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I've just discovered that a former colleague is now working on some research ideas that I developed and laid the groundwork for now that I have left academia following failure to obtain funding. I'm happy that the work is being done, but feel that it would have been courteous to let me know that they were doing so. Are either of us in the wrong here?

History: I did my PhD and a 3-year postdoc in a UK lab where we were expected to act very independently. As such I developed my own line of research during my PhD but didn't have time to publish the results until after I'd completed. I wanted to keep working on that line of work, so wrote a grant proposal with my supervisor, who acted as PI (I was named postdoc) which we were awarded.

During the postdoc, for complicated reasons, I developed another strand of independent research, with some guidance from a research fellow in the lab.

This strand then formed the basis of a large fellowship proposal that I was nearly awarded, but ultimately was unsuccessful. The fellow in the lab (who had a proleptic lectureship) acted as the academic host for the proposal.

Following a number of unsuccessful fellowship proposals, I undertook another postdoc for a year, then decided to take a different job and am now a software engineer at another UK university.

Situation: I've recently seen on twitter that the fellow who I had been working with (now lecturer) is now working on the project that I had proposed for my unsuccessful fellowship bid. We've had little contact in the intervening time and they've made no attempt to discuss this with me.

I know that it's kind of clear that I'm following a different path, and I'm happy to be doing so. But I'm a little upset that they wouldn't even send me an email to say "Hey, remember the stuff you came up with, well we got some money to do it etc.."

Am I wrong to be upset by this?

It's a small field, and my experience of my 7 or so years working in the area was that we all tried to be collegiate and courteous and not step on each others' toes. So this seems a little out of sorts.

I don't think there's anything to be done about this, but it has got under my skin for someone I trusted to have no qualms about using ideas I worked to develop whilst I had to leave the field to find work.

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    Your colleagues need to avoid plagiarism, by not presenting your ideas as their own. So, acknowledgement may be required here, but that is all. It would have been courteous, of course, had they asked you to participate. – Buffy Feb 26 at 14:24
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    +1 to @Buffy's comments, but I will add that it's a common assumption that someone who has left academia is typically not interested in keeping up with it. So I would give the other party the benefit of the doubt that they didn't bother to mention it to you because they assumed (possibly wrongly, but reasonably) that you no longer had a stake in it. I've had a few collaborators who've left math and I don't tell them (or sometimes even those still in academia) every time I do something based on our earlier joint work. – Kimball Feb 27 at 0:58
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    Ideas deserve to live. Originators deserve credit or at least the opportunity to credit. You should have been told. I even sometimes let past students I have contact with - no longer in academia - know what happened with their ideas, even if just for the interest. – Captain Emacs Feb 27 at 1:24
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    Don't you feel like a "well we got some money to do it" email could be rubbing your nose in it, especially if you haven't been in touch in some time? I can see an email if they publish something substantial, but how would you feel receiving a "so we're going to work on this without you. hope you're well" email? Would that actually make you feel better, or just bitter that you're not a part of it? – Zach Lipton Feb 27 at 5:28
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    If you find this upsetting, you're reeeeally not going to like industry. – user3067860 Feb 27 at 12:16
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Is it okay to work on colleagues' ideas after they leave academia?

I'm going to be blunt: yes, absolutely yes. What is the other option? That the progress of humanity should be stifled because you didn't get a job?

Ideas do not belong to anyone. The way I read it, you did not even come up with the idea independently, but "with some guidance from a research fellow in the lab". Look at it from the fellow perspective: they helped someone develop a research proposal, the person didn't get a job and the grant wasn't awarded, the person left academia, and (correct me if I'm wrong) made no effort to keep in touch with the fellow and/or work on the topic again. What is the fellow supposed to do now? Trash the idea, waste all the time spent helping the other person?

This happens all the time of academia. Supervisor helps a student/postdoc develop a research proposal, the proposal fails, the student/postdoc leaves academia. Now what? Is the idea not good anymore? There's no reason not to continue working on it.

Now let's answer your apparent actual question:

I know that it's kind of clear that I'm following a different path, and I'm happy to be doing so. But I'm a little upset that they wouldn't even send me an email to say "Hey, remember the stuff you came up with, well we got some money to do it etc.."

Am I wrong to be upset by this?

