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I've finished masters and I've worked on my independent research for few years but never published anything nor I haven't posted any of my research work in public. The reason I did not publish is that I was working on the project and now I am about to finish it.

Now, I want to apply for a PhD position related to the field I worked in. My question is, should I make my work public first (post it on arXiv and on my personal website and github) or apply to PhD group and send them a paper of my work? I've pondered over both options.

With the first option I think the advantage is that I can secure my idea and no one can steal it. I worked really hard on the idea but is there any good way to secure it, though? The disadvantage might be that no one gave me feedback on my work and a mentor will help me polish my work/paper. Also, when it comes to disseminating and publishing my work I think people will take me more seriously if my work is within a PhD group? I am also wondering what will happen if I send them my paper and then they reject my PhD application.

What's your opinion on this matter and how I can make my work more accessible to other researchers? I do not care much about publishing it if there are other ways researchers can see my work and give me feedback whether my idea is worthy.

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  • What country? Do they ask for a writing sample? Was this project advised? Mar 14 at 17:34
  • I would like to apply in Europe. No, they do not require sending them anything besides CV, cover letter and transcript of records. But there are other positions that might require research proposal. I thought that by sending them my work that can give me additional points since I did something independently. My project is not advised.
    – Tom
    Mar 14 at 18:49
  • "I am also wondering what will happen if I send them my paper and then they reject my PhD application." What would happen? Mar 14 at 19:00
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    Maybe they can take my idea? I don't want to believe that a specific group can steal ideas but the machine learning field is quite competitive. I would be flattered if someone uses my idea since that means my idea is good, but I still want to get some credit at least.
    – Tom
    Mar 14 at 19:16
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    Nobody cares enough about your idea to steal it, they have theirs. Mar 14 at 19:21

2 Answers 2

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First, you don't "own" ideas even when you publish them first. You are owed recognition, but people always build upon the ideas of others.

Second, the act of "stealing" ideas is quite rare, though it does occur. If you talk to people about some insight and never publish it, people will probably either build on it or rediscover it independently leaving you with, at best, a citation.

Third, if you publish incomplete work on arXiv then you are in about the same situation as in the second point. People will think about it, use it, extend it, etc. You will get a citation but not a published paper. Note that arXiv is intended for preprints of finished work, precisely to give other scholars early notice so they can begin to start to think about and extend the ideas.

Instead, in your situation, I would just put a section in the CV for "Work in Progress" and list the projects you have been working on. Perhaps you can use working titles of papers for this. Somewhere you can promise to provide more information if requested. Work in progress is a good thing for any scholar.

Worry a bit less about other people's potential plagiarism (yes, it does occur) and more about presenting your work honestly, including its current state. The people you come in contact with as part of an application process are probably the least likely to try to scoop you, though even that happens.

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  • I am fine with a citation :) I would actually like it if people are extending my idea. I don't see much difference putting a paper in arXiv and publishing it in a journal. The only difference is that you can meet people and make connections on conferences. That's a good idea with the work in progress. I guess I will push myself a bit to finish the project and then possibly apply with new research proposal based on my previous work.
    – Tom
    Mar 17 at 11:16
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If your idea is feasibly patent-worthy, consider going that route.

If it is not all that practical, I would not worry about it at all unless dealing with dubious ethics, and in some cases probably even then.

My bigger concern would be the intellectual isolation you are in now. Even if you are very bright and work very hard, it is likely that someone not as skillful or hard-working would accomplish more by simply having more people for the job. Few would care about your results then, and the inability or unwillingness to work in a group is more of a damning quality rather than a redeeming one.

Finally, if you are able to pursue the research independently without worrying about funding - I envy you. If not, however... Publish more frequently, worry less about the ideas being stolen and more about being too slow and with nothing to show for your efforts.

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  • I am against patents. I want my work to be open sourced so other people can use it and possibly extend it if they like it. You are right, a group of people would have possibly done it faster. I would like to work in a group but only if I like the work that they do. Yes, independent research is difficult but I got supportive parents that let me stay for free, otherwise part-time job seems like a possibility.
    – Tom
    Mar 17 at 11:11
  • @Tom I see; in that case, preprints or any other form of public dissemination will do. Still, absolutely don't simmer in there by yourself if you care about getting credit - I'm speaking from experience here; not only was I slow while working on several topics, I also have a long list of results I've produced but never published which ended up discovered by someone else years later. Bad for science, bad for me. Working in isolation for prolonged periods of time is really hamstringing yourself.
    – Lodinn
    Mar 17 at 14:37

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