Suppose that I am a PhD student that works as an RA in the lab of my PhD advisor. While I am in the lab, I come up with some interesting idea, and then I spend time reading and planning out a possible paper that I could work on related to this idea. I spend about a month doing this. I have mentioned a vague description to my advisor about this idea, but have not had any real discussion with him and the advisor does not really know what the idea is. I have made no concrete action on the paper in the form of writing anything, experiments, etc..

Now suppose that I have left the lab for whatever reason. My previous advisor tells me that I must write him up a full description of my idea and research plan, arguing that I was his RA while I thought of the idea and therefore it belongs to him. His reason for doing this is he wants to give the project to a different student in the lab who will carry out the work, and I will be an author but not the first author. However, I already have plans of completing the project in my new lab, which I have told my old advisor, but he doesn't care. If I do not describe the idea to the professor, there is no way he can do this since I never really told him the idea in the first place.

Is it within my rights to refuse to describe to him my idea? As in, can I get in trouble with the university? Could I get in trouble legally? I am not asking about political ramifications, the practicality of doing this, etc., only whether it is my right.

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    My previous advisor tells me that I must write him up a full description of my idea and research plan --- is it hypothetical or real scenario? – Dmitry Savostyanov Jul 12 '19 at 20:43
  • It is essentially a real scenario. The actual scenario is a bit more complicated but the ethical dilemma is the same. – lorisaurus Jul 12 '19 at 20:51
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    Ideas are a dime a dozen. – Jon Custer Jul 13 '19 at 0:27
  • This idea has more development, though. Specifically, the ideas include an algorithm for a problem, proofs for the analysis of that algorithm, etc. (although I have not written them up yet so I am sure there is plenty of fixes to be done). Essentially, my advisor wants me to write up my algorithm and proofs and give them to him. – lorisaurus Jul 13 '19 at 0:30
  • This is not work assigned to me by my advisor or outlined by any grant, though. It was sort of my own thing (I am an RA for 10 hours a week). – lorisaurus Jul 13 '19 at 0:32

The legality will depend entirely upon the nature of the intellectual property agreements you have signed or agreed to at your local institution, or that are otherwise in force in your local jurisdiction.

But based at a quick high-level read of your description, you seem to indicate you were paid to perform work as a research assistant, and during the conduct of that work you spent a significant portion of time planning a research project. By any definition I have ever seen, this would count as "work product" as part of that position, unless it somehow greatly differed from the nature and subject of the work you were being paid to perform. Even if it was different, most IP agreements tend to be very favorable to the "employer" part of the relationship (because of course, guess who writes those documents).

You'd have to speak to a lawyer for specifics, but in general you would be expected to provide any working materials, artifacts, or other creations/documents you have regarding the project to your former employer if requested (and really as a matter of practice). I have not heard of any situation where this requires extensive new creation, though - so creating a plan and description beyond what you had during that time would be beyond the pale.

From the perspective of this disinterested third-party, however, it kind of sounds dangerously like you want to have been paid to perform work, then keep that work to yourself for your own future advantage and benefit while shafting the people that paid you by not providing to them all the benefits they paid for in good faith. This is certainly not a pro-social behavior, and sets off alarm bells that you don't sound like a kind of contributor I'd be comfortable working with. At the same time, telling someone else to give up an idea so you can assign it to someone else so that they can be the first author and the person who came up with it will be in some subordinate position is also not pro-social, and is a big red flag that I wouldn't want to work with a person like that in the future either!

You are most certainly in your rights to decide ongoing involvement with a project, however, so if you want to turn in your old work ideas, wash your hands of the situation and tell them you don't want to be involved as an author further as you will be pursuing a similar-but-different line of research than what you had initially planned, you could do that. But I would really, strongly suggest you get any new advisor involved in your new lab involved before you decide on any such course of action, because if a professor did this to another professor it would likely be seen as quite aggressive and possibly the start of a long rivalry. Very dangerous for a person in a more fragile position to try to do!

I would tend to err towards "I have lots of ideas, no need to get hung up on one single idea that someone else was paying me for". If the check cleared, I prefer to give people what they paid for and part ways, wishing them the best of luck and removing myself from ongoing entanglement if the relationship is no longer a positive one.

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  • Thank you for your response. Part of the reason I am not being very "pro-social" towards my advisor is that there has been some seriously unprofessional behavior on the part of my advisor towards me (it is the reason I am leaving). – lorisaurus Jul 12 '19 at 21:03
  • From my understanding, my RA-ship is a part time job (10 hours a week) where I complete research tasks given to me by my advisor, and I am allowed to work on research of my choosing with my remaining time (presumably my main PhD topic). This was not a task given to me by my advisor, so I didn't really think of it as work that I owed them. – lorisaurus Jul 12 '19 at 21:05
  • @lorisaurus That makes perfectly good sense personally, but will not be known to others outside of the personal situation. That's why I tend to favor the abundance belief of "here, take your stupid token if it makes you feel better, but you'll be getting no more from me" - of course, put politely :) If the grey area of what was and was not for work is hard for you to parse out, having been there the whole time, then it will be vastly harder for anyone else to parse out too - thus its usually better to err on the side of not getting involved in more drama going forward. Clean breaks are nice. – BrianH Jul 12 '19 at 21:05
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    and during the conduct of that work you spent a significant portion of time planning a research project — I don't see that at all. I would frame it as "and between the start and end dates of that work, you spent significant time planning a research project". There is no indication that OP developed their idea instead of completing their assigned/expected work. As OP says, the assistantship is a part-time job; what they do with their "off duty" time is their own business. – JeffE Jul 13 '19 at 1:03
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    ...That said, I agree with the suggestion to share (not give) the idea with the old advisor, making it clear that you expect both direct involvement in and coauthorship of the first paper building on those partial results. – JeffE Jul 13 '19 at 1:09

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