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I pointed a professor (my major advisor) to a resource (a data set), in an email exchange during the beginning of the semester, he published a paper based on this data set several months later, however I had no idea he was working on the project. He did not notify or mention to me about using the data set.

The email that I sent to him earlier when I pointed out the resource had no reply back, however it did indicate in his response that he did not know about the existence of this data set.

When I had a brief (15 minute) meeting with him, he denied that the data set was my idea and said that it was his research colleagues who he got the data set from. I must mention that this data set is freely available and open to the public (online).

My questions are: Is this professor's behavior ethical? and Would I be able to bring this as a complaint to a higher person in the department (since I have email evidence that he did not have knowledge of this data set prior to my informing him).

My final question to you all is whether I should stay with this person as a major advisor because I am having trust issues with sharing my ideas. The only problem is that anyone else I might choose as my advisor would result in me completely changing my area of research. Thank you.

Edit: Responding to the commenters, when I met with him in person, I he mentioned a paper which he authored, and when I asked for the citation he refused to give it to me saying, "I'll think about it". While my gut feeling is that I should change advisors, the other people in the department are not involved in my area of interest, and the other person who is conducting research in this field refused to be my advisor. What would you do in this situation?

Edit: Thank you for everyone's responses. Perhaps this was just a misunderstanding on my part.

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    Welcome! I would separate this into two separate questions; it seems the second one ("Should I work with someone I'm not sure if I can trust?") might require a bit more background to be answered on its own. – artificial_moonlet Nov 15 at 15:11
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    It would help to know your area. Pointing someone to a data set is not necessarily a significant contribution to the research, depending on the field. I'm guessing something to do with machine learning? – Johanna Nov 15 at 15:12
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    @Johanna, agreed. It seems a bit thin as stated. Especially to conclude that it is time to change advisors. – Buffy Nov 15 at 15:18
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    Your edit doesn't make any sense to me... he mentioned a paper about what? Also, if there was no reply to your email, how does the response indicate he did not know about it? – Bryan Krause Nov 15 at 16:48
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    @Emily I don't think anyone else has addressed this: your question, especially as a student, is totally legitimate. There are lots of nuances one has to learn while working on a doctorate, and it's not always obvious how to approach them. I laud you for asking these questions. – artificial_moonlet Nov 16 at 8:11
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On more than one occasion, a student has pointed out a resource to me that I am already familiar with. In those situations, I always thank the student but don't always mention that I was familiar with it. I don't lie and say that I hadn't seen it before, but see no reason to bring it up (since doing so might make them feel slightly disappointed). If it is open data which has relevance for their field of study it is quite possible that they were already familiar with it. Perhaps in their e-mail they meant that they were unfamiliar with a certain source that contained the data, even though they were familiar with the data itself from another source (such as, from research colleagues who presumably were aware of the source).

The fact that he published a paper several months later is strong evidence that this is indeed the case. The time frame seems too small for him to have begun the research after your email exchange, found something which was publishable, written the paper, and gotten it through peer review. Obviously I don't know the specifics of the case, but I find it implausible that he was unethical in the way that you claim.

I don't see any reason for you to switch advisors. If you unjustly accused him of dishonesty, the real question is if this advisor would still want to work with you as a student. Unless you have evidence which goes beyond what you have communicated here, an apology might be in order.

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    @Emily Glad to here that, but the way that you said the professor "denied" being indebted to you on that point suggests that you informed him that you thought that he was. It seems that at least something of that sort happened. – John Coleman Nov 15 at 16:13
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    @Emily If so -- why did you say "he denied that the data set was my idea"? It sounds like he denied nothing but simply affirmatively answered your question, albeit not in the way that you had hoped. – John Coleman Nov 15 at 16:22
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    @Emily To come up with an idea, write a paper, AND get it through peer review in a couple months, is most likely not possible with reputable journals. I agree that it is implausible. – Morgan Rodgers Nov 16 at 1:43
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    @T_M True that we don't really know, but OP talks about "the beginning of the semester" for the original e-mail and "several months later" for the paper, which suggests it is all within a single semester. Furthermore, it isn't just peer-review, OP seemed to think that in an astonishingly short period of time, the professor looked at a data set for the first time, did research on it, wrote a paper, submitted it, and had it published. Possible perhaps, but more likely than not the paper was already in the publishing pipeline prior to OP's original e-mail. – John Coleman Nov 16 at 15:41
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    "I don't lie and say that I hadn't seen it before, but see no reason to bring it up (since doing so might make them feel slightly disappointed)"... I'm sure offering them a cup of coffee and telling them "Actually, I'm already working on that. But - excellent find! I'll have to remember your name. You've got an eye for important details!" wouldn't disappoint them either. And might spare you future problems like this one. – jvb Nov 18 at 7:39
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I'm addressing just the first and what seems to be primary question:

Is this professor's behavior ethical? and Would I be able to bring this as a complaint to a higher person in the department (since I have email evidence that he did not have knowledge of this data set prior to my informing him).

Quite simply, no, I don't think your advisor violated any kind of ethical code of conduct and I don't think you have grounds to complain to a higher-up. It sounds like you just pointed out the existence of a data set; if you didn't also make some kind of project proposal or conjecture, it's hard to see how your actions constitute a protected idea. Furthermore, even if you did share an idea, what constitutes a research paper is much more than data and an idea: tons of work probably went into processing the data and extracting publishable results from it. The most I would expect from this kind of interaction is maybe that he mention you in the Acknowledgements section of the paper; but if he genuinely doesn't remember you sending him the e-mail, then even that might be a stretch.

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You pointed out a dataset and had a 15 minute conversation with your advisor, and now you are expecting credit for it. This certainly does not warrant authorship (even under the most lenient definitions of contribution I can think of), and perhaps not even an acknowledgement. Bringing this up to the department head will not do anything to help since it sounds like you have no cause. If I were your advisor and you came to me asking for authorship over this I would have found it rather off-putting (and probably would have had a serious conversation with you about authorship and credit).

Generally speaking, chasing credit for every little thing that you contribute paints you as petty and makes people not want to share ideas with you. If you let that happen, you can seriously damage your research career. Sometimes you contribute ideas, sometimes others help you; if it's minor stuff that requires minimal time commitment from you, I wouldn't think of authorship.

That said, you don't want to be a pushover: if you sit in brainstorming sessions, contribute significantly to the analysis, help with developing and writing the paper - by all means you should be an author, and fight for your right to be one!

Should you stay with this advisor? I would say that if this is the only issue, then they did nothing wrong and you should. If you do not trust them and feel like this cannot be repaired by a simple conversation, then perhaps you should reconsider. I would think though that if you have this kind of attitude towards research you will have a hard time finding a good fit for an advisor - you should probably reconsider your position.

  • Well I didn't ask for authorship. I know it doesn't warrant being given credit in that way. But I do feel slighted. Thank you for your perspective. I do understand that research is about give and take. – Emily Nov 15 at 16:17
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    @Emily if you don’t want authorship or acknowledgement (the options I cover), what do you want? – Spark Nov 15 at 16:22
  • Upvoted, especially for the second paragraph – Vincent Fourmond Nov 16 at 10:58
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    I once had dinner with a friend and she said "why don't you use <this and that> in your thesis?". It was a passing remark which took maybe 2 minutes, and which significantly changed the way I approached the problem and made ~50% of my thesis and two papers. I certainly made sure to profusely thank and credit her in the thesis and the papers for the idea. The length of the conversation is not always relevant. EDIT: I am referring to the first part of your first your sentence - not the overall hunt for credit discussion, here I completely agree with you. – WoJ Nov 16 at 21:09
  • I think @Emily wanted an informal "thank you" from her supervisor. If the supervisor was unaware of the data set prior to the project, that is warranted. However, it seems very possible that the supervisor was previously aware of the data set through collaborators, and simply either forgot about it or didn't let Emily know they were aware of it in reply to the initial email. – WetlabStudent Nov 18 at 7:15
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Let's flip sides here. Your professors have pointed you to many ideas and useful resources (e.g. textbooks) in the subjects you study. Some years later, you will probably be writing a paper based on the techniques you learnt. Will you credit all your professors in it?

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    Maybe you could find a better example? One might contest your analogy since textbooks are in general not creditted while papers are. – user115896 Nov 15 at 20:27
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    @Heutl The answer is not talking about credititing the textbooks, which are parallel to the data set in the original question, but crediting the professors who pointed out the textbooks. This is exactly parallel to the original question, where the OP pointed out a data set and seems to want credit for that. The OP has no papers about that data set to reference. – Curt J. Sampson Nov 15 at 23:38
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    @CurtJSampson: of course. But this is not what I said. My argument is that one can say "hey, I would never credit textbooks, so I do not need to credit the profs who mentioning them - they just mentioned common knowledge." This is different with a data set which is presumably not common knowledge. (Indeed, I often saw an acknowledgement "Thanks to X to pointing out paper Y" but never "Thanks to X for pointing out textbook Y".) So I do think one should use a better example for the analogy then textbooks. Do you understand my point? – user115896 Nov 15 at 23:57
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    This seems like a bit of an irrelevant comparison to me. Not only is the advisor-student relationship asymmetric in nature, but textbooks do not compare with the data set that a study is based off as point out in other comments. – T_M Nov 16 at 7:52
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    A better analogy would probably be "Maybe your professors pointed you to some papers. Now some years later you write a paper based on some papers. Would you credit the professors who pointed you to those papers?" – user115896 Nov 16 at 23:41
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I was acknowledged in a colleague’s phd thesis as I showed him how to use the statistcal functions in excel.

I did not expect any acknowledgment at all...

If you had produced said data set then you may have some case but as it was publically available and others seem to have found it as well then I don’t think you deserve acknowledgment.

  • Being acknowledged in a book (with your name in a list with dozens of other and often including a section for this) is different from being acknowledged in a paper (which is limited in space and where normally you either are an author a cited author or nothing). – Quora Feans Nov 17 at 17:19
  • @QuoraFeans the issue is about the level or amount of work... – Solar Mike Nov 17 at 17:40
  • Your colleague was probably trying to establish blame ;-) biostat.mc.vanderbilt.edu/wiki/pub/Main/TheresaScott/… – Scott Seidman Nov 18 at 17:02
  • @ScottSeidman no, he passed and was one of the best that year... – Solar Mike Nov 18 at 17:42

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