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I am a math PhD student in North America about to enter my second year. Last week I attended a conference and was interested in a research presentation by a professor at another school. The presentation was about some of his current (unpublished) methods and results to attack a problem in combinatorics. I am thinking of writing an expository post about his talk in my personal blog.

Question: Should I contact the professor to ask for permission to write about his research? My concern is that he hasn't published the results and so might not want to put them in public yet. I have seen people writing expository posts about talks or papers that they read or hear about (for example here), but I'm not sure if they need permission from the original author(s) to do so.

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    Consider not thinking of yourself as a "PhD student". You're not studying a PhD, nor are you just studying "for a PhD" in the sense that (undergrad) students do. You're a junior researcher and a PhD candidate; and a student only in a limited sense. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Aug 11 at 19:46
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    @einpoklum May I ask why this is relevant to OP's question? – Agnishom Chattopadhyay Aug 12 at 8:17
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    @AgnishomChattopadhyay: 1. OP seems to exhibit an overly self-deprecating attitude; that might be related to a self-perception as a "lowly student" vs a "Professor", as opposed to a less-experienced vs more-experienced researcher. But my main point is in my answer. 2. It is relevant to how OP describes/perceives an aspect of academia; I want to de-incluldate this perception in other readers. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Aug 12 at 8:52
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    Just to state the obvious: if you do write up something, be very clear in attributing it to their original presentation. – Emilio M Bumachar Aug 12 at 12:19
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I don't think you strictly need permission, but I would recommend asking the speaker anyway, out of simple courtesy. People are aware when they give a talk that they are making the information public, and that the audience members may share what they have learned, but putting it on the Internet may speed up that process more than the speaker is expecting. Posting about the talk without the author's consent, or at least notifying them, isn't unethical, but it is sort of "bad manners".

If the speaker asks you to wait, I would suggest you honor that request: partly out of general professional courtesy, and partly because it isn't good politics as a PhD student to get on the bad side of senior people, especially if you work in this area. You may be applying for a postdoc with this person someday. I would guess that at most, they might say something like "We plan to post a preprint in a few weeks; could you hold off until then?"

As a possible side benefit, when you contact the speaker to ask if it's okay with them, they might also volunteer some other information for you to use in your writeup: copies of their slides, further details, a preprint, etc.

If they say it's okay, then as a further courtesy, you may want to send them a copy of your writeup before you post it, to see if they have any comments or notice any errors. Or at least send them a link when you post it, and be ready to respond to any feedback they may have.

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    Apart from manners, there is a second issue at hand here: You need to check that what you are divulging is actually likely true. Otherwise, the following can easily happen: The author finds a mistake and drops the project; people keep learning about it from your blog and asking the author why it isn't published; the author points at you as being the source of the misinformation and the embarrassment. Journalists are rightfully getting criticized for fishing for rash statements; make sure not to look like their scientific equivalent. – darij grinberg Aug 12 at 10:13
  • @darijgrinberg I think that's significant enough to merit an answer rather than a comment. :) – João Mendes Aug 12 at 14:28
  • @darijgrinberg but is it common practice to give talks about results which you do not consider to be likely true? In OP's situation, a talk has already been given. Besides, if a person A publishes a wrong theorem and a person B publishes how to correctly deduce another theorem from A's theorem, are people going to criticize B? I don't think I would criticize B (a situation like this where B was V. Arnold did happen, but I think Arnold did not actually publish the result, he noticed it while rereading his preprint). – sis Aug 12 at 14:33
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    @sis: No one deliberately presents wrong results, but many errors only manifest when writing down the proof, which often happens long after the talk. Talks don't really count as publication; you cannot cite them in your paper. – darij grinberg Aug 12 at 14:42
  • @darijgrinberg I agree with you. I mean that if a person wrote an expository blog article about a result that was claimed by someone in a talk, and that result turns out to be wrong, in my opinion it would be incorrect to criticize the person who wrote the blog (as long as proper attributions were given). The person who gave a talk by giving a talk implied that (s)he was reasonably confident about the result so the blame rests with him/her, in my opinion. – sis Aug 12 at 15:58
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The general way to proceed has already been addressed in Nate's answer.

However, you should note that there are also conferences which have policies which explicitly forbid public use of information communicated at the conference (with the goal of fostering open exchange of unpublished results). The examples I know are the Gordon Research Conferences/Workshops, see. their policy. Thus, make sure to check whether the conference has such a policy in place (in the cases I remember, this policy has also been clearly communicated at the beginning of the conference).

  • This may be a field specific phenomenon - the subjects of the Gordon Research Conferences don’t appear to include mathematics, and I think such a policy would be seen as fairly exceptional in math. – Henry Aug 12 at 3:16
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tl;dr: No, it's fine (but send him a link).

My concern is that he hasn't published the results

But he has published his approach - by giving a presentation about it. And you can only write about what he talked about in that presentation.

Question: Should I contact the professor to ask for permission to write about his research?

As long as you don't misrepresent what he said in his presentation - there's really no need.

As a courtesy, however, I'd email him a note about your blog post with a link to it. If anything bothers him, he can write you.

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