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Many months ago I informally explained to another PhD student of my chair the main idea I was working on. Today, 6 months after, I discovered that he submitted it to a minor conference, got it accepted and published. In the meantime, I have submitted a long paper to a major journal, where this idea is one of the key components. The paper has gone through the main revision and is expected to be published in around 3 months.

In the conversation with this person it was only the two of us, and from the deadlines of the conference he applied to, I can see that his submission was before mine. In any case, I have mails with the co-authors of my paper during our work on it, that show that this idea was already fully developed many months before submission. To be exact, I have drafts of this method as early as 6 months before the conversation between the other PhD student and I.

I am worried that since I cannot prove that he took the idea from me, this could backfire in case that is a "him versus me" situation and we look at the proven facts (this is, the submissions dates). My first questions is if the e-mails of my draft are a solid enough proof for avoiding me being accused of actual plagiarism if the situation scales. Also, does anyone has ideas of what is the best approach here for finding a fair solution?

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    Step one: never discuss work with them again.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 18, 2022 at 2:03
  • If I have to think of a worst-case scenario, where it is your word against his word, better to harden up the timeline: when was the conference announced? when did you start your PhD? when did he start his PhD? do you share a common advisor? who are his co-authors at the conference?
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 18, 2022 at 9:46
  • We do have a common supervisor, who barely goes through the papers we publish, so he most likely didn't notice the issue. I'm 2.5 years into my PhD, and he's 3.5 years, about to finish his. Not sure when the conference was announced, is a very low quality one, and it's hard for me to get much information about it
    – JaLo
    Mar 20, 2022 at 1:29
  • Common supervisor, affiliated to the same department, common research area, you have a good publication on the research and he has a contribution to a minor conference ... I suggest you to let it run. If he will ever attack you for plagiarizing his research, the advisor is on both sides, so the attack it is extremely unlikely to be succesful.
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 21, 2022 at 7:49

2 Answers 2

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First and above all: congratulations on your paper being accepted! Let's look at the half-full glass: it is such a relevant progress in your field that one peer of you found it so relevant that he decided to work on the same topic/approach on its own.

Regarding your question, first the malicious thinking, that your peer stole the idea from you. From an external observer, both of you are innocent until proven guilty, but the same facts you expose here can be easily turned the other way around.

If I were your malicious colleague, I would claim that I planned and submitted the work to the conference as soon as it was announced (way before conferences submission deadline, usually even minor conferences are announced one year before), and that I had informal discussions with you during our day-to-day interaction and that you stole the idea from me.

How to protect yourself? You have a solid trace of your work, which is the mail discussing the work with your co-authors dating before the discussion with your colleague. The colleague of yours can claim they started working on that idea many months before your discussion, and either one of the following:

  • the idea sharing with you never took place;
  • he presented the idea to you and you stole the idea from him.

To protect yourself from such an occurence, you should signal to your co-authors that unfortunately someone from your group took inspiration on the main idea of your paper, because you discussed informally with them during day-to-day interactions and presented it at a minor conference. Forward them the contribution to the conference of your colleagues and give them an estimate of the time schedule. Plagiarism is (luckily) taken more and more seriously, better to prepare all of you from such an occurence. Please also signal the situation to your PhD advisor (in person, not via email, this is a confidential topic and you do not want to put yourself in trouble because a misunderstood sentence or an ambiguous sentence that you wrote). You must have had some internal presentation and discussion on the topic before submitting the paper, before discussing the topic, has your fellow PhD similar records of his interest/involvement on the topic?

I unfortunately foresee the chances of your PhD advisor thinking it would be a good idea you start to work with your PhD peer on a follow-up paper on the topic: prepare yourself to defend your ground, stating that such a thing must be obviously discussed with the other co-authors.

However, I would not discount the possibility that your peer was stuck in a rut, thinking about problems to be solved in your field and he found the discussion with you so inspirational that he started using your approach, discussing it with other colleagues in your department (who are his co-authors?) and by affinity in sources, he ended up with a very similar research process and conclusions to the one you reached, along the process forgetting the casual discussion he had with you.

In short: I unfortunately see no good outcomes from this situation. Try to avoid as much as possible interactions with this PhD student.

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A few things, I think:

  1. You do not report having evidence that distinguishes whether your academic sibling simply lit upon the same idea independently other than a single "informal conversation". People independently develop similar ideas at the same time with serious frequency, so it does seem like you're jumping to conclusions on this point. Make sure your email record doesn't get auto-deleted by a system and move on with your life for now.

  2. In my field (applied mathematics), your only responsibility would be to add a citation to your colleague's conference paper (if you get the chance before your paper goes to press), note its contemporaneous and independent development, and briefly note how your manuscript is distinctive. Your paper sounds significantly more expansive than your colleague's and it sounds like the journal you submitted to has already accepted it.

  3. You almost certainly need to talk to your chair (adviser?) about this situation urgently if you haven't already. Do not accuse your colleague of "stealing ideas" as you don't actually seem to have evidence of this. You may want to be particularly polite, I'd call this situation seriously neglectful on their part.

Having a duplication come from the same PhD adviser would come across as a bit odd in my experience, and it's them who's likely to be asked about it if someone external ends up caring. They also have to write both your and your colleague's rec letters at some point and need to get their story straight. You have the longer paper presumably with other co-authors, it's your colleague who's probably in the worse situation.

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