7

I wrote a paper that had a similar idea to a paper that a famous professor wrote. I put my paper in arXiv. He put his paper on arXiv after me. I asked him to cite my paper, but he outright refused to do that, even though it was obviously the same idea.

His paper got accepted at a prominent conference, and he is yet to submit a camera-ready copy. My paper was half-baked experiments, not polished and was rejected by the conference, but it had a similar idea and was on arXiv. Shouldn't he cite a paper "he knows of" on the exact same idea? What should I do?

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  • 10
    Is he your professor ? Or you two don't know each other personally ?
    – Nobody
    Aug 19, 2023 at 8:01
  • 11
    "My paper ... was rejected by conference" for what reason ?
    – Nobody
    Aug 19, 2023 at 8:41
  • 33
    When the movie Juno came out, I had just finished writing a novel that was 80% the same idea. But it was really bad. Aug 19, 2023 at 19:30
  • 16
    No, for all we know it could be that they were working on the topic before your preprint appeared in the arxiv. You are supposed to cite work which contributed to your success and thoughts, not work which happens at the same time and is not published in a proper form (nope, putting it on arxiv is not publishing).
    – Sascha
    Aug 20, 2023 at 11:37
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    "My paper was half baked experiments". If you cannot afford lab material, you at least can afford pencil & paper. Do correctl all the preparation and introduction work to the experiment, then you may even end up working in the lab of the professor. Sorry, but time is a scarse resource, there is no time for poorly written arxiv paper, I am quite sure the professor never knew you had the same idea. Please realize that many people have the same ideas, but only the ones really proving it right (or wrong) are the one that contribute to science (and therefore deserve the time to be read).
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 21, 2023 at 5:27

8 Answers 8

43

It sometimes (if not frequently) happens that scientific ideas are developed independently from each other. This appears to be the case. Your "famous professor" made a paper of a quality ready to be published and you had "half-baked experiments" and a paper not ready to be published. Since it takes a lot of work to do experiments and write a publication quality paper, it seems that if indeed the idea was the same, that then the "famous professor" had it first. The "famous professor" if pressed might even be pointing to grant submissions containing this idea. Also, not everyone follows arXiv regularly, though that is sub-discipline dependent.

Whether the "famous professor" has a duty to cite you in the related work section depends on a variety of factors. First, is the value of the "famous professor's" work in the idea or in the scientific evaluation? Some ideas are not all that novel, such as using flash memory instead of disks for certain data structures, and the scientific value of research in these ideas is in the details and implementations. Second, is there actually something to cite? Is your arXiv paper in reasonable shape or is it going to still change a lot. From what you tell us it is not clear whether refusing to mention your arXiv paper in the related work section is against academic standards or not.

You seem to feel disrespected. You need to go to someone at your institution whose academic judgment you can trust and have them look at the situation first and see whether an independent observer would agree with you.

But ultimately, there is not a lot to gain from any action. At best, you were working in parallel and while the "famous professor" waited with an arXiv paper until the paper was ready, you rushed a submission. So, you can claim to have had an interesting idea in parallel but were beaten in the race for publication. Unfortunate for you, but not something you can complain about. Not being cited hurts one's ego, but there are no sanctions against that from which one could profit. What would you gain if by some magic you could force the "famous professor" to cite you?

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    In principle, yes, in practice, it is more complicated. What counts as a publication? Arxiv counts in some disciplines, but not in all. Also, when your article got rejected, then there may be sufficient problems that your article does not count even if arxiv is acceptable. Aug 19, 2023 at 11:19
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    @jontyrhodes Some people are also (rightly or wrongly) worried that other researchers who hear informally about an area they're working on will quickly rush out a "half-baked" study to try and steal credit for the idea ahead of a more complete study. Whether the obligation to cite remains in that case is much less clear. I'm not saying that this is what you're doing, but depending on the novelty of the idea and how widely known it is in the field, this may be what the professor thinks is happening. Aug 19, 2023 at 13:33
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    @jontyrhodes My understanding is that the obligation to cite only comes when you are aware of the work and it had some influence. It sounds very possible that this professor worked independently so sees no reason to weave your work into the narrative (though it would be a nice gesture on their part). Reviewers often bring papers to the attention of an author and strongly suggest that they be mentioned, but that's usually to fill in deficiencies in how this paper fits in among the known literature. I'm really sorry to hear you were scooped, and I hope you can salvage something! Aug 19, 2023 at 23:55
  • 7
    @jontyrhodes Could you link to some academic ethics guidelines that say you have to cite works that you're unaware of when you wrote a paper? (Usually not citing in this case is merely sloppy scholarship rather than acting unethically.) Aug 19, 2023 at 23:57
  • 9
    @jontyrhodes, but has your "paper" had any influence on theirs?
    – Neuchâtel
    Aug 20, 2023 at 11:54
26

Two things: (1) ideas are worth nothing by themselves, and (2) Godzilla sits wherever he wants.

