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I emailed an famous professor a paper (say paper B) that corrects a critical mistake in their old, well-received paper (say paper A). I invite them to coauthor. They neither agree nor disagree. They told me that they were not entirely convinced and had me wait. After waiting for more than two months, they come back to me with a new plan written:

  1. They want to completely rewrite paper A, adding many more new materials
  2. They ask me to coauthor with them
  3. They want to add another coauthor, Jason, because Jason independently discovered similar results as mine.

Note that my discovery is partly published on preprint and Jason's claimed contribution is very similar to my published ones. Jason claims to "never seen my preprint".

In my field every coauthor is equal; there is no first author. Their request is different from what I propose. Their email is written in an affirmative tone rather than an “advising/inquiring” tone.

I worked on this problem for 19 months and shared with many researchers. There is a preprint I posted online dated 2021. So I don't believe Jason independently come to the same result.

I don't know if this is normal for academia. I don't know what to do. I haven't agree or disagree with their proposal yet. What's my best actions here?

Clarification: I don't think the famous Professor is lying. I think he is honest in transmitting information. It is possible to me that Jason is not 100% honest here.


Follow-up: I decided to work with Jason's team. The updates are here: In group meeting, one colleague presents my ideas as if they are his original ideas

Side note: I posted a few questions on the (suspected) unfairness I faced in academia. However, by no mean I'd like to conclude that academia is a dark place. In fact, I've been collaborated on more than 20 projects, and 80% of them were very good experience (put technical difficulties aside). 10% of them has some very minor glitches, resolved internally; there is no problem left to be asked here. Only 2 projects I involved with were a bit problematic, so I ask for advises from independent third-party that I trust (i.e. here).

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    You had the best possible outcome of your efforts and you want to throw them away because your idea is only yours? Ideas are useful when shared, not when they are owned.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 10:27
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    To be clear, you don't know whether Jason independently found this result or not. You won't be able to prove to anyone that he didn't, not even to yourself. It may or may not be true, but I think it is generally helpful between people to assume that they are genuine and honest unless you have strong evidence to the opposite, which you don't have. Commented Aug 31, 2023 at 9:47
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    The idea that since you put out a preprint in 2021, obviously everyone involved must have read it by 2023 and people who claim that they haven't are lying is simply false (and a bit self-centered). You can instead try arguing that Jason should have noticed your preprint, but even that seems a stretch to me if you we are just talking about a random preprint that you uploaded to the arXiv or some similar site. Of course, if you gave multiple talks about your result in a subcommunity that you and Jason belong to, that might be a different story. Commented Aug 31, 2023 at 10:03
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    While I won't give a full answer, yes, it is literally possible for someone to independently discover something two years, or a century, after that something has been published. That doesn't make it publishable, however. But, nobody knows everything in many fields. It was last possible to know everything in mathematics early in the 20th century and not since. Nor can anyone be expected to have found and read everything. That isn't to say that priority has no value, of course.
    – Buffy
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 19:27
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    For the situations you talk about there, fair enough. Anyway, it's not me you have to convince. Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 22:52

3 Answers 3

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A few years ago I found a group working on the same problem I worked on. My code had been online for years, and so was theirs. I looked through and was shocked by how similar their code was to mine -- parts were even line-for-line identical!

I didn't think "they stole my code!"

I thought instead "well great minds think alike! Turns out my way of solving those problems was so obvious and right that someone else thought of it too."

I was still very nervous about approaching them and pointing out that we were working on very similar things. Thankfully, they reached out to me and asked if we wanted to work together. I jumped at the opportunity and today continue to collaborate with them on maintaining and upgrading what is now a joint code. Twice as many coders means half the work for each of us!

The benefit of a good collaboration far outweighs any benefits of being a sole author. You should focus on how to keep this collaboration being open, productive and pleasant, and not on some idea of "sole glory".

EDIT: the OP has written a new question with new behaviour by Jason, which goes well past random duplication of work into Jason stealing their ideas. I've written a step-by-step plan there for the OP to protect themselves, accumulate evidence, and ask their supervisor to ask Jason to stop.

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    Indeed, however, it looks like Jason is trying to claim the idea as well and in another post he says it's his idea and other behaviours of sabotage. There are evil people out there and I'm confined after reading OP's other post that this is one. Commented Dec 5, 2023 at 12:17
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    I've written a much stronger answer with a step-by-step self-protection plan on that one. Commented Dec 9, 2023 at 4:56
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What you are being offered is very reasonable, if you feel like you should publish independently you can go ahead.

But keep in mind that in doing so you will start a race where you can only lose [1] between you and the team "famous professor + Jason". It is quite likely that no one will care about your correction of famous professor work, because they already have a correction for their own work.

[1] if you publish in the same year as them, in the future it will not be clear who published it first, so most likely the professor publication will be judged as "heavier", if you publish the correction before them ... apart from a small burst in interest, then your publication will be superseeded by their own. If you publish after them ... well, good luck in finding someone interested in your work apart from some Master thesis doing literature study.

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    Much appreciate for your kind advice EarlGrey. I don't want to throw away the professor. What I am uncomfortable is the professor completely throw away my plan and suggest something new.
    – High GPA
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 10:36
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    Since "In my field every coauthor is equal; there is no first author." I see no problem with the final goal, which is "you will have credit for spotting flaws in original paper" and additional "you will be part of an extended work". Focus on the goal, not on the road: what is more important to you? to take credit for spotting an error of professor X or being part of a larger collaboration with professor X.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 10:41
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    Please consider that professor X publishing a paper simply correcting their errors may be embarassing for their ego, you have to tactically provide a way out to them. Or you publish the correction on your own and say thank to them for their offer.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 10:41
  • Excellent suggestions. Seems like I have too much ego for myself to put off. I'll rethink and rethink
    – High GPA
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 10:50
  • I understand that a new paper might make the prof feel better. But as far as I know, even if we write a new paper, the original paper still needs a small piece of correction attach to it on the very same journal.
    – High GPA
    Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 4:12
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If your preprint already contains parts that are relevant to the new paper you're working on, you can cite it in a new paper. No credit is lost for the work that you've already posted. It's okay if that preprint never becomes its own separate published paper besides the one you coauthor with the professor and Jason, it's still something that can be cited.

I think it's far more likely that you benefit from coauthoring this additional paper versus turning it into a race and contest, not only in terms of the "credit" for the work but also for your reputation in the field for working well with others. It's very reasonable and understandable to anyone that Jason would have come up with what he did on his own, without your preprint.

The professor is doing a good diplomatic job of making the best of the situation for all three of you by suggesting a collective collaboration; imagine if Jason were the one writing this post and said, "I discovered something new and tried to collaborate on it with a professor that the work was building on, but now they're taking my idea and publishing it with some other person they said emailed them before me!"

If the work you had already done on this problem was complete, you could have just published it already. Instead, it will most likely benefit from the extra polish that comes with collaboration. I would recommend setting clear expectations with your collaborators regarding who is responsible for which part of the new manuscript to make sure the remaining work is distributed equitably.

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    Truly appreciate your teaching! I love what you said. Just one cent, if I were Jason, I won't say "I discovered something new". I'd say I independently discovered something, which I am not sure if it is "new". I will ask around if people had related preprint/publications before. If there are, I'd say I did not discovery anything new.
    – High GPA
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 20:09
  • @HighGPA Indeed, that's basically common courtesy and profesionalism. It's the same with software engineering, I never assume that I invented the wheel and as software engineer you quickly learn that a lot has been written and already debated about online. Commented Dec 8, 2023 at 1:21

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