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Can I publish an idea as a paper if somebody else has published this idea in an online forum or a blog?

I believe it's useful to publish good ideas academically because posts on forums and blogs are usually of low quality and have a niche audience. I'm sure some journals will allow publication, even though I'll cite the blog posts. But suppose I want to submit to some high-tier journal like Nature. Will the blog post detract from the novelty of my work then?

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    You generally don't publish ideas in Nature, you publish results. An idea is generally the starting point for your publication, very far from the end of the whole process. And your results can certainly be novel even if the idea is known. Of course you must cite the blog post properly in this case. A collaboration with the blog author would probably be the best way to handle this case, if they are interested. Aug 12 '20 at 13:13
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Whether it is novel enough to be published is up to the editor of a journal.

But you are in danger of plagiarizing unless you are very careful about citing the original idea. The idea isn't yours, but theirs. The "novelty" isn't yours, but theirs. The fact that you noticed that it was something new isn't the same as creating something new.

But even if you avoid plagiarism, you might be accused of scooping the originators if they have plans for more formal publication. I suspect that if they have a paper in preparation and complain to an editor you will be in for some problems.

The best way, I think, is to contact the original author(s) and ask them about publishing, offering to help and working out some details about authorship.

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  • And then you'll be accused of sucking up to them. Aug 12 '20 at 12:33
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    @OskarLimka I have literally never heard about that happening. At worst the OP will be ignored.
    – Spark
    Aug 12 '20 at 15:13
  • @Spark not by the idea's originator, by your detractors, if any. Aug 12 '20 at 23:36
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Let me start with answering whether you can publish an idea that appears in a blog, without getting into whether you should do it, or whether it is ethically acceptable.

The status of ideas published in non archival venues such as ArXiv is vague; this is even more so for ideas put in blogs/discussion forums (such as SE).

Different venues take very different approaches to non-archival publications. Some venues do not count them as prior work for the purpose of determining precedence and novelty, others do. In other words, the writer of the blog post may not have any real recourse if you take the idea and publish it. You could always claim that you came up with the idea independently and no one could fault you for it. As anecdotal evidence, the current consensus in some CS communities is that ArXiv publications do not count when assessing novelty (and blogs/forums are ignored).

To an extent, such publications are protected by two things:

  1. Their impact: some non-archival papers have thousands of citations. It would be ridiculous to try and publish the same ideas because everyone in the community knows where they appear. Some authors don't even bother trying to publish these works and rely on their popularity to "protect" them from being scooped.
  2. The prestige/community standing of the authors. If some big-shot professor puts up an idea on their blog/on ArXiv, it is less likely that their ideas will be plagiarized since their standing in the community ensures that no one will try to rip them off.

I personally think that these two protections aren't great - especially (2): this is because they offer big-name researchers (and their students/group members) an unfair advantage in terms of getting their results out first.

Now getting back to whether you should do something like this. The answer is a clear-cut no. First of all, you probably won't publish first: if someone puts a good idea on a blog, chances are they had already started working on it themselves and are just previewing parts to the public. In any case, taking an idea from a blog without referencing the original is plagiarism: it's unethical, permanently damages your permutation, and is just not nice.

Nothing is stopping you, however, from either reaching out to the authors, or elaborating upon this idea yourself and publishing the additional results (again, with reference to the original). This is definitely allowed.

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