do I handle this? Do I have to cite his paper? I cannot switch advisors --my department is small, so there isn't someone else who can advise me in it. I'm also too close to done. I have no desire to fight; I only want to survive, preferably with some of my dignity intact (i.e., some way not to cite my advisor's paper). I'd be grateful for comments from folks who are well along in their careers in academia, since I think part of my problem here is really not understanding academic culture.

Context: I did a masters in another subfield before starting my phd; my idea is basically drawing a common set of ideas from the master's subfield into the new subfield (where they are almost never used); I cited all of these things in my dissertation proposal, which I turned in before my advisor's paper came out, and which my committee read. The tricky thing is that I could still see my advisor saying the idea came from him - which is false and unlikely, since again, they don't know my other subfield. But still, I am terrified as well as angry.

  • Another one of those fine upstanding advisors... – Solar Mike Mar 13 at 6:23
  • If you "cannot switch advisors" (yes, you can, but it's not easy and has consequences), there is nothing you can do. If you have proof, there are things you can do, but if you cannot switch advisors, you'd lose your chance of graduating. – Roland Mar 13 at 9:55
  • @Roland the OP writes now I have to finish my dissertation, so I presume they cannot switch because it is too late (they have less than several months to go). – user2768 Mar 13 at 13:15
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    @user2768 Yes they can. I have seen a case where a non-committee member managed to bring the grade of a PhD candidate down during the public examination by finding a question that the candidate was not able to answer. How much more power can be expected from the superviser is anyone's guess. – Captain Emacs Mar 14 at 0:50
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    @user2768 Well, here in Germany (and in some other European countries) the advisor is also one of the examiners. So, that's a hard yes. – Roland Mar 14 at 7:09
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How do I handle this?

Most likely there's nothing you can do (beyond coming to terms with it), unless there's reasonable evidence that "[your] advisor published [the] theoretical frame I came up with for my dissertation."

Do I have to cite his paper?

If you publish related work or you want to build upon his work, then yes, since his work is required to be cited in the usual way.

  • He does not have to cite the paper. People omit citing relevant literature all the time. I do not think omitting to cite one particular paper would have any consequences. In the end, it is his choice what to refer to or not. – Asdf Mar 15 at 4:27
  • @Asdf Not citing a known and relevant work is unethical – user2768 Mar 15 at 10:17
  • It seems that the OP does not want to cite the other paper. While this would indeed be unethical, doing something unethical might be better for his peace of mind than doing the 'right' thing. To purposefully omit citing a relevant work is an 'offense' on the level of jaywalking. Sure, it might piss someone off but it is unlikely to have any negative consequences beyond that. If a reviewer or someone else requires him to add the reference he can simply do it. Being forced to do it, I imagine, would preserve his sense of dignity better than volunteering. – Asdf Mar 15 at 21:08
  • @Asdf The OP will remember that they behaved unethically. The OP needs to decide whether they want to carry that burden or do the "right" thing. – user2768 Mar 18 at 8:53
  • In some sense, the advisor's transgression motivates and begets that of the student. Will this is not be acceptable in all systems of ethics, OP should be able to rationalize such behaviour in this instance. – Asdf Mar 19 at 2:56
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The most important thing to have in this situation is an ally. Preferably more than one.

Discuss this with the most trusted person on your committee. This person will ideally be able to tell you 1) if your perception about idea stealing is accurate 2) how to bring this up with your advisor (if at all) 3) how to negotiate with your advisor around fairly getting you on future pubs using your idea 4) how to get the rest of the committee on your side so you can prevent the advisor from any funny business related to your graduation. Good luck!

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