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I have finished writing a paper and am a high school student. Since I'm sure this has no chance of being accepted to arxiv, I want to simply post it on a public forum. (This also has meaning for me because the forum helped me develop in the field where I wrote this paper, and I have friends there.)

My question is: Even if this is a not-that-important paper, imagine hypothetically that someone more prominent (ok, this is highly unrealistic, but just imagine) steals the main result of my paper and publishes it in a renowned journal, or at least somewhere more prestigious than a forum. Would he get credit for the discovery? This seems unlikely since the date I posted it on the forum will show that I came up with it before him.

Note: Although I don't wish to name the exact forum I'm talking about, it's similar to Physics Forums.

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    arXiv is not peer-reviewed, and papers don't need to be "accepted" - you just need to have an account. – Lubo Antonov Mar 19 '15 at 12:53
  • @LuboAntonov: Sorry, on second thoughts I meant I don't want to publish on arxiv because I don't have anyone to endorse me and want to publish it on that forum anyway. Any advice? – Awesome Academist Mar 19 '15 at 12:59
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    Out of two words, pick one: publish, forum. Posting your thoughts on a web forum is not publishing in the academic sense of the word. – virmaior Mar 19 '15 at 13:33
  • @virmaior: Ok, but my question was whether it was a safe thing to do. Or does the fact that it is not officially "publishing" mean that someone else can "publish" (officially) at any time after and end up with priority? – Awesome Academist Mar 19 '15 at 13:35
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    Stealing ideas no matter where they occur is called "plagiarism". Depending on the meaning of the word "can" in question, the answer is either yes someone can take you idea (i.e. plagiarize it) if you post it AND no, it does not matter that this is not a publication as to whether or not they can call "dibbs" on the idea and then claim it was their original idea in the academic world. Because they would be plagiarizing... (if your question is about something outside of academia, I don't have the ability to answer it here). – virmaior Mar 19 '15 at 13:39
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If somebody copies your text, then the fact that you posted this text publicly and earlier on the internet (in a location you can't feasibly control, so it won't look like you faked the historical record) will prove that they plagiarized.

It's a little trickier if somebody in inspired by your idea and writes their own paper that doesn't cite yours, since there's no way to distinguish this from independently coming up with the same idea. It would be unethical to do this, but it could in principle happen. If you pointed out your prior posting, you would deserve to at least share the credit. However, people might still downplay your contribution. "Sure, there was an earlier internet posting outlining the basic idea, but it wasn't nearly as well developed and nobody noticed it since it was posted somewhere obscure. The real scientific breakthrough occurred when the idea was independently rediscovered, properly understood and worked out, and disseminated to the research community." You could end up as a footnote, which is still credit but a sort of grudging credit.

I don't expect this will cause any problems. It's not worrisome unless your ideal is attractive enough to seem worth stealing, while remaining obscure enough that someone could hope to get away with it. The biggest barrier to intellectual theft is publicity: once enough people know about your idea, anyone who claims to have found it independently will get shot down by someone saying "You may not have known about this, but that's just your own ignorance, since the rest of us know Awesome Academist came up with this idea in 2015. You should pay more attention to the internet."

Furthermore, if your idea really stays obscure enough that someone could get away with stealing it, then your posting evidently didn't have much impact on the community and you arguably deserve only a footnote's worth of credit. (People deserve some credit for reaching the goal first, but more credit if they make a bigger contribution by circulating their ideas and influencing the research community.)

I doubt you need to worry about theft, but trying to publish your paper formally could help address this possibility by putting your work before a broader audience. Anything worth stealing is worth publishing in the first place, so if theft worries you then you should consider publication.

  • Thank for for this excellent reply! You've given me a lot to think about (especially the last sentence). – Awesome Academist Mar 19 '15 at 15:10
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    @AwesomeAcademist The advice typically given here to people in your situation is that you pass your paper onto someone more senior in the field who you trust. This person can give you feedback on whether it is worth publishing or e.g. endorse you so you can post it on the arXiv. – Miguel Mar 19 '15 at 15:28
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The only problem I see is with this:

This seems unlikely since the date I posted it on the forum will show that I came up with it before him.

Hypothetically, someone in the future could easily argue that the date shