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I have been doing some research for my masterthesis. I had a supervisor for this task, who was (to my opinion) quite harsh and unhelpful in his feedback. I pursued it nevertheless, and continued on the work that I had been doing; but got somewhat annoyed.

Some time ago, he sent me a (edit: yet unpublished) paper by one of his colleagues (with whom he had previously been working with) on a topic that somewhat overlaps with the topic I had been working in. 3 out of the 5 concepts that I used in my paper are also presented in this paper (with a somewhat different name, but the construct on its' own is the same); although the actual question, and other concepts were also added to it - so it's not quite a copy-paste, but I had a sense that this (not yet published paper) was in some ways inspired by my work. The most troubling aspect I found was how my supervisor treated my ideas as 'unoriginal' and also did not give me much support throughout my work while he then send me something that I felt was actually originally coming from me.

I have contacted already a third person about this (edit: an ombuds-person, who is also a professor at my faculty), and am thinking about sending to my supervisor regarding my disappointments and questions about this issue later on, once I finished my exams and obtained my master. But I don't expect much helpful answers back (I am slightly resentful of that moment, and I am wondering how I can do this at the same time politely and honestly).

I was wondering whether anyone had some similar experience, and could help me figure out what I should do? Should I let it go, later on? Do I also have any say in this?

It is not only my own personal situation that worries me, it's also about all future students who might have him as a supervisor who might go through something like this - which is everything but a nice way to finish a degree.

So if anyone has any experience, I'd love to hear about it.

Update I send an email to my promotor, in which I somewhat mentioned my problems. He replied to me back that he was sorry that he was not more present to help me, that I should tell something to my advisor and that he will be there to support me if there is any conflict; that definitely something needs to be fixed here and that he is willing to repair the wrongs. So to anyone feeling stuck in a similar situation, I guess my best advice would be: talk about it, and with as many persons as you can - you might not have the answer directly from one person at one moment, but it also just helps figuring what the problem is in the first place. Thanks for everyone having replied in the comments, that was really nice & helpful! :)

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    Do you have any concrete evidence that the colleague of your supervisor actually used or even knew about your work? Is the third person you consulted a more experienced academic? While I am not doubting that some foul play might have took place, your description fits the "oh, someone already did it" scenario that happens so very often to everyone. So it would make a difference whether the third person advising confrontation is a student moved by your bad luck, or a member of a faculty that senses something's off.
    – lemon314
    May 22 at 12:25
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    and was there any message from your supervisor with that paper of their colleague, any reason they send it your way? I've been in the similar-ish situation, but the email from my supervisor started with "I'll contact them right away and make sure they cite your work properly!!!". Consider that your supervisor maliciously sending your work to their colleague for them to steal it, and then not only not concealing the fact from you but making you aware of the paper prior to its publication - that would be quite a bold move.
    – lemon314
    May 22 at 12:53
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    I have no idea myself why he would send it to me. He told me "Be careful; this is an unpublished manuscript so don't share it. Look at the logical structure of it - maybe it can inspire you for your own paper!" Like I would be using the things from that paper in my own paper. I was quite shocked. I didn't do it, of course. And he didn't mention anything about mentioning me.
    – Marvinsky
    May 22 at 13:25
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    Oh and he said in the comments of a draft of my second paper: "Oh well, what you found (this and that) we actually already knew about it."
    – Marvinsky
    May 22 at 13:37
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    @Kat I understand your feelings of disappointment and resent, but there really isn't anything you can do about this, since you cannot prove that your ideas were taken. Complete your masters instead; if you annoy your advisor too much he might not give you the masters, so better be safe than sorry. One thing to note: if this repeats again and again, you should find another advisor; if this occurs again and again you will need to draw a line between what the advisor should and should not do.
    – user758469
    May 22 at 18:52
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I have contacted already a third person about this (edit: an ombuds-person, who is also a professor at my faculty)

This ombudsperson is probably the person best suited to give advice about whether misconduct occurred and what your options may be. Given that you are already talking to an ombudsperson, I would not want to add my own speculation into the mix.

