I don't want to release too many details in this inquiry, but I do have a very legitimate question to ask. My senior class (aerospace engineering) has been hard at work for nearly nine months reverse engineering a particular X-Plane. We have done detailed analysis on almost all the aspects of the craft and we have just heard that our supervising professor intends to release this research as his own for future technologies in SSTO vehicle analysis. What options do we have to prevent this blatant plagiarism by an adviser and how soon should we act?

  • 2
    As a side note, how is this publishable research since it isn't new knowledge (people already designed the aircraft)? – Austin Henley Mar 8 '15 at 8:36
  • 1
    Could you tell more about its status. I.e. does he want to publish it without you as an author, or with both him and you? How is his paper related to your results? (It is directly using them?) – Piotr Migdal Mar 8 '15 at 13:59

You must have documented your reverse engineering efforts in some way (e.g. Student reports). You can publish these online, e.g. On ArXiv.

You might also discuss coauthorship with your professor on future publications.

  • 1
    Publishing on the ArXiv is a very good idea, it prevents any plagiarism. Discussing with the professor to form a collaboration to work together to improve the research/writing and submit it in article form to a journal is also great advice. – WetlabStudent Mar 8 '15 at 7:38
  • 1
    @WetLabStudent: This might be a good idea in some fields, but arXiv's coverage is limited to a few specific fields and engineering is not among them. – Nate Eldredge Mar 8 '15 at 16:14
  • @NateEldredge that is not entirely true, I have seen several engineering papers on the arXiv published under the category "physics" or "computational engineering" – WetlabStudent Mar 8 '15 at 20:49
  • @NateEldredge But of course we do not have enough information from the OP to tell whether their project fits these topics. However, there are other preprint services besides arXiv (see academia.stackexchange.com/questions/84/…), so the general principle behind the comment is still valid. – WetlabStudent Mar 8 '15 at 20:56
  • @WetLabStudent: Well, there are also fields in which posting to a preprint server is considered "prior publication" and prevents you from ever getting your work published in a journal; see academia.stackexchange.com/questions/10284/…. So it is perhaps better to be cautious when recommending this approach. – Nate Eldredge Mar 8 '15 at 21:19

Using student work is always a difficult situation and we spend a considerable amount of time thinking about What are the minimum contributions required for co-authorship. In many cases advisors conclude that students have just turned the crank of the well designed project that they have been handed and that they do not warrant authorship. I think that within reason that advisors who have been active in the research process of students (e.g., suggesting the topic, initial readings, experimental design, and analyses) should be at a minimum of offered authorship and in many cases should actually be the sole author.

There are cases where the student wants to publish in a lower ranked journal than the advisor would like. It seems wrong of an advisor to stand in the way of a coauthored lower ranked publication so they can have a single authored higher ranked publication. That said, if the advisor has correctly evaluated that the student contribution is not worthy of authorship, the lower ranked publication will not stop the higher ranked publication.

Making your work publicly available (e.g., through a website or ArXiv) is beneficial to everyone. When your advisor attempts to publish/republish the work, reviewers will have to decide if the work is new and if you should be an author. Assuming your advisor correctly determined that you do not warrant authorship, he/she will still be able to publish the results. In other words, if you class project is your advisor's research, you cannot stop him/her from publishing it as his own. As crazy as it sounds, the only way to stop it is to make sure your class project contains enough of your research that you have some ownership in the project.

It is probably worth noting that, at least in my field, the traditional bar for a MS thesis is a research project that could be published. An undergraduate class project that takes up a 1/4 of a students time for an academic year is generally much less comprehensive than what MS students produce over 1-2 years of fulltime research.


This sounds like a common misunderstanding of what research actually is. Most professors in technology are not doing the day to day research work. That part is done by students and postdocs. The professors are setting direction, offering guidance and feedback, securing funding, etc. They are the "managers" in academia. This role definitely warrants their name being on any publication they are involved with and is not the professor "stealing" ideas.

The second question is whether your work alone qualifies as publishable. Published work must have novel content. If your project is the equivalent of supplying some numbers in a table in a larger study done by your professor, then your work probably does not stand on its own and may not warrant you being listed as an author. If your work makes up the main body of a paper though or supplies some crucial insight that the whole paper would be based on, then your work would stand on its own. If so, you should be a coauthor of anything that uses it.


First, something you should consider. How reliable is the source of this "we heard"? And how complete? Sometimes, professors present in meetings the work done in their group, not necessarily by themselves.

If your source is not confidential, you should be clear and talk to him in a non confrontational way. Ask what is the purpose of the meeting, what is he going to present, and maybe if some of you could come along. If after the talk you are still suspicious, you could talk to another professor familiar with your field that could know what is the extent and purpose of this meeting.

If your source is confidential and the contents of this meeting are not public, you can ask him if he thinks your results are publishable and how to proceed. You can also discuss what would the logical continuations be.

Also, I wouldn't post it anywhere without his permission, or clear evidence that he wants to take your work as his. Research is, to some degree, confidential until it is in a publishable form, and you may get shooting yourself in the foot. Specially when working on hearsays, don't do anything that you may regret afterwards.

If you do get solid evidence that he is plagiarising you (and please, confirm this with someone external) you may begin taking bigger actions. Posting your work publicly is a good way of asserting your authorship and getting a timestamp.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.