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Consider the following scenario:

  1. Person A and B start a collaboration, and discuss a variety of concepts over various months.
  2. Person B ceases the collaboration, authorizing Person A to pursue the research alone.
  3. Person A continues the research, finishes it, describes it in article P1, sending the draft to person B for approval of the depiction of their contribution in the acknowledgment paragraph.
  4. Person B threatens person A with legal pursuits arguing of "pending patent". Conference committee says to ignore person B ("that is not how research works"). Article P1 is accepted.
  5. Person A presents the article at the conference, with person B in attendance.
  6. Two years later, person B publishes with other co-authors an article P2 presenting as theirs some of the concepts presented in P1, and failing to cite neither P1 nor person A.

Let's assume that 1) the concepts shared between P1 and P2 were person B's contribution to the discussion leading to article P1 (proving such things is a muddy issue, but it is likely to be person B's point of view?); that 2) person B "did not forget", and that 3) the concepts presented in the publications are a) the same and b) sufficiently important.

Is omitting to cite such specific previous work

  1. a form of plagiarism,
  2. a fault of ethics,
  3. just "part of the academic game" (the exact words from a colleague), or
  4. something else?

I am pondering what person A should do in such a situation. It seems easier to let it go as part of the "game" of academia (and citing adequately both studies in future articles), hoping that karma or "an invisible hand" will insure that research will go on as desired. A colleague suggested that person A should hire a lawyer specialized in intellectual property (which seems quite extreme) and should request an academic leave to focus on such situation (which seems unlikely to be granted).

I am less worried about the fate of person A than about the trend from person B, in that failing to report on their actions could affect other (younger) researchers with whom they would "collaborate" in the future (thinking about an awkward parallel with work or sexual harassment victims failing to fill a complaint being a disservice to future victims).

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    The details of this story get to be quite convoluted and seem to address one very specific case; can you try to distill it into a single, answerable question that would apply to more than one situation and lead to a general guideline? I don't think we need notation to discuss papers numbered IDs 1-6.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Apr 18 at 18:25
  • 1
    I agree with Bryan, I'm not reading all that Commented Apr 18 at 19:43
  • Removed the mention of the other articles.
    – J..y B..y
    Commented Apr 18 at 20:00

1 Answer 1

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Unfortunately, this kind of situation does happen, and in fact something similar happened to me (I'd never worked with my person B, but they proved some of the same results, either independently or based on a preprint I had shared with them, and then for years have tried to bury my work, not cite it, and even tell others not to cite it). I'll write this answer aimed at person A.

To answer your question, I would say this is a fault of ethics but is not plagiarism and really should not be "part of the academic game." I think we should all do our parts to steer academia away from this kind of behavior.

It is certainly not worth hiring a lawyer to fight about it. It does not look good to squabble. Generally speaking, the best approach is to move on, publish lots of good work, and earn lots of citations, even if B never cites your work.

In math, it's basically impossible to write a truly comprehensive literature review (e.g., going back to Euclid's axioms). Authors pick and choose who to cite, so it's very unlikely that an academic misconduct case could stick (person B could just say they didn't feel like papers P1-P4 had merit). It is good if you cite relevant papers that your reader might like to read. By not citing you, person B is doing a bad job as author. In an ideal world, your work would be well-known enough that referees would force person B to cite your work. Failing that, you can at least take comfort knowing that senior people who are aware of all the papers, will view person B's behavior as childish and unprofessional. Person A did the right thing to acknowledge person B and that does count for a lot (more than a few citations, I would argue). If person B's behavior becomes a trend, it will be noticed and their career will suffer for it. Best to put it out of your mind and move on to other exciting research projects. "Living well is the best revenge."

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  • We agree. My only doubt is inspired by the "#MeToo" movement. For a long time, the system was making it very difficult for victims of (sexual and work) harassment (and worse) to put forward a complaint, leaving (sex predators and) bullies free to assault one person after the other without any form of punishment, and to call the public wrath against any single individual accusing them. The #MeToo movement changed this a bit, and pushed for systems were such complaints could be made anonymously and revealed once a given number of them against the same person were registered.
    – J..y B..y
    Commented Apr 18 at 20:08

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