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I'm a PhD student in the US. During my PhD I gave many conference talks, seminars, and presentations at our group meetings. In my talks, I often mention a creative way to phrase a problem, sometimes in a form of a scientific joke, sometimes as an interesting metaphor. These are always inventions of my creative insights that I had while preparing the talk/slides.

A couple of times I later caught my supervisor using the same creative ways of phrasing the problem in his talks. He applies this in places where he talks about the same or a slightly different problem. This happened in at least two of his keynote talks (where I was present in the room) and one lecture from a course he was teaching that I happened to hear a recording of later on.

I can understand his motivation as it might be the same as my motivation. When I do that, my main goal is to help the audience remember an important message from my talk, but it's also to entertain the audience (there's many boring talks already!), or challenge the audience to think differently about a problem. It's likely that his motivation is the same.

Nevertheless, this really bothers me. I can't make up my mind though if I'm right to be bothered by this. Does my supervisor do something that isn't "right" here? I never heard him mention that this way of phrasing the problem or this joke or metaphor comes from me. If he at least said something like: "one of my students says here that ______", I would feel okay with this.

Should I be open and tell my supervisor that this bothers me? I realize that (unless there is some form of misconduct, like IP breach, here) he might think it's a foolish thing to be bothered about. And I'm open to the possibility that he might be right thinking so. If I'm exaggerating, what is a more healthy way for me to look at this issue?

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    I think it's worth indulging in a brief mental game with yourself. Consider that the supervisor credits you as the creator of the joke or metaphor. An audience member, a supervisor at another university, remembers the metaphor/joke. How would you feel about them simply telling their colleagues that they heard a great metaphor used at the conference they went to. Or do you want the 2nd person to remember that it was you, who they never met, that was the author? Answering the question (for yourself, not here!) might clarify what it is you want. Perhaps to be more appreciated? Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 12:23
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    Calling somebody (not only your supervisor) re-using your jokes and metaphores an "IP breach" indeed seems like an overreach. I wonder how often you re-use the metaphores your teachers and supervisor used, directly or in a new variant? I do it all the time, and I suspect so does everybody else. Heck, it feels like half the examples used in science these days are basically communal property because they have been recycled so often.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 14:20
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    Pragmatically, if you have a reasonable relationship with your supervisor, then let them know that you would appreciate some informal acknowledgement or call-out every once in a while. Other than that I would honestly try to let it go.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 14:21
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    If you are not a stand up comedian who is supervised by a professor who is also regularly doing stand up gigs, I do not see how it is an issue.
    – Greg
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 14:27
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    People often remember a good joke without remembering from whom they heard it. Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 19:14

9 Answers 9

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As the old saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Ideally, we all want presenters in academia to get as good at presenting topics as they can, so it is reasonable for your supervisor (or any other academic) to make use of the useful metaphors, jokes, etc. you have developed. We sometimes expect that they will do this in a way that gives credit to the original source, but this is subject to the exigencies of conversation or presentation. Good presentations are usually much more loose about sources than papers, so in this context a person might use a metaphor, joke, etc., without crediting the source. If they are doing this repeatedly then you would expect at some stage that they would give some informal credit to the source (if it is not already well-known), but again, this is a fairly informal expectation.

As a general rule, academic supervisors are reasonable people and if there is something bothering you about the relationship then you should raise it with them for discussion. Let your supervisor know that you are glad he likes your metaphors, jokes, etc., enough to use them in such important speeches, but you are concerned that (absent some credit to you) his greater visibility in the profession might make it look like you are copying metaphors, jokes, etc., developed by him rather than the other way around. Ask him if he would be open to having you both brainstorm some ways that he could drop in credit to you so that audiences who see both of you present are aware that you are the developer of the relevant metaphors, ideas, etc. You might find out that he is already doing this in contexts where you are not present (e.g., he is already giving you credit for the metaphors, jokes, etc., in conversations with other academics). Alternatively, you will at least see if he is symapthetic to your problem and receptive to the idea of giving you more credit.

If you decide to have this conversation, I recommend you first rethink your idea that your supervisor is doing something inherently wrong in using your metaphors, jokes, etc., and instead focus on getting some credit (and certainly there is no IP issue here so don't raise that). If it were me in your shoes, I would stress to my supervisor that I'm happy to see my ideas were useful enough to use in a keynote speech and that I appreciate that academics will naturally draw ideas and methods from others where they find merit in these ideas and methods. Approach the conversation in a sympathetic way where you exhibit understanding of your supervisor's goal of giving high-quality presentations. See if your supervsor is receptive to reaching an accommodation that pleases you both.

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    The copyright law would like a talk with your old saying :)
    – WoJ
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 11:20
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    @WoJ There's a lot of criticism of copyright law, in many fields. Even academic norms, old as they may be (in certain fields), are often at odds with the requirements of copyright law: various legal actions are plagiarism, and various common practices are illegal.
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 13:09
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    You could make an IP issue of it. Similarly, you could jump from a second story balcony to see what happens. Neither seems remotely like a good idea.
    – fectin
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 13:28
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    Thank you. This answer helps me the most to look at this in a more relaxed way.
    – user166549
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 17:19
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    Indeed, if you come up with something original, it's going to be reused, and may even go viral. I once made an original remark on a forum that turning PDF into XML was like turning hamburgers into cows; I was in the audience when a presenter used exactly the same analogy at a conference talk ten years later. Nothing you can do about it. Just take it as an indicator that you're a successful communicator. Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 12:50
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Firstly, please remember that you are a PhD student, not a professional comedian.

Secondly, it might not be a good idea to use someone else's jokes while intentionally pretending as if they are your own. However, there are many exceptions*, and even if he had intentionally done it for his own gain, it would have not been possible for you to know whether it was his intention.

You should also know that we do use jokes invented by other people all the time with or without acknowledgement. Often, we just don't know or remember who invented the jokes, or we just use the jokes naturally without even thinking about it. Sometimes, it is not necessary at all to acknowledge the ones who invented the jokes because it is a norm (*).

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    Downvoted because scientists—just like comedians—can become known and appreciated for their funny, memorable, illuminating ways of looking at things. If the OP's jokes and metaphors are good enough to enrich an established researcher's keynote talks and lectures, they're good enough to burnish to the OP's reputation. By re-using them without credit, the advisor is passing up a chance to boost his student's career. He even risks tarnishing the OP's reputation by making the OP's creative work sound less original, as Ben describes.
    – Vectornaut
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 5:47
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    agree with @Vectornaut -we desperately need good scientific communicators, and being funny can be a big part of that. Like, great that your supervisor likes your way of communicating enough to copy it, but it could be a problem if, say, you're just about to give a talk after them, and so it looks like you've just recycled what they've said
    – lupe
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 9:13
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Assuming your witty remarks are not the core of your talks; i.e. you're not working in a marketing or writing related field, are not comedians, or anything like that, I would suggest to learn to live with this.

Things to ask yourself:

  • Does it hurt you or your image in the field if your superior is doing that?
  • Is your previous use of that joke diminished by your superior using it later?
  • Is there any risk that these jokes end up in print and someone thinks that you are the impostor?
  • Does your superior gain anything from them that he does not already gain from the core of his talks? I.e., is there a chance that he will get invited to future talks instead of you, so directly hurting your chances to talk?

If none of this is the case, and you can not think of any other (probably even more convoluted) ways this would harm you, then let it go. In this case, your superior is not hurting you. He may gain something for himself by being able to talk more enjoyable than without your contribution, but again - it does not hurt you. Guess what, you are gaining from his support as well; you are a team.

As he is using your jokes, he is obviously not able to come up with his own, at least not as easily; or he finds yours so hilarious that he can't help but use them. Or he takes inspiration from your more casual way of giving talks. All of that is an indirect praise. He can hardly put in a small reference for each joke he learned from you. Either he is not even aware that he heard the joke from you; or he is aware, and even though nobody else knows, he does, and his contact to you is thus slightly more valuable to him than if it weren't so - and this also makes it slightly more valuable to you, since you have an ever so slightly more tight bond to him in this way.

Is your superior doing something outright wrong? Speaking from a law point of view, words or sentences are very hard to protect against re-use. Copyright hardly applies here; it is only concerned about "works", i.e. literally making a copy of a physical thing. Ideas, concepts, facts and so on are not protectable by copyright. Repeating a joke will not pass as copyright infringement in any court, anywhere. Frankly, were I to witness you two using the same joke in two different talks, I would either not really notice or care; or I would feel your superior slightly diminished for having to re-use the joke from somewhere else.

I don't think you should be talking to your superior; but if you do feel that this issue is nagging at you, do contact someone about it. Maybe your uni has some kind of counsellor which you can book a 1:1 with to discuss the issue - not to clear up any misbehaviour of your superior, but to figure out how you can shift your own view to handle this well.

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  1. Write him a joke about how his sense of humor would have run dry long ago if it weren't for his PhD students.
  2. Ask that he deliver that joke along with the others.
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    This is a great solution.
    – barbecue
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 14:31
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    This can come off quite offensive though. It's a good self-deprecative joke, but those jokes rarely work out nicely used on others, for a good reason.
    – Neinstein
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 14:44
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Yes, he is doing something that is not completely right. But it is not enough of a big deal to be worth complaining to him. If you complain, he is likely to think that you are being foolish or unreasonable.

You could say something in a friendly and light-hearted way, when there are just you and him present, like "I enjoyed your talk and I noticed that you used my joke about xxx again!" and then see what he says. But you have to say it in a nice way, like you don't mind him using your jokes at all.

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I think there's a different issue underlying this to do with your desire to be seen as a peer not a student.

However there is also an old saying about knowing which battles are worth fighting over and which are not.

Fighting this battle might simply not be worth the cost.

Should I be open and tell my supervisor that this bothers me ?

Consider first your own reaction if someone came to you and said "Hey man, you used my joke without giving me credit for it."

If you already have a bad relationship then raising this issue won't make it much worse but it's unlikely your supervisor in that case would do anything positive for you or stop using your jokes.

If you have a good relationship it might work out, but it risks turning a good relationship into a bad one.

All in all I'd say it's a pointless risk with little chance of an upside for you. And at this point you need to ask yourself exactly what an "upside" or "victory" would do for you ?

I realize that (unless there is some form of misconduct, like IP breach, here) he might think it's a foolish thing to be bothered about.

Yes that's possible.

I think the real issue is something else. It may be about your desire to be recognized and acknowledged by the world or maybe just by your supervisor. As a PhD student you naturally want to be seen as becoming a peer with your supervisors and teacher. That is, after all, the goal. But that does not mean that you have to chase every opportunity to get that acknowledgement. It means you need to focus on the Big One : completing your PhD successfully. When you've got your PhD you can argue about who uses your jokes without acknowledgement as much as you like, but I suspect when you've completed your PhD this won't seem as important to you.

Give this some thought.

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Revel in it. Noting somebody else's comment about your being a student rather than a comedian, but if you are known to be both a competent worker and somebody who can coin a memorable and relevant bon mot it will almost certainly be to your advantage.

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Make sure you have a blog where you write down these jokes, analogies and whatnot, making it clear they are your own invention. If you prepare it for a lecture, make sure it's in the lecture notes. Include it in papers.

Someone reading your material who heard it used without attribution by someone close to you will instantly know.

It may even be the case that if the "perp" borrows exact wording from your version, then someone curious about the joke, wondering whether it's online somewhere, will be led to your page.

I think this is the best strategy. Don't reproach, don't pick any fights. Just passively assert your authorship through publication. The passage of time will do its thing.

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Devil's advocate here.

You are living in a physical world very similar to your supervisor, in terms of life experiences (living in the same region, going to the same conferences, etcetc.). You also live in an intellectual world very close to your supervisor.

We are all unique individuals, but in terms of the outcome of our brain's processes we are way less unique than we think. Given that you are not a professional comedian (nor your advisor), a joke/funny rephrasing is something that is done by your brain as a "side product" of its skills.

It is quite likely that your advisor heard the sentence/joke from you, that their brain stored it somewhere (in the very short-term thinking "hey, user166549 really nailed it", in the short-term "hey, my student really nailed it" and afterwards "hey, that was a cool way to express that concept") and nowadays they do not recognize anymore as the product of someone else. If this is the case: congratulations, you are good at nicely exposing your ideas and you know how to make something stick in someone else brain, this skill will be of tremendous help when you have to do talks and especially when applying to a future position, you know how to leave a mark!

Let's play a mind experiment: let's assume that what you said is an easy creative phrasing that anybody with 5 years experience in your field and a bit of interest in outreach can produce. In this case: congratulations again, you are part of the expert on the topic and you speak the same language as the expert (and therefore if you think your ideas have been stolen: congratulations, do not worry a research project is 5% idea and 95% implementation)!

Final remark: exposing creatively an idea or a concept is a soft-skill. Do not worry about appropriation: the audience is capable of distinguishing when you say something creative but taken from someone else, and when you says something creative that you forged. In the first case the creative sentence stands out from the talk ("nice talk with almost out of context funny remarks..."), in the second case it blends into the talk setting the tone of the talk as a whole ("very interesting talk!").

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