(1) When we say that academics trade in ideas, that ideas are the currency of academics, and that everything starts with an idea, etc. we are using idioms and not talking about how things really work. It's not the idea that matters, and it's not a game of calling dibs on ideas and then living off the residuals. What matters is to be the first one with an idea that is tested, exposed, formalized, explained, and sent in final form to a peer-reviewed journal. A lot of unsuccessful academics go around telling everybody about their ideas, writing them in blogs and otherwise trying to have some record that they were the first one with the idea. This with the misconception that the "only" thing left to do is to formalize, "write up", "button up", test, etc. the idea. Well, the testing and buttoning up is what matters, not an afterthought.

(2) One of the benefits of being a famous professor is that you get to publish stuff that others can't. I'm not talking about bad science, although that happens too, but about papers lacking an exhaustive literature review, ideas that others have presented before in better form, and just plain papers that are more like "takes" (in the parlance of our times) than actual research results. It's unfair, maddening, and not how things would work in a meritocracy. But academia is a human enterprise, and we humans like to canonize saints, and well, it is what it is.

Back to your particular case, it seems that the famous professor actually beat you to the punch by writing it up in publishable form before you did. And he has no ethical or otherwise obligation to cede to you what is actually his. But even if your idea was not as half-baked as you say it was, and that the journal should have accepted your manuscript pending revisions, people would probably still cite the famous professor and not you as the originator of the idea.

The episode is not without its share of good news for you: if the idea was indeed a big jump (A -> C) and not merely a follow-up (A.1 -> A.2), it's an indication that both you and the famous professor are thinking along the same lines. It's a good sign of your abilities, so next time, polish your idea and send it off for peer-review.

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    Your comments "When we say that academics trade in ideas, ...., formalized, explained, and sent in final form to a peer-reviewed journal." may be right, but, when University academic honesty people guide students and researchers, if you ask them, they will completely disagree with this. According to them, even ideas are supposed to be cited, even if they were not formally tested and you simply read them on blog. I am wondering why in practice this does NOT happen when university ethics guidelines clearly and explicitly state that. Aug 19, 2023 at 20:11
  • 4
    I think I also agree with you esp on first point, but, why do the Universities and Departments do NOT explicitly make it clear to students. Even these "famous professors" themselves advocate to students that they should cite any source even if it is blog. Why Universities and Profs so aggressively argue that even Unsubstantiated Ideas MUST be cited, and then in practice, the rules are completely opposite. Why not make the reality clear to everyone, and why not state it explicitly? I would like to see your take on this issue. Aug 19, 2023 at 20:47
  • 3
    You have a good point in that there's a double standard, and that's part of what I wrote in my answer, that famous professors can get away with this sort of thing. But there's also a difference between reading someone's idea on a blog and not citing it and two people coming up with the same idea independently, one writing it up nicely and getting it accepted at a conference, and the other doing a quick half-baked post that just happens to arrive first. It's also hard to make a judgement without reading the papers, to see if the idea is a major step, or just some obvious follow-up.
    – Cheery
    Aug 20, 2023 at 1:27
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    @jontyrhodes if you have such strong ideas about what answer you should receive, why not self-answer and see how the votes turn out?
    – fectin
    Aug 20, 2023 at 2:49
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    @jontyrhodes yes, you have to cite any source, even if it's a blog article. However, you don't have to cite every blog article touching on the subject. Just cite the ones that you use in your work.
    – Džuris
    Aug 20, 2023 at 20:13
19

There are several good points to consider in the other answers and comments so far (and there's a bit of overlap between what I write below and what others have already said), but my overall stance on the situation is a bit different.

0. On ideas.

Other answers and comments have discussed how much value there is in an idea alone. I think it might be worthwhile to mention more explicitly that there are various different things described by the word "idea". For instance,

  • an idea to investigate a certain question;

  • an idea regarding which methods one can be used to answer a given question;

  • more concrete ideas on how to implement a certain step or to solve a certain subproblem;

  • in mathematics and related theoretical fields there are also situations (which might be a bit unique compared to more experimental fields) where an "idea" can be a deep insight regarding a certain construction or argument that can be used to prove a theorem or to solve an open question. In some cases it can happen that once you see the idea, this does indeed essentially solve the problem, with the technical details remaining a "formality" that you know will work out anyway. However, this situation is far from universal in math and moreover, it requires quite some experience and intuition to see whether this is the case when one just see the idea.

