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In 2018, I shared an idea with an assistant professor from another university. I shared this because this is an idea many people are working on and are developing approaches to solve it. My PhD advisor himself is not the one from this problem area, so I had little help from him. This is a project I prepared and developed, as other sections of my PhD were getting done. The other section of my PhD use the solution developed by this project. I thought this solution could be a separate chapter and a good paper itself.

Being from biology/genetics background I am very familiar with the problem and solution I came up with. I had to learn python programming on my own to write solution to the problem. In the beginning I had difficulty putting maths together and writing it into a programming language (python). Nevertheless, I achieved more than I had expected by learning myself and by getting a lots of help on stack overflow.

I thought that sharing this with the one working on a similar avenue might give me some insights and corrections if there is any. The professor (from another university) received the email and said it was “interesting” and was looking forward to reading the paper, in just 2 lines. I received no further communication in following months and I felt that he/she did not had a time to look into it.

This is the idea I have been trying to develop in my PhD since 2016 and I had something prepared by early 2018. I shared this idea around the mid of 2018. Around the end of 2018 I had some health issues which was going on for about more than a year. The health issue had become chronic and I had to take a break for little more than 2 years. And I just recently (2021) started on the process the last couple of months.

I recently realized that the professor had taken my idea, twisted it a little bit, gave it a new name, and published an article (a single-author paper) in 2019. When I came across the paper, I was really shocked because the idea was so similar to the approach I had developed. He included some sophistication because he is mature than me in terms of academic training. This incident has frustrated and angered me over his non-professionalism. If only he/she had just mentioned me on the paper (saying that there was an unpublished work on progress) or consulted me on it I would have been fine, but he/she just took the idea and changed a little bit to make it look his/her.

The work I had shared with him/her is on Github as public repository. The reason I put it in public mode is because I was less worried about it being stolen. I find people in academia to be honest, and I also wanted other people (especially biologists) to use it and help develop it by receiving feedback, and questions. I did receive interests from other academicians. These are the links to work I had put on github and question I had asked about it several times on stack:

I have prepared an email response about this violation (a draft) to that professor (who I had shared my idea with), and had almost sent it. But, I am currently gathering myself to prepare for how to respond to this. I have also cc’d the head of the department and dean of the arts and sciences of that university. However, I expect he/she will be defensive about it and even possibly be worried and angry. So, I want to think with a cool head and develop a more professional approach to handling this problem.

How do I take this forward? Please help.

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  • So are you sure that the professor was not already working on something similar? As you note, many people were working on it...
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Nov 21, 2021 at 2:32
  • The professor had a collaborative work published with someone else but that was not similar (the approach) to what I had proposed. Other academic people are also working on the problem but they are looking it from the level of the population. I however started looking into the problem from individual level - assuming that taking the slow approach and solving the states of one individual at a time helps provide better solution. What surprised me is that he took the similar markov chain approach with a little advanced maths/stats than I had proposed. I am very sure he was inspired by my idea.
    – everestial
    Commented Nov 21, 2021 at 2:46
  • I do not know how it will be possible for me to talk about the details and grain of the subject here in stack. But the approach I had developed was not what others were doing. Suddenly after I share the idea, that particular professor took the similar approach just in less than a year. Plus that professor never had a single author paper before. People working in similar fields can readily tell how a simple hint of an idea can give them an insight about each-others work. I am quite confident he was inspired by my idea. I know the burden of proof is on me.
    – everestial
    Commented Nov 21, 2021 at 2:52

3 Answers 3

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This incident has frustrated and angered me over his non-professionalism

Don't. Being prepared for the open conflict is not the same as having pent up frustrations, and building yourself up for a big dramatic entrance involving their higher-ups is most definitely not a great idea at all. Speaking of which...

CC'ing their dean is a fairly bad idea as well. The university wants nothing to do with that and will, in general, protect their own staff in cases of lab rivalry (which is the territory you're stepping into). If needed, the correct escalation of this conflict would be to the journal editorial board: they're the ones responsible for the integrity of published articles. A retraction based on plagiarism would hurt that professor's reputation/standing within the university way more than you would achieve making noise next to their dean's ear.

Most importantly: get an impartial evaluation of whether this scooping was so heavily reliant on your idea. At very least, try to get your lab head's advice on this: even if that's not their subject area, you must be able to articulate how your idea was unique and how that perceived offender has reused it, and their extensive experience with research in general might be enough to evaluate your claims.

Finally, if you establish that the offense, indeed, took place - email that person directly first. State that you felt unfairly left out, be direct but not aggressive. Maybe it was something as innocuous as they forgetting the origins of the idea (provided they have not used the code in your github repo) and publishing an erratum to that article giving you proper attribution is possible. If they prove uncooperative at that stage, raise the matter with the journal editorial board, as stated above. The best way to protect your rights is by taking one step at a time - if you go all out from the very start, it may very well fizzle quickly if the other side simply states "oh sorry my bad what could we do to rectify this?". If this happens, it is you who would be perceived as making lot more noise than needed, potentially putting you into the category of people one would rather not work with nor would recommend anyone doing so.

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You catch more flies with honey...

I have prepared an email response about this violation (a draft) to that professor (who I had shared my idea with), and had almost sent it. But, I am currently gathering myself to prepare for how to respond to this.

If you would like to write to this professor about the incident, I recommend you avoid referring to this as a "violation" (or using other accusatory language) in the first instance. A reasonable opening email on the subject would simply let this professor know that you are upset that you weren't acknowledged in his paper (or even invited to work with him on it), and you feel that you should have been. It is reasonable to share your feelings on the matter, but you should come at the situation with an open mind and give this professor a chance to explain his own thinking on the matter. In particular, you could reasonably solicit his opinion on what reliance he had on your work and why he chose not to acknowledge your initial idea in his paper (or offer to work with you on the topic). If you can write your email in a way that lets him know how you're presently feeling, but acknowledges that he may have a different perspective to you (which you are open to hearing), you might get a sympathetic response.

It is unclear from your description whether there has been an actual academic integrity violation, but it seems doubtful to me based on your description. While it can be a bit nasty in some cases, working on a general research idea you heard from another person does not necessarily require citation, co-authorship or acknowledgement. Nevertheless, it would be reasonable for you to communicate to this professor the fact that it is difficult for a PhD student to come up with publishable research ideas and progress those ideas into papers. Consequently, it sets you back when more experienced researchers take your research ideas and progress and publish them ahead of you. (And contrarily, if this professor had offered to work with you on the paper instead, it would have been very helpful to your learning and your candidature.) That is something that I think most professors will be sympathetic to, and it might be a useful learning experience for an assistant professor to improve his dealings with PhD students --- it might also be something that a junior professor isn't already cognisant of.

Of course, if you have reason to believe that this was an actual academic integrity violation then you can certainly escalate things after your initial contact. That is an option available to you if you feel you have an actionable case. I recommend starting off with an email that is polite in tone and seeks concilation rather than initial conflict. You might find that it is a learning experience for a junior professor, and if you frame things in conciliatory terms you might receive some sympathy for your position (and maybe even an offer of collaboration in the future).

Finally, one last thing to note here is that this incident can be a learning experience for you in regard to the ability of experienced researchers to progress your research ideas ahead of you. While you ought not close yourself off to the research world, you are now aware of the possible adverse consequences that can accrue when you share your ideas too broadly and too early. As you progress your research career you will get better at judging when you have a sufficient research head-start to safely share your ideas without being "scooped" as a result.

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I will briefly play kind of devil's advocate here.

First: was it your only idea? it is a pity, but now you know you can do good things.

Second: if you cannot swim against the flow, go with the flow. Write that professor, and discuss the possibility of extending that publication in a more consolidated work. You know, this way you put your foot on the topic, and you will still work on your "starting idea".

Third: it can really be that you sparked the light in that person's brain ... and then he forgot completely if he heard about the new idea in a conference, in a workshop, in a coffee chat. Yes, you know you triggered his thinking ... but are you sure he still remember you and your email?

Fourth: you can easily ignore the paper from that professor, work on your idea and send it to peer review. Or complete your thesis, whatever applies. Then after you completed your task, you can get in touch with that professor. Not to confront him/her, but to find a productive way out of this situation for you.

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