I'm not going to tell you that you're wrong to feel something. But if the question is "did the fellow act reasonably", I would lean on yes. It depends what your relationship was, but based on what you've told us, the idea has been developed a long time ago (several unsuccessful fellowship proposals + a year of postdoc + since whenever you took the software engineering job, as far as I can tell), and it's not clear you kept in touch with the fellow. What is clear though is that you're not working on the idea anymore. At some point it becomes fair game.

I don't think there's anything to be done about this, but it has got under my skin for someone I trusted to have no qualms about using ideas I worked to develop whilst I had to leave the field to find work.

Academia and life in general is not just. Yes, it's unjust that you were unsuccessful and had to quit when you proposed this idea, but the other person is apparently successfully working on it. But this other person cannot change what happened or give you the job. I don't know you or your situation, but it sounds more like you're upset about having had to leave academia more than at your colleague.

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    Over time I've had various ideas of 'mine' worked on by other people independently, and I'm quite happy that somebody got around to pursuing them. And, of course, as for most experiments, they never worked out as expected - the process of turning an idea into a finished publishable experiment is a difficult expedition into the unknown. – Jon Custer Feb 26 at 13:52
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It depends on the dimension of "it's okay":

  • On the ethical dimension, your colleague did nothing wrong. Ideas don't belong to anybody, and it's a routine thing to happen that a group of authors follow up on an idea devised by another group of authors (for example, an idea mentioned in a "vision" paper, or a "future work" section of a paper).
  • On the dimension of interpersonal relationships, your colleague pulled off a bit of a dick move, and it's legitimate that you're a bit annoyed by this. Since you devised the initial idea together, they should have had the courtesy to ask you if you want to be involved in the work.
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  • For your second point, it does depend on whether they're still in contact. If he's still meeting his ex-colleague regularly, and they have each other's emails, then sure. If they don't meet often, or only maybe once a year at conferences, then not so much. – Graham Feb 27 at 8:46
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    @Graham I don't agree. If the old idea is good enough to pursue it, then the colleague who co-developed the idea with me is good enough to be invited to the new efforts. Lack of contact information might be a valid reason, but only if the other party made at least a minimal effort to find the present contact information (like a quick Google search). – lighthouse keeper Feb 27 at 8:52
  • YMMV then. If it was a couple of months later, maybe. A couple of years later, everyone's moved on. The fact that your work has gone somewhere is a bonus then, but you're past having ownership of it. – Graham Feb 27 at 10:23
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    The second point may depend somewhat on field. If you're in a lab science, for example, then it's not easy to "involve" you in the work, while if it's mathematics that'd be much easier. – Noah Snyder Feb 28 at 19:36
  • @NoahSnyder Potentially yes. In my own field, which has some lab fields aspects, it's possible to contribute to research without being physically in the lab, for example, by discussing the study design and writing the manuscript. But it could be different in other fields. – lighthouse keeper Feb 29 at 8:06
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The courteous and customary thing for your colleague to do in such a situation would be to mention you in the Acknowledgements section of the first publication that results from the work (and perhaps subsequent ones, depending on further contextual details).

Until a publication materializes, I wouldn’t have thought that any action on their part to notify you of the project is expected.

Human emotions being what they are, it seems meaningless to say that you are wrong to be upset. But your colleague hasn’t done anything wrong so far as I can see.

And, in general, it is completely okay for anyone to work on anyone else’s ideas that they are aware of, assuming it is not some sort of competitive situation where a colleague tells you about what they are working on or plan to work on in the imminent future and there is an implicit or explicit expectation that you will not take advantage of this knowledge and work on the ideas yourself.

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  • +1 for the third paragraph. Of course this is upsetting, it'd be upsetting even if they had contacted you, because it's upsetting to experience rejection and loss and it's upsetting to be reminded of that. Your feelings are reasonable and justified regardless of whether they handled this correctly. – Noah Snyder Feb 28 at 19:39
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If you have any interest in pursuing this, one approach would be to contact those concerned and say "I'm thrilled that you're keeping this project going -- feel free to contact me if you need to". This can save them a ton of trying to retrace your steps.

This would, of course, be accompanied by either a subtle hint or a blunt statement that you hope your earlier contributions would be recognized with authorship at publication time. I'd lean toward blunt statement, personally.

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