I agree with others that in many situations much of the effort is not in having an idea, but in developing and testing all the details (or doing all the experiments in experimental fields). Even in very theoretical fields like math this is often true, in particular when one is not talking about very concrete proof ideas or arguments but rather about ideas on "which questions to ask" or "which object to define and study" or "which theory to develop".

1. What behaviour by the famous professor would be most appropriate academically?

As others have said, it is impossible to give a definite assessment without knowing all the relevant details - in particular how vague or concrete your idea is worded in your arXiv preprint or how innovative or novel your idea really is compared to what can already be found in the literature.

However, despite what I said in point 0., I tend to come to a different conclusion than some of the others answers and comments:

Even if the idea alone does not represent the majority of the effort or insight and even if the rest of your paper was rather half-baked (and possibly even if the idea itself was not as well developed by you as it could or should have been), I'm inclined to say that the most appropriate course of action would still be to cite your preprint (not matter whether the other paper might have been in a more final state and might be published earlier).

The main reasons are:

  • It is in the interest of the reader to find sufficient context in a paper. Another paper or preprint which uses a similar idea seems to be relevant context (unless the idea is very much common place in the field). For this reason, I would personally even tend to add a citation during a revision of my paper if a relevant preprint was uploaded only after my own paper was uploaded to arXiv and submitted to a journal.

  • The other point of citations is, of course, about credit and priority. Admittedly, I don't really follow the arguments in some of the comments that one wouldn't need to give credit to your idea if the idea alone establishes only a small part of the novelty or insight in the famous professor's paper.

    When I write a paper which, in any way, uses an insight or idea that is not already common in my field, and which has been brought up by someone else before me, I will certainly cite it (even if I came up with the idea myself before knowing about the same idea of the other person). I don't see any reason why this should only apply to ideas or insights which have a major impact on my own paper or constitute a significant part of the scientific effort that went into developing the paper.

    If I have a perfectly valid proof of my main theorem and I find out the proof of my auxiliary Lemma 7.3(ii) can be simplified a bit by using a concept recently introduced in a preprint by a colleague, I'm going to cite them. If somebody else defined the same notion as I did but earlier, and their presentation is messier than mine and their results are much simpler and not deep at all, I'm going to cite them. If somebody proved a very special case of my theorem with a more complicated and less insightful proof I'm going to cite them.

    All of this also applies if I learn of the earlier work only after I have already completed my preprint. To be completely honest, not citing the other person in any of those cases would seem rather conceited and, frankly, a bit pigheaded to me. And it would be in contradiction to the goal to contribute to the advancement of the scientific community I'm working in.

2. Why might the famous professor refuse to cite you?

That's of course impossible to answer without much more information. All we can do is speculate. Here are a couple a various potential reasons. Let me say very clearly that I am making not claim whatsoever that some or any of those potential reasons apply in your specific situation. I'm just trying to offer you a broad perspective on what could have happened.

  • The famous professor might have genuinely considered your message and finds, on purely academic grounds, that your contribution in the preprint doesn't warrant citation. For instance, they might disagree with your assessment that the idea is exactly the same and rather believe that it so distant from their idea that a citation doesn't make sense and would rather confuse their readers. Or they might find that your idea is worded so vaguely and generically that the idea itself doesn't really count as a scientific contribution on its own. Or they might consider your (and their idea) so common place that all the contribution is really in the details with the idea itself being widely used in all sorts of similar contexts.

    Please note that I'm not saying whether or not such an assessment would be correct. I have no way of knowing this. Please also note that even if an author claims that an idea is "exactly the same", this does not necessarily mean that everybody else comes to the same conclusion. Similarity (or identity) of ideas or the question what precisely is an insight and what is, on the other hand, trivial, depend very much an personal opinions.

  • The famous professor might be disorganized and thus have forgotten to respond to your request. (If however the professor replied to you and explicitly said that they are not going to cite you, this explanation is ruled out, of course.)

  • It might be that the famous professor really just doesn't give a damn about whether or not to cite you and doesn't want to take the effort to include the citation. Yes, sure, it's not that much effort at all - but just as other human beings, professors (famous or not) don't always act rationally.

  • Maybe the famous professor is a conceited and pigheaded jerk and thus doesn't want to share any credit with you. Yes, there are famous professors who are conceited and pigheaded - just as there are famous professors who are very well-meaning, modest, and extremely generous with giving credit.

  • One more potential explanation, which you might not like very much:

    Please be assured that it is not my intention to offend you - but from the wording of your question and various of your comments, one can get the impression that you might sometimes appear a bit confrontational and, also, entitled. Communicating in such a way makes it much less likely that you achieve what you would like to achieve, in particular if you are asking someone else for a certain action. Please let me point out to important issues related to this:

    a) What I said above is not directly related to whether or not you are right. If others find that you appear confrontational or entitled, this will likely not lead to the outcome that you desire, even if you are, from a neutral point of view, completely right with your request. Thus, in most cases it is a good idea to remain polite and modest in your language, even if you have very strong feelings about something.

    b) As an illustration: I'm also a bit under the impression that they way you worded your question and your responses in a number of comments contributed to the - from my point of view - somewhat one-sided perspectives that you received. On Academia StackExchange there are a variety of questions on citation and the attribution of academic credit, and some of the responses to those questions tend to rather lean on the "one should be very generous with giving credit" side. However, when people get the impression that you might not be asking in completely good faith (even if you actually are and this is just a communicational issue), it is likely that they will be somewhat biased to argue against your position.

3. What course of action is best for you?

Here are a few general suggestions, based on what I said above and on what others have said:

  • When you are under the impression that your publicly available work is relevant to the work of other people but those people did not cite it, I think it is, generally speaking, ok to inform those people of your work.

    However, the way how you do this is extremely important. I strongly suggest to write such a message in an extremely polite way. But also be concise whenever possible. For instance, do not spend lengthy paragraphs on philosophical thoughts that might appear defensive or passive-aggressive: don't write something along the lines of "You do, of course, have no obligation at all to cite my work and can completely decide on your own whether you consider my contributions sufficiently relevant to be cited in your important work". Leave out any such philosophical thoughts and stick very much to the contents you are referring to.

    Under any circumstances, make sure not to sound confrontational or entitled in such a message. Do not request the other party to cite your work and do not imply that you expect them to cite it, even if you strongly believe that they are somehow obliged to do so. Keep it all within the frame of "this seems to be related to your work, so I send it to you in case that this might be interesting for you". Being more concrete will likely be received more positively (unless you overdo it and appear to be nitpicky). For instance, saying "the approach that you use to do XYZ on pages 16-18 seems close in spirit to the approach that I used on pages 21-24 to do ABC" is likely to be more helpful than just saying that "our papers seems to use related ideas.

    Please note that none of this is guaranteed to lead to a positive reaction. But if you choose to write such a message, the more clear and modest your message is, the more likely a positive reaction becomes.

  • Even then, don't do this too often and even less so to the same people. Even if you're right each time - if you find that a certain group of people will just continuously ignore your related work in each new article, then you'll quickly reach a point where it's the wisest course of action to just let it go.

  • Similarly, if somebody comes to a different conclusion than you and chooses not to cite your work despite you having showed it to them - I strongly advise against trying to force it in some. After all, you usually don't have much leverage and the only thing you'll achieve is to get people upset. If you find this unfair and frustrating, you have my sympathies - a lot of things in academia actually are unfair and frustrating. But as for all things that you'd like to see changed but are hard or almost impossible for you to change, it is wise to ask yourself if this is really the hill you want to die on.

  • One more thing: I've experienced situations where, say, a colleague A was angry about a colleague B not citing them on various occasions, even though a citation might have been warranted. Then A decided, in turn, not to cite related work of B anymore, even of the mentioning of the related work of B would have likely been beneficial to A's readers.

    Please let me advise against any such retaliation practices. Admittedly, it is a very human instinct to do this, but in the setting we are discussing here it simply won't do you any good (on the other hand, it might or might not hurt you, either). Reacting to unprofessional behaviour by behaving unprofessionally yourself is unlikely to make you feel better in the long run and it is certainly not a winning strategy (although one can easily find examples of successful people who fight their share of vendettas - for me, the most reasonable perspective on this is that those people are successful despite their vendettas, not because of them).

13

I am guessing you are new to academia, so let me tell you that there can be a really, really big difference between ''having an idea which turns out to be correct'' and ''doing all the work and polishing it to show that it all works out''.

I would go to whoever your academic supervisor is, explain the situation and show them both papers and ask for an honest opinion.

10

To take a very stark bibliometric, long-term view, there is only one difference between a scenario where the professor accepts your priority and one where he doesn't (with no consideration of it being the "right thing to do").

If he accepts your priority, your arXiv preprint gets one citation.

If he doesn't accept your priority, your arXiv preprint doesn't.

That's it.

Unless you've both discovered something as earth-shaking as CRISPR genome editing, "priority" plays little role in determining how far and wide one paper spreads compared to another. Unfairly, papers get cited based on who wrote them, whether reviewers force new papers to cite them, and so on. Those factors you can't control.

Fairly, papers also get cited more if they are clear; if they are persuasive; if they are robust about their strong results (and gentle about the weaker ones); if they outline imaginative implications and future avenues of research; if they are easily replicated and extended. Those factors matter far more than whether or not their arXiv preprint was cited zero or one times.

Therefore, what you should do is prioritize writing your preprint up into a good, solid paper. Let your work's quality speak and win citations for itself, and do your networking to let future potential citers and collaborators know what you've done!

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    Yes, this idealistic/optimistic attitude is (in my opinion) the only mentally-healthy way to approach the whole publish-or-perish world of "research" academe. In particular, it is surely unhealthy to be thinking every day of other people working in your field as enemies, even if they are unconscious or deficient scholars, etc. "Don't let a$$holes turn you into one as well" is, I think, a healthy attitude. :) Aug 21, 2023 at 4:20
6

The only basis for compelling the famous professor to acknowlege your own prior work in this particular area is if you can prove he had made no progress on this matter until after your own paper was published in Arxiv.

This would be hard to do. You might convince yourself and perhaps many of us that the development of this idea as presented in the professor's paper is totally implausible, scientifically and humanly. But it would not make it the impossibility demanded before the scientific community would reject the famous professor as a co-originator.

It's always possible for 2 scientists to independently arrive at the same concept. In such situations, each originator can publish their first paper on the idea without reference to the other. But all subsequent papers would need to acknowlege the work of the other regardless of evaluating it or not.

I would advise against any further pressing of the other professor on this matter. He may well be cuckooing your nest. But if he is - and I say, "if" - he seems to be better at cuckooing than you are at catching him.

0

I would invite the professor to sit on my committee (if you are a phd student) or be my co-author in my upcoming peer reviewed paper derived from the preprint.

To me it doesnt matter whose paper is published first, and expanding your network to incorporate such professor is tremendously beneficial to your career.

-2

Do you have a personal problem with this professor? I mean you are not asking to put your name in the paper as contributed to the idea, you are talking about citing your work which should be normal and added value to the paper if it gathers all previous related work about the topic; ie, it won't deminish his work . -I once got a reviewer comment (who rejected my paper) saying "there is a relevant work missing" without even telling what is the related reference. -It's also normal nowadays to put blog posts, twitter threads, Bitcointalk.org links in the references; and you're talking about an arXiv accepted paper (they do review papers)

-I can't judge how relevant your work to the professor's paper, but I think the reviewers committee of the publishing conference/journal can if you send them the details (your paper and what you think is the relevance) -You see what I mean, it is not a fight; if the reviewers believe the authors missed an important relevant reference (think as a paper reader, will you gain added value if you read your paper? even a detailed explanation of a brief point?) they can simply ask the authors to add the reference while preparing the final camera ready version.

-and I don't agree that ideas don't worth anything if not executed, sometimes people buy and sell ideas. Not in research anyway, there are many theoritical papers out there. .

Final Comment: This is my opinion but I've seen it twice (not mentioning a very relevant, and executed in code by the way, previous work; I remember tweeting both sides in one tweet). I will not mention the exact papers here because maybe the postgraduate student didn't tell the supervisor professor who thought this the student idea as part of his research.

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    "an arXiv accepted paper (they do review papers)" Reviewed by whom ?
    – Nobody
    Aug 20, 2023 at 14:25
  • Well, accurately "moderated" by volunteers info.arxiv.org/help/moderation/index.html; Although arXiv is not peer reviewed, a collection of moderators for each area review the submissions; they may recategorize any that are deemed off-topic, or reject submissions that are not scientific papers, or sometimes for undisclosed reasons.(from Wikipedia, but I originally read about it in twitter from people thanking professors for their volunteered effort)
    – ShAr
    Aug 20, 2023 at 14:48
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    Unwise to approach the conference until OP's own paper is "polished" and presentable.
    – Trunk
    Aug 20, 2023 at 19:04
  • @Trunk I'm not suggesting to approach for publication, the deadline has already past since a decision has been made on the professor's paper, I'm suggesting to inform the reviewers so they can be the judge of whether to add his arXiv as a reference or not (unless there's a missing important detail, they should be in favor of adding it if it provides added value to the paper)
    – ShAr
    Aug 20, 2023 at 19:29
  • 1
    Even so, polish up OP's paper first. Make OP look plausible.
    – Trunk
    Aug 20, 2023 at 19:53

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