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I was employed as a post-doctoral fellow at some institute, and left it a couple of years ago. When I left, it was on ok terms with my host (= person who invited me and arranged for funding for my stay) - although our relationship had not always been on the positive side, and we ended up collaborating only here-and-there rather than closely. We both have a negative view of some aspects of the other's personality.

Anyway, I've noticed that members of the research group - some junior ones, but also my host - have published a certain paper a few months. This paper is mostly not about my own work, but it presents a certain concept which (*) I was studying and developing; these ideas are now in work that I've published - but mostly on ArXiV and not in peer-reviewed venues. I've also sent an email link and an invitation to read it to a bunch of people in my field - including my post-doc host and one of his junior co-authors.

The paper does not mention any of the above; makes no reference to my work or to me; and says something like "In this paper we introduce the concept of X".

Now, my work is much wider than just that concept (it fits into a larger theoretical framework); and the paper does something with this concept which I didn't explore nor write about. So it's not a case of brazenly stealing results.

A final point is that this work of mine has not yet gotten any (non-self) citations, which makes this situation sting more.

My questions:

  1. Considering the circumstances, should I even get in contact with my former host and/or other co-authors about this, or should I just drop it? Especially seeing how this paper is already published and has made its rounds for a few months? I am worried that this will just develop into a fight involving third parties, a sort of a "crusade run remotely" on my part, and end up hurting more than it helps.
  2. Assuming I do contact my former host about this - How diminutive/coy/reserved should I be in a first email about this?
  3. What can I / should I ask for as a rectification of the situation?

(If you'd like more information, please ask in the comments.)

  • What does a solution look like to you? Do you want a citation? Also, are you quite sure you deserve a citation? If the paper you complain of is genuinely a body of original work and thought in its own right, and arguably it only just touches on the same topic as your work, then why potentially get dragged into bickering with someone you don't like? – Steve Jul 4 at 0:16
  • It's unclear why you think there was plagiarism. Failing to cite related work is not necessarily plagiarism (though it is bad). – Anonymous Physicist Jul 4 at 9:44
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: Rephrased the title to not commit to that term. I am not very knowledgeable about the different "crimes and misdemeanors" in academia. – Hadyn Ryley Jul 4 at 12:21
  • Steve:1. I'd like some form of recognition/apology, at least to me, by the authors; and a rectification of the paper being published without crediting my work and my ideas. But I'm not sure what exactly that would mean. 2. In a sense, that's not possible, since the paper is already published and the conference in which it's presented has already taken place. The paper doesn't "only just touch" on my idea, it bases itself on it and does something with it; that something is not my work, but the basic idea - discussed in the initial part of the paper - is mine. – Hadyn Ryley Jul 4 at 12:48
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First, please remember that human memory is fallible. People have honestly forgotten work done by their students or their postdocs or even themselves. So I'd be inclined to assume, unless there's evidence to the contrary, that your supervisor has forgotten your work on the broader concept Y that subsumes the "new" concept X, and that he hasn't had time to study the arXiv preprint that you sent him.

Second, what should you do about it? I think that, under the assumption that no malice was intended, you could write your former supervisor an email along the lines of "It seems to me that the concept X in your paper "[title]" is an instance of the general concept Y studied in my paper "[title]" [arXiv link] which I sent you a preprint of a while ago. I hope that my work on Y will be useful to you if you contiue to explore X." It seems to me that something like this should alert him to pay attention to Y and cite you in further work on X. (Of course, you can put personal things like "I hope you are well" before and/or after the main message.)

I think you're unlikely to get a citation in the already published paper (unless it has an on-line version that gets updated), but if your supervisor produces more papers about X, you might get some citations in them.

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This type of question is asked often in different contexts, but usually comes down to the same points.

What do you gain by bringing it up? e.g., Satisfaction? gratification? Do you try to get them fired?

Asking your ex-host: Well, if they plagiarized your work, they are aware of it, and clearly did not think it necessary to discuss with you or that it was not ethical.

Since your work has been publicly available on the ArXiV, you could send an email to the editor that published your ex-hosts paper, showing this is plagiarized. Then what do you get from this? A retraction? A reprimand from their department head? Stopping them from doing it again?

If this is more about how you can publish your work in a journal next, I would not be concerned at all with your ex-hosts paper. If it is tangential to your core work, and your manuscript gets a review saying someone published this, you can easily point to your dated ArXiV paper saying your journal paper is just extending that. The dates speak for themselves.

Update:

However, since you also changed the title away from stating it was plagiarism, the assumption is they did not copy your text, but instead your ideas. I would first remember, if you were in their lab and working somewhat on related issues, there is the possibility they had a similar idea. It is not uncommon for people to 'see' their ideas in others papers.

Next, I would consider the issue that you have already put your paper on the ArXiV. If this other paper was not from your ex-host, but rather another lab, what would your question now be? Would it be "how to rectify the situation?" ? If so, the question comes down to "How can I make someone cite my paper?". The answer you are looking for would likely be found in:

Are 'please cite my paper' emails socially accepted?

or

Is it plagiarism and/or copyright infringement if research started from one person but another diverged onto a different path?

When faced with the situation, you must ask yourself what you gain from it. You can say it is not revenge, but it is difficulty for others not to see it this way when you do it to stand on moral ground. As stated above, I don't see how this prevents you from publishing your work (although you don't seem interested in it), and it does not prevent you from claiming you came up with the idea (since you have a dated paper on ArXiV).

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    1. I said I want the situation to be rectified - I don't want revenge. Why are you suggesting that? 2. "Clearly did not think it necessary" - it's really not clear at all what he thinks. It could be careless, an oversight, or something more intentional. 3. I could send an email to the editor without first talking to the author... and that would be like taking a knife and stabbing them. Why-ever would I do that? Honestly, your answer is not helping me. – Hadyn Ryley Jul 4 at 13:26
  • @HadynRyley I am not sure what you mean by 'rectified', or why you consider this different than the questions I pose for you to reflect on, as I did not say revenge. Maybe the issue to accept is that 'rectifying' the situation can end up appearing like revenge. To rectify the situation, you have to make 'right' a 'wrong' that happened. If the wrong was not being credited with the concept, your choice to 'right' this is to have the paper retracted, or a letter to the editor, both raise the questions in my answer. – 001001 Jul 5 at 23:23
  • How does someone carelessly copy someone else's paper? Now that you changed your question to not say it was plagiarism, I updated my answer. You publicly released your idea, and years later someone else also wrote about it. The issue you want to rectify is then not being cited in an already published paper. – 001001 Jul 5 at 23:54

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