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Context: I have a (IMO, very interesting, and rather significant) mathematical conjecture. I communicated this conjecture to a professor at my university; he is a respected expert in the topic. He says he has not seen something like my conjecture before, that it is very interesting, and that he would like to share it with his close colleagues. I tell him yes, and that I have some related conjectures.

Now I'm shifting nervously on my couch wondering what will happen.

In the past, even single theorems on this topic (partitions) have been published in journals as high-roller as the Annals. My question: In the event that my conjecture is proven true (by my professor, or one of his colleagues which he sent the result to) and is sent to a journal, even if I did not majorly assist in the proof (I am a first-year undergrad student, I can only do so much!) is it reasonable to request I be listed as an author, since the conjecture is mine and I am the one who shared it?

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    "is it reasonable to request I be listed as an author..." No. It is not reasonable to request, nor is it reasonable to expect to be listed as an author. But depending on the relative values that conjecture and proof bring, you may be in a good position to start a collaboration. E.g., does your conjecture bring new insight into a problem? Is the proof relatively trivial? Does the resulting theorem allow you to answer some new questions? – ssquidd May 20 at 19:09
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    @ssquidd OP should not necessarily be coauthor, but the conjecture should be named after them: "OP's conjecture". – Captain Emacs May 20 at 21:57
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    I think it is quite reasonable to expect to be a co-author because without your conjecture there would be no paper at, so you basically found what to prove. – onurcanbkts May 21 at 9:15
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    @ssquidd it's not reasonable to request? Are you sure? I'm not that familiar with the norms in mathematics, but that seems fairly absurd to me. – Nathaniel May 22 at 12:41
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    @PLL here's what we know from the question: the professor said he hadn't seen a conjecture like this before and that it was very interesting, and he asked the student's permission before sharing it with colleagues. From this we can infer that the conjecture is not trivial and would quite possibly count as a contribution to the work if it leads to results. It may be that it wouldn't warrant authorship in the end, but the student could only possibly find that out by discussing it with the professor, and I think it's wrong to discourage them from bringing it up. – Nathaniel May 22 at 13:13
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Discovering a new and very interesting conjecture is a cool achievement and not an easy thing to do. Congratulations!

About your question, it’s quite possible that your having come up with the conjecture would warrant coauthorship. But it’s possible that it wouldn’t - it’s impossible to say until the conjecture actually gets proved. The issue is that for some mathematical discoveries, the mere statement of the theorem is the more difficult and substantial part of the discovery, in the sense that once the statement is known, finding the proof is not terribly difficult; whereas for other discoveries, it is finding the actual proof that is the difficult part that’s considered more impressive and worthy of recognition.

And sometimes it’s both: for some conjectures, both the people who discovered it and the people who proved it became quite famous for their respective achievements. One such example that comes to mind is the alternating sign matrix conjecture.

So, for example, if the professor and his colleagues spend the next five years working on a proof of your conjecture and come up with an amazingly complicated 100-page proof, I’d say your claim for being a coauthor is weak to nonexistent (although you should of course be credited for discovering the conjecture). But if your conjecture results in a relatively easy proof of a few pages, you can reasonably ask to be made a coauthor of the paper (or more likely than not you won’t need to ask, they’ll just offer you coauthorship as it would likely be seen as an obvious thing to do). A rather similar situation happened recently with a conjecture in linear algebra that was discovered by three physicists. They communicated their discovery to Terry Tao, and this ended with a joint publication by the four authors that was posted less than two weeks later. See this recent article from Quanta magazine.

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    One should also read the update at the bottom of the Quanta article for the puncline. – Kimball May 20 at 23:30
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    It seems that the fastest way to get any conjecture proved is to communicate it to Terry Tao. – Dawood ibn Kareem May 21 at 18:44
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    @DawoodibnKareem Hmm...seems like a reasonable theory, do you have proof? Or should we pass it on to....oh – Lio Elbammalf May 22 at 18:10
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Dan Romik’s answer excellently addresses your title question. I think it’s also elaborating on a couple of aspects of how the context you describe affects it.

Most importantly: I think the scenario you sound worried about — where the professor and/or colleagues solve the conjecture quickly and write it up, without your involvement — is extremely unlikely. If that happened, it would be quite unethical of the professor. If a conjecture has been publicly announced, then it’s certainly generally considered fair game for anyone to work on. But if an interesting conjecture is communicated to you privately, especially by a student or a junior colleague, then it would be — at least — pretty bad form to work on it further without keeping the person who suggested it involved.