[I] am thinking about sending to my supervisor regarding my disappointments and questions about this issue later on, once I finished my exams and obtained my master.

Your instinct to wait until after finalizing your degree is probably a good one. As for the advisability of writing such a letter at all: well, I am afraid I do not see much point. Certainly it seems unlikely that your advisor will say "Egads! I have seen the error of my ways and am overcome with remorse!" Your desire to protect future students is admirable, but unless the ombudsperson recommends further action, I suspect your options will be somewhat limited.

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  • Thanks @cag51! (loved the quote: "Egads! I have seen the error of my ways and am overcome with remores!" - I think this is exactly why I dread sending him an email, because it obviously seems like he didn't see the problem). I ended up emailing as well with my promotor, who was supposed to mentor me but did not. He wrote me a mail back, apologising. I now think that my advisor just didn't realize that this paper was somewhat related to mine; or that he has a different opinion on what 'plagiarising' means. I will wait until after my degree is completed, just too much to handle for me otherwise.
    – Marvinsky
    May 23 at 8:35
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There is no way for us to know which (if any) of the following two things is true:

  1. your supervisor stole your ideas, wrote a paper about them with one of their colleagues, and is now feeding it back to you;

  2. your supervisor and a colleague of theirs had been submitting a paper of theirs two years ago, it has been going through a tortuous and so far unsuccessful peer review process, and in the meantime your supervisor asked you to work on variants of parts of those ideas for your Master thesis.

If you cannot conclusively rule out option 2, do not assume that option 1 is actually the case.


As extra anecdotal evidence: a PhD student of mine approached me two months ago with the idea to collaborate on idea X. However, in 2019, another PhD student of mine had started working on a variation of that idea, let's call it X'. The paper on X' has just been accepted and appeared online in a journal publication three days ago. I haven't yet talked to the student with idea X about the paper on idea X', because I think that X and X' are different enough to merit separate publications, and the paper on X' had not yet been published. But if the student with idea X now finds the published paper and reads the abstract, and if they reason like you do, they will think that I stole their idea on X.

You might be in the same situation here. You might not. It's impossible for us to know.

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  • Thanks @wetenschaap for your reply. You are right that my description is somewhat vague. The subject I have been working on was unrelated to any project my advisor had been working on (long story short: due to corona I needed to come up with something new, and I came up with that idea which he thought was good). And the paper he send me was very recent; he only send me a draft - so it is submitted, but I think only recently so. But it is exactly as you said: I had been working with X, and that colleague worked out X'; I didn't know about this, which was frustrating.
    – Marvinsky
    May 23 at 8:39
  • Especially because he didn't give me much support, while he knew of this other project on which I myself could find some help to work out and build up on my own project. But it appears to me that he didn't see the problem; I am not sure it was with any bad intention. He is a very young PhD student, and might not be aware of certain implicit rules/ethics concerning this (this is of course my own interpretation, it is hard for me to get to the ground truth)
    – Marvinsky
    May 23 at 8:41
  • Can I also ask: did X' follow from X, or did they just appear in parallel? And what if X' came because of X? Should the person offer to be a co-author, or at least be up to date about this related project? I am myself still a student, so I do not know what should and should not be done. I personally had a hard time seeing X' being worked out, while I was still working on X and received so little support on it.
    – Marvinsky
    May 23 at 8:45
  • X' and X appeared in parallel. But notice that you have the timeline wrong: we had already been working on X' for two years when the other student approached me with the idea for X. The paper on X' only made it through the review process just now. I haven't connected these students, because I feel that X and X' are sufficiently different to warrant independent publications. But if they would read each others' works superficially, they may draw the conclusion that you have drawn. Both X and X' are a deviation from what I typically work on, so the situation you describe is not unusual. May 23 at 13:13
  • I understand; That makes a lot of sense. You are right: it might be possible that I have misinterpreted the situation - and as I have mentioned previously: I have no strong evidence that it was happening otherwise. But I personally would have liked to know somewhat of the work of this colleague, because it could have helped me then to strengthen my own project.
    – Marvinsky
    May 23 at 15:10

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