Some ­— perhaps many — academics seem to be very careful in keeping unpublished work secret. It is not difficult to find anecdotes where academic ideas are stolen, such as in this post by @Markus. Others, such as @NateEldredge in this post write that It seems to be pretty common for people starting out in academia to overestimate the risks of people stealing their work. Personally, I'm rather at the other end of the spectrum, and I don't feel afraid that my ideas would be stolen. Perhaps I'm naïve.

Is there any research on the question: how common is academic theft, really? Such as surveys of people having experienced (or committed!) such theft according to an appropriate definition, possibly compared to peoples' perception as to the risks. It would be interesting to see if there are some facts to refer to. Perhaps it is field dependent?

(By academic theft, I am not talking about plagiarism, but rather about stealing research ideas before anything is published)

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    Its hard to quantify. Who will admit stealing ideas from the others? Yet Ive heard that from my supervisor, this mostly happens in the peer review process. He told me to be careful if reviewers using weird reason to reject my paper.
    – Rein
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 15:04
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    @Paul: Not really. The question "how prevalent is theft?" is substantively different.
    – aeismail
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 16:35
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    @RoboKaren: I think it's actually harder to "steal" an idea in the lab sciences—because you have to do the work associated with the purloined proposition, and beat the other person to submission.
    – aeismail
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 16:37
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    @gerrit: Nowadays most academic surveys are conducted electronically. I am computer savvy enough to be skeptical that such a survey would be "strictly anonymous" and not computer savvy enough to vet a given electronic survey system for anonymity. Also, speaking for myself: if I stole someone's academic work, I would not admit it under any circumstance. All in all, such a survey might be of some psychological/sociological interest, but it would not carry much weight in answering your question. Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 19:09
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    I'd say the easiest thing to get stolen is translation labor. I've helped on two projects where I was not being credited. I stopped one midway for that reason.
    – virmaior
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 0:01

4 Answers 4


Is there any research on the question: how common is academic theft, really? Such as surveys of people having experienced (or committed!) such theft according to an appropriate definition, possibly compared to peoples perception as to the risks.

See the related articles:

De Vries, Raymond, Melissa S. Anderson, and Brian C. Martinson. "Normal misbehavior: Scientists talk about the ethics of research." Journal of empirical research on human research ethics: JERHRE 1.1 (2006): 43.


Martinson, Brian C., Melissa S. Anderson, and Raymond De Vries. "Scientists behaving badly." Nature 435.7043 (2005): 737-738.

Among a sample of 3,247 NIH-funded scientists in the United States, asked about the behavior "Using another's ideas without permission or giving due credit":

  • 1.4% said they themselves have engaged in this behavior within the last three years
  • 45.7% agreed with the statement, "I have observed or had other direct evidence of this behavior among my professional colleagues including postdoctoral associates, within the last three years."

Please read the article for methodology, limitations, etc.


Not quite an answer, but too long for a comment. In order to quantify how common academic theft is, one needs to define theft. You attempt to define it as:

By academic theft, I am not talking about plagiarism, but rather about stealing research ideas before anything is published

Now consider the following scenario. Alice has been carrying out research on topic X on and off for years. She has a number of nice research findings that she hasn't gotten around to publishing and hasn't shared the findings with anyone. Alice finally decides to start focusing on topic X and publish her existing results. Unbeknownst to Alice, Bob has just started working on topic X as she begin trying to publish her results. I don't think anyone would argue that Alice has engaged in academic theft. The issue becomes what would have to change for Alice to have engaged in academic theft.

What if Alice found out about Bob's intentions from Carol (or maybe Bob himself) and that changed Alice's research direction?

What if Alice only starts doing the research after she hears about what Bob is doing?

What if Bob presents a novel approach to topic X and Alice runs with the approach faster/further than Bob, but Alice is careful to always credit Bob with the new approach? What if Bob presented the new approach N years ago (choose your N)?

In order to quantify how often academic theft occurs, one needs to define what theft is.


Stealing ideas is difficult because you have a victim you have stolen from and presumably they know (or will know) that you stole from them.

Fraud is much more common, much easier to do, and much harder to prove—unless you do something really stupid like re-use the same image multiple times in various unrelated papers, something the people who get caught always seem to do. (Note 1)

Also common, as Yiuin states, is people (notably PIs and supervisors) taking the credit for their underlings'/minions' work.

Note 1: This means that the either all the frauds are stupid and re-use images and get caught, or that the frauds who don't re-use images are rarely caught.

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    It should be pointed out that some suspicions should have been raised in Schön's case. What experimental scientist can write a paper every eight days (which was what Schön was doing the two years before he was caught!)?
    – aeismail
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 3:52
  • cf. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hwang_Woo-suk#Controversies "Close scrutiny revealed that several of the photos of purportedly different cells were in fact photos of the same cell." Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 18:07

I've been a graduate student (Masters at one school and PhD at another) and I have never seen the sort of thing you are describing. I am afraid The Social Network has made everyone paranoid about their ideas being stolen. The reality is that most ideas are difficult to steal, because implementing them might be time-consuming enough that the original person has a huge head start. The only time you should worry is if you think you have a GREAT idea that you think is easy to do once you think of it. You will probably know if this is possible.

In reality though, there are a lot of smart people out there and if you are thinking of it, at least 1 other person has probably considered it. Its much more likely that you are recreating (or attempting something that doesn't work), but that might just be in my field (Neuroscience/Imaging).

On the other hand, I have found that it is pretty common for people to take credit for other peoples work, or use other peoples software without crediting, especially for grant applications. Again though, this might be unique to my field.

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    The question asked if there was any research on the topic.
    – Dirk
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 19:21

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