What I would be doing in your professor’s situation — and I think most academics would do something roughly along the lines — is something like the following: First of all, I would try to figure out how hard the conjectures are. Do I know them, or do I easily see that they follow from other results I know? (Presumably not, based on the reply you received.) If not, ask around some colleagues in case they recognise the conjectures, or see a clear relationships between them and known techniques/results; and also think a bit harder about them myself, and perhaps do a bit of literature search. (It sounds like your prof. is at this stage.) Depending on what I can find/figure out at this stage, then:

  1. If someone recognises the conjecture as known, or as an obvious consequence of existing results (where “obvious” means roughly “if you show someone the results and the conjecture side by side, it’s easy to see that the conjecture follows from the results”), or, conversely, if the conjectures are false for similarly known reasons: Then I’d write back to the student to tell them, and congratulate them on (re)discovering an interesting fact, and suggest keeping in touch about research project possibilities in the future (depending on what kind of projects the department’s programme offers). In this case, we’ve all had a fun problem to solve together, but nothing is publishable. This is honestly the most likely scenario — not just for a student suggestion, but for most questions anyone comes up with. That’s just how research is!

  2. If it looks like the conjectures are not obvious but are approachable using techniques within the student’s reach/background: I would suggest that the student works on this as a research project, under my or a colleague’s supervision. (Again, this will depend partly on how “student research projects” fit into the department’s programme/curriculum.) I’d aim to stay fairly hands-off, and giving no more guidance as the student needed. If this goes well, it could well be publishable, with the student as first or sole author.

  3. If it looks like the conjecture is best approached using deeper theoretical tools, beyond what the student can be expected to master in a short time-frame, but is reasonably approachable using those tools, then I might work on it myself or with colleagues, but certainly also keeping the student involved in the discussions (both to introduce them to the techniques involved, and give them the opportunity of contributing if they get up to speed enough on the techniques). This might well result in a paper, probably including the student as an author. (If the conjecture was interesting enough to spark such a project, then it’s most likely enough of a contribution to merit authorship.)

  4. If I and colleagues can’t easily see how to approach the question at all, I’d congratulate the student on finding an interesting and difficult problem. I’d keep it at the back of my mind, and if I later have an idea on how to approach it, I’d proceed as in case (2) or (3). If it’s interesting enough, I might also mention it to colleagues further afield, and would mention that I got it from a student. This is the only case that could reasonably lead to a solution without the student as co-author: if researchers one or two degrees removed from you hear the conjecture, see a solution, and write it up. Hopefully, I would find out (directly or via the grapevine) that they had solved it, in which case I would suggest they at least acknowledge you by name, and possibly invite you as a co-author. In this case, the criteria from Dan Romik’s answer for whether you deserve co-authorship or just acknowledgement would apply.

In all cases: if the conjectures are interesting and novel enough that a solution could be publishable, I would certainly make sure to keep the student in the loop about anything subsequently done with them; and I think most academics would consider it unethical if the professor didn’t do so.

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Check out Beal's Conjecture.

The conjecture was formulated by an amateur mathematician named Andrew Beal who wrote to ~50 number theorists & journals. He got some responses affirming the novelty of the conjecture, and the conjecture is now named after him.

If someone proves (or disproves) the conjecture now, though, I doubt he'll be listed as the author. He'll certainly be cited, but if he's not involved in deriving the proof/counterexample, he won't be an author.

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As the professor seems excited, your changes are high that you somehow get credit. I see three routes:

  • They will find some older source, stating (and maybe even proving) your conjecture. You don't get any further credit.
  • They will be able to find a proof or at least a partial proof. Then you should be co-author, as the initial idea is yours and similar as the proof, a building block of the paper.
  • They won't get a proof. Then you should consider to write a short paper and publish the conjecture. Then you get your name on a paper with your idea, the professor will probably help you writing, adding some flesh (citations, explaining the context, literature review) and publishing. They both of you should be author of the paper, too.
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I mean if you can help prove the conjecture then it is a fair ask. I am a life-sciences researcher so I don't know a lot about maths. The more appropriate approach might be collaboration. If you can work with him and prove the theory then it's a win-win for both. Unfortunately one cannot claim authorship for merely asking the same question.

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    OP’s question is specific to pure math, where in fact it is not uncommon for people to get credit, including authorship, for asking a (sufficiently interesting) question. – Dan Romik May 20 at 21:12
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    Oooh okay. Good to know. – Annallise May 20 at 21:21
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I think that's basically what Fermat did. I assume, given that you seem to be an advanced mathematician, that you've heard of Fermat's Last Theorem. Many of Fermat's conjectures, including Fermat's Last Theorem, were proven by someone else. So, in my opinion, it would be reasonable to expect both that conjecture would be named after you and that you would be named a co-author.

Fingers crossed that your conjecture is true!

P.S. I'm also super interested in pure math research!

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    In the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, was Fermat listed as a co-author? – Joel Reyes Noche May 22 at 3:32

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