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I'm developing a paper right now based upon some of my preliminary results, and I'm attending several conferences to present and get some feedback on my results from other experts in my field. A thought occurred to me that because my work is yet to be published, I there is a potential for others to steal my idea and publish before I get a chance.

I'm probably over-thinking this, and there is little chance of it actually happening. But I'm curious how frequently this happens in scientific domains. Do people go to conferences to steal ideas? If it does happen, how can I best prevent it from happening? Obviously, I want to share my ideas with the world, but I don't want to lose a chance to take an idea into fruition. What should/shouldn't I share about my research before it is published? Should I simply wait until my paper is accepted before I go on the conference circuit?

Update:
My field is computational science (not to be confused with computer science).

  • 3
    This really depends on the research culture in your field, your academic career stage (student, postdoc, pre-tenure, or tenured), how close your ideas are to fruition (= publication), and the specific people you talk with. Have you asked your advisor? – JeffE Jun 10 '12 at 20:35
  • I agree with @JeffE you should at least specify a field. The answer for biochemistry will not be anywhere close to the answer for mathematics. – Artem Kaznatcheev Jun 10 '12 at 20:45
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    If you have coauthors or an advisor, you should definitely check with them. This is the kind of thing that can make a collaborator or advisor very upset if their idea about it is different from yours. – Nate Eldredge Jun 11 '12 at 3:12
  • I wonder if there's a nice social networking research problem here :) - given a finite speed of dissemination, and a finite risk of unauthorized replication (followed by dissemination), which version of the meme will "win" by taking over more of the graph of connections :) – Suresh Jun 11 '12 at 15:25
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    @Suresh: If only I had the time to pursue it :) – Paul Jun 11 '12 at 17:33
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As some comments note, answers will vary dramatically by field, but it seems better to have a bunch of answers for different fields to one question, instead of having people ask the same question a dozen times for different fields.

For math, if you're talking about a completed, submitted paper that hasn't been published yet (say, because it's still being refereed), you should feel free to talk about it; the submission date proves your claim on the result, so it can't really be stolen at this stage. (Also, you already put it on the arXiv, so it's already public, right?)

Suppose you're still writing the paper, but the results are completely solid. There are good reasons to tell people about the result: you may be want to discuss ideas for how to build on your paper, you may want to give people a head's up that the theorem is coming---say, so they can use it to prove things themselves, and you may want to establish a partial claim on the result in case someone else is doing the same thing. There are also good reasons not to tell people: even though you're really awfully sure the result is solid, there might still be mistakes; routinely announcing results well in advance of the paper can negatively affect your reputation; someone could use your ideas to write their own paper faster. (There's an interesting phenomenon where once people know a theorem is true, it becomes easier to solve; sometimes a problem is open for a long time, and then abruptly solved multiple times in a short period.)

Taking these together, I'd advise not to announce a result until the paper's finished unless there's a strong reason to do so. This is particularly true early in your career, when it's more likely that you'll mistakenly believe a proof was really-definitely-totally finished. (I was given this advice when I was in grad school, and while I haven't followed it 100% of the time, I've never regretted following it.)

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    re math: I know an author who got an important result. He put it in the arxiv and submitted it to a big journal. Within the year while the paper was being refereed, another group generalized his result and, acknowledging his preprint, got their result published. The original's author paper was rejected, and thus became unpublishable. – Martin Argerami May 13 '14 at 13:27
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This will really, really depend on the field you're coming from - or even the sub-field. Take two examples:

  • Mathematical epidemiology: If I present a paper with a nice infectious disease model, with the equations, the parameter values, and some numerical results, but I haven't tackled anything analytical yet, you could very well - if you could get all that down - beat me to publication.
  • Observational epidemiology: I could tell you everything about my study but, without access to the raw data, you'd have to go find your own multi-year hospital acquired infection cohort to study. Good luck with that. And if you still beat me to the punch? Well, I probably deserve that.

Generally speaking, for in-progress stuff, I present enough for people to know what I'm doing, comment on it, etc., but not enough to fully replicate the experiment without coming to me for more information. For example, some folks I'm working with struggled with whether or not to present a theoretical result without its implementation done yet, because someone could scoop us with the implementation. We decided for the audience I was presenting to, that was...unlikely. For another audience? They'd get the theory in broad strokes, but without enough information that the theory alone is enough of a springboard to run with the paper.

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I say give all the details and don't hold anything back. Most researchers do not want to enter a first to publish race from that far back. People tend to work on similar topics so getting scooped is bound to happen. This doesn't mean your ideas were "stolen". I think you are less likely to get scooped if you let people know everything you have done and where you are going. This lets people get out of your way or approach you about collaboration.

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