I'm about a year into some exciting research, with some early results that many professors are interested in following the progress of. I have two advisors.

I recently learned that my graduate classmate, from a different lab, has been shopping my ideas around, interviewing with other labs at other universities, apparently to try to do something similar, gain a collaborator, etc. He told he did this, which made me uncomfortable.

He's also contacted one of my advisors, he says. I believe there is no stopping him at this point. He will likely contact my second, more renowned advisor too, with the goal of working with them, and knowing about all of my recent progress in research, since him and I are very close friends.

I feel he's behaving like a leech and acting like a desperate leap-frogger. And I regret talking so much about my progress, which he now uses and shops around, perhaps misrepresenting the ideas and techniques as his own.

How should I deal with these feelings?

On the one hand, I feel he has complete freedom to contact whomever he wants, and shop whatever unpublished ideas he wants, to build his own career. On the other hand, I feel like I am just supplying and enabling a plagiarist.

Should I cut contact with him, or be proud that he is excited about my work and wants to emulate me?

I don't contact his advisors or shop his ideas around, for example.

  • 3
    Why are you sharing ideas with him? His actions sound a lot like plagiarism. – Buffy Nov 11 '20 at 23:15
  • 4
    Don't you talk to your own advisors about your research? If you do, won't this student's "ideas" sound just like what you've already done when he contacts them? – Bryan Krause Nov 11 '20 at 23:25
  • His behavior definitely sounds strange. Have you requested that he stop? – academic Nov 11 '20 at 23:39
  • 1
    If “many professors are interested in following the progress of” your research, how could your “friend” claim them as their own? This all sounds very strange. – gnometorule Nov 12 '20 at 4:32
  • 1
    You can be friends with someone without talking about work, or talking about it in only very vague terms. After all, how else can theorists and experimentalists make friends? :) I would suggest you keep your ideas and progress to youself for a while, until you have a publication out. – astronat Nov 13 '20 at 0:07

"Loose lips sink ships."

They say being copied is the sincerest form of flattery, but it does not pay the bills, doesn't get your name on papers and does not get positions.

Be careful what you share and accept that what you share with this person stops being yours.

Forget being flattered by being followed - he's not a follower, he is a stalker and profiteer.

"Friend" - perhaps for fun indifferent chat, as long as not relevant to your career. Cut him out from your research unless you accept that your successes may be credited to him, with you having to fight an uphill battle to regain your credit.

You shared CV with him: I guess you now will find a clone of yours competing with you. Sorry for being so blunt. The biggest problem is now that this guy is fast. So, you will now begin looking like the person copying, because what you do in painstaking elaboration will look like what he already advertised he is doing. The copy will be seen as the original, at least for a while.

On the good side: You have only started your career. You can still change your future. Stop sharing what you do not want to have copied. Do not share your plans, your research, your CV with this person for whatever you want yourself take credit for. If you want to help them, be sure to be fine with the fact that what you offer them is not a loan; it is a gift. You won't get something back.

There is the advice to directly ask them to stop using and presenting your material as theirs. Only you can judge whether this is a strategy that has a chance of success. If they are really "desperate" or a "leach/leap-frogger" (as you say) it's very unlikely that they will stop, in the first case because they are too panicked to do so, in the second, because they would have to go against their personality. However, if you really believe that they may just do not notice the damage they do and a chat might help, you could try and talk sense into them.

However, I believe that you might be better off simply beginning to cut off the trickle of critical information to that person; you can remain pleasant and friendly and kind and, in fact, their "friend" (if you see them as such), just obstinate yourself to not tell them things you do not want them to use.

  • 1
    Thanks, Captain Emacs, for the many lessons in your answer. Yes, it's good to learn this early on -- better now than later. – user131585 Nov 13 '20 at 3:11

What you describe sounds very odd. It's hard to know exactly without being party to the conversations (and you don't know exactly what this person is saying to others about your work), but my initial impression is that this is more likely to hurt your friend than you. I also wonder if they're in a good space - it sounds less like someone trying to build a career and more like someone who might be a bit lost and confused about their own directions.

That said, it would absolutely be appropriate for you to ask that they stop talking about your work to third parties. It's one thing if it happens to come up in related conversation centered on their own work, it's another thing to shop it around actively, whether giving you credit or not. There are definitely kinder ways to phrase this and harsher ways. I'd probably start with kindness just because they are more likely to react positively. You can thank them for being excited about your research, but share that you'd like to spread your own work and ask that they not discuss it with people besides you.

You can also simply stop sharing such detail with them, without cutting them off completely unless you also choose to do that. If they are upset, I think it's reasonable to remind them that when you told them more they told other people, and that you'd rather talk about (any other topic). If they react aggressively, it may then make sense to get other people involved at your institution.

I'd also suggest having a conversation with your advisor(s). It doesn't need to be in any depth, and you don't need to set aside a separate meeting. Just mention that you've been talking about your research with a friend and you were surprised that they then conveyed it to third parties, and ask whether they think you should do anything about it. You don't have to accuse them or provide proof of plagiarism - you can just say what has happened and let others judge for themselves. They probably won't suggest there is much you can do, but now they'll be aware in the future.

Otherwise, keep moving forward and push towards publishing the things you have, like you would be doing anyways. If you have near-publishable work, consider discussing with your advisor whether it could be released as a pre-print. Whatever you have told this person about your progress so far, you have a huge head start on them, it's your research. Unless you think they'll actually be able to somehow beat you to publishing through their machinations, which doesn't seem likely from your description, they aren't too much of a threat.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy