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I'm doing an (external) bachelor's degree in the field of computing and am in the second of my three years. The final requirement of this degree is a project, complete with development and a dissertation that has to be submitted to the institute and defended at a Viva. I've taken the liberty of researching well into a lot of parts of my potential project, and have given a lot of thought into it.

My long research has prompted my few family/friends in the industry to ridicule me (which I don't mind), and have warned me that creating a "good" project would run the risk of "questionable" practices enacted.

In short, I've been told that the panel might fail my project and transfer all it's content to a favoured student of their own if they find mine interesting enough. I do not know if this is a fact or just a rumor. But, I don't want this to happen (with me or anyone else).

What measures can I take to make sure that they can't do things like this to both the dissertation I submit and the code I develop? I've already thought of private repositories on online version control systems to keep the code, but what about the dissertation?

Note:

  • we are required to include a declaration signed by my advisor and myself that allows the dissertation to be used by the institute for loans and publishing, as well as to outside organizations.
  • I'm intending to release the software as open-source after I graduate, so this may be a problem.
  • If it is stolen, I doubt that complaining to the institute will help, and may result on the ganging up on me.

P.S.: I hope I don't sound like a whiner or moron.

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    Academic culture differs in different places. To get a satisfactory answer, you should probably indicate (at least) what country you are studying in. In North America, for instance, anyone who tells you to worry that your committee will steal your work is not giving you at all helpful advice. This worry would be similarly unfounded in many other places...but I certainly can't speak for the entire world. (Also: I don't see why doing a bachelor's degree in computing is worthy of ridicule.) Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 6:43
  • Sorry, I was being paranoid when I didn't include the country. But this is somewhere in South Asia. Also, sorry about the confusion, they don't ridicule me for doing a degree in computing, but for using a lot of time on the project. Sorry. Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 6:51
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    If you are the sole copyright holder of your code (which I guess you are since you develop it by yourself without getting paid for it), you can submit a licensed version (for example GPL). That way nobody can legally 'steal' it. Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 7:22
  • A key point is that from copyright point of view, the dissertation is an entirely separate object than the code you developed during that time. If you're required to give the university rights to re-publish the dissertation, that refers to the submitted document, not to anything else.
    – Peteris
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 8:49
  • If your ultimate goal is to publish your code as open-source, why not before your defense with the appropriate open license?
    – Cape Code
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 13:20

4 Answers 4

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we are required to include a declaration signed by my advisor and myself that allows the dissertation to be used by the institute for loans and publishing, as well as to outside organizations.

This can be either a transfer of copyright (your work belong to them now), or a broad authorisation to publish it however they want. They are two different situations, and you would have to read it carefully, but it will most probably only cover your report, not your code. So you can just upload your code to a public repository and link the implementation from your report. Given your concerns, a viral licence like GPL sounds appropriate for you.

In any case, authorship is, under some jurisdictions, one of the unrenunciable rights. No one can pay you, convince you, or otherwise force you to claim authorship on your work. They can buy it, but they cannot change who did it. What they can do (and many universities do) is own the outcome of your research, like patents. The rationale is that they have been providing you with resources and advise. Check the legal conditions of your degree. This may include final undergraduate projects, where the student is also paying for the education, and not receiving any money from the university.

Anyway, I don't think a reputable institution will lightly steal from its students. Authorship can be easily proven in some situations, taken to court, and the damage to their reputation can be enormous.

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    "Anyway, I don't think a reputable institution will lightly steal from its students." Right; I think the keyword here is reputable: if you keep that, you can change lightly to your favorite adverb and it will still be true. If you discard it: well, who knows what an institution without a reputation or any care for maintaining its reputation might do? Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 12:19
  • I don't think your claim about authorship being an unrenunciable right is correct. Wikipedia states that, in many jurisdictions, an employer is generally regarded as the author of a work produced by an employee in the course of their job. (It notes that academic research doesn't generally fall into this category but your statement doesn't make that distinction.) Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 17:56
  • @DavidRicherby interesting point. I have read the article and to me it seems (but I am not sure) that it means that the employer has full rights over the work, but they cannot claim they did it themselves.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 20:38
  • @Davidmh My understanding is that, legally, the employer is the author of a work for hire. I'm not sure what it means to say that a corporation "cannot claim they did it themselves." Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 21:29
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    @davidmh I believe ghostwriters do give up authorship in trade for money.
    – earthling
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 3:13
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My long research has prompted my few family/friends in the industry to ridicule me (which I don't mind), and have warned me that creating a "good" project would run the risk of "questionable" practices enacted. In short, I've been told that the panel might fail my project and transfer all it's content to a favoured student of their own if they find mine interesting enough. I do not know if this is a fact or just a rumor. But, I don't want this to happen (with me or anyone else).

I hope that this is just a paranoid rumor. It would not be founded in any university I am aware of, but of course not knowing your institution, one can't say anything for sure.

However, the question is what you can do to minimize the risk, if you feel this is an actual possibility that you need to insure yourself against. Usually, the best bet against having your work stolen is to make sure that as many people as possible know of this work as yours. For instance, you can show it to other faculty members that you trust (if you need an excuse, you can always ask them for feedback), or upload it to a (timestamped) preprint service. For code, the best is probably to just upload everything as open source to GitHub or a similar service.

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  • Yes, it does sound very paranoid :(. Presenting the work to faculty is, I'm afraid, out of the question as this is an external degree (should have mentioned that). However I understand the actual point of getting as many people to know of the work. Thank You :). Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 9:17
  • As a sidenote, is there such a thing as copyrighting a dissertation? Or is that just a dumb question? Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 9:21
  • Beware that the timestamp in GitHub is not guaranteed by GitHub and it's not meant to work as such, as far as I know there are no VCS services offering trusted timestamps.
    – Trylks
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 10:19
  • @Trylks you can always upload a snapshot to one of the services that exist. It will be similar enough to anything the OP will finally present.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 10:39
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    @user91134201 Most dissertations that I've seen recently include an explicit copyright notice announcing that the author holds the copyright. (These are Ph.D. and masters dissertations, but I don't think a bachelor's dissertation would be any different.) Under U.S. law, you'd own the copyright even without a notice, but I don't know what the law says about this elsewhere. Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 16:18
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Get a free certificate (e.g., from StartSSL) and use it to digitally sign your document.

I know PDFs and many other file formats support digital signatures. See this about signing a PDF with Adobe Reader; it appears Adobe even offers a free, easy-to-use service so you don't have to get a certificate from a third-party.

Digitally signing something proves that it is yours because no one could claim your work is theirs without knowing your private key.

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Send your full project documentation as a registered letter to your own address and , if you know any, friendly attorney-at law. Such letter must stay not opened, not from you, not from attorney. The idea behind it is, that the whole project documentation is registered as yours at defined date.

I've done such more then once to protect my start-up ideas from plagiarism, if i was going to discuss ideas with venture capitalists. According to at least German law, such protection fully works, if it discussed at any court.

Edit (13.08)

I have even found an online notary, notatus.de (sadly only in german), which offers legally proofed document depositation / escrow, specially for the purpose of authorship protecting. They offer even depositation and letters of deposit for computer files, so one isn't forced to send paper documents. BTW, this service is free!

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  • I have heard in some jurisdictions this is not valid, and in others, depends on the case.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 16:12
  • that is true, Davidmh - that's why i say to send the letter to an attorney too - such is much more valid in court case. In Germany it is pretty enough to send the registered letter to the own address.
    – Evgeniy
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 16:19
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    The idea that you can prove authorship by mailing a copy of the document to yourself is, to the best of my knowledge, an urban legend. The postmark on the envelope proves only that the envelope went through the postal system: it says nothing about the contents. For example, if I'd posted an unsealed, empty envelope to myself last month, I could "prove" that you plagiarized this answer from me by typing a copy of it, printing it out and sealing it in the envelope. Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 18:05
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    @Evgeniy Please give a citation to a reliable source indicating that a court of law has accepted somebody mailing a document to themself as evidence that they possessed the document on the day the envelope was postmarked. (Mailing it to a lawyer is different, since the lawyer would have to be in conspiracy with you to cheat, which would be seen as less likely.) Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 8:37
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    @Evgeniy Right. So, contrary to what you state in your answer, there's no point sending a copy to yourself. Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 15:23

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