I met a Chinese colleague in a conference, where we identified a research topic of common interest. So, we agreed on collaborating on a project and started exchanging some emails about the project, where we came up with a clearly defined project and preliminary results (including R codes and statistical models). This happened in the course of around 3 months after he went back to his country.

Then, he started taking long time to reply to my emails, claiming he had internet access issues until one day (at around 6 months after we met) he stopped replying. So, I just thought he was not interested in the paper anymore. However, around 2 years later, I saw the paper published in a top biostatistical journal. At first, I was dumbfounded to see it was exactly the same idea, same formulation, just with the remaining bits and pieces completed. Two more authors were included in that paper. I emailed my colleague to "check if he wanted to continue our collaboration" but got no reply anymore.

I went on a rollercoaster of emotions, thinking of emailing the Editors (I have emails and drafts and code), but then I decided to leave it to Higher Powers in Life.

My question is, in general, what is the Ethical thing to do when you find your colleague publishes a paper on something you contributed, not only to formulate, but also to develop.

  • 6
    I feel very sorry for you and admire your open mind. I don't have enough knowledge to answer your question, but I can add a little background for this kind of issue. It really depends on whether this colleague belongs to a Chinese research institution or not. Based on my humble experience, the Chinese government generally ignores and even encourages academic misconduct. This is to say, he could have done similar things multiple times without taking charges from his own institution. I don't know about the US but I highly doubt he could do the same thing there.
    – Kato
    Jul 30, 2021 at 8:42
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    Wow, not nice. Unless you have proof of misconduct that would be accepted by a journal, you have little to resort to. Strike them off as a bad investment. Who knows, karma will strike at some point. Jul 30, 2021 at 12:07
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    Send an account of the incident (without any judgement and accusation, like the one you has written here) to the head of his department.
    – Name
    Jul 30, 2021 at 14:12
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    I admire your attitude. However, by not doing anything, you allow (and a bit encourage) this behaviour. From the community's point of view, it would be better to report so this behaviours stops. I do understand, though, that for you it may be much better not fight and leave it be.
    – Aolon
    Aug 2, 2021 at 1:05
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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. If you have an answer in the comments, please consider moving it to the answer box; otherwise it may be moved to chat or deleted.
    – cag51
    Aug 2, 2021 at 3:27

2 Answers 2


You are facing two different possibilities.

One option is where you put the incident aside and move on.

The other option is relevant when you have evidence that your work was used to generate the publication without an appropriate acknowledgement. The three legal levels of proof of misconduct are presented at this link. Start at the lowest level (preponderance of evidence). You might for example be able to determine, on hand your previous notes, that preliminary results or source code from your email exchanges appear in the publication. If so, you can decide to prepare to contact the journal editor and make your case to be included in an errata, listed for example as co-author. If you take this choice, you may want to present your case first fully to a trusted colleague at a higher (more senior) level to assure that you remain objective in your statements and that your arguments are logically sound, doing so before you write to the editor of the journal.

Whichever path you choose, you may take an underlying lesson: When you put forward an idea and, for whatever reason, do not lead it diligently to its end, you may loose it. Your final response has to be divorced from the emotions of the loss, even though emotions are appropriate from this incident. I too would feel rather betrayed either by my own inherent trust in the good-will of others and/or by the behind-the-back stab of a clever thief.

In summary, by taking the second approach, you will pursue a somewhat legal path when you can find evidence (and self-confidence) to support it. By taking the first first approach, the words of a friend of mine might strike home ... "Oh well. It seems I lost that one. Next!"


You can report this problem to the editor of the journal, and send the relevant email with the corresponding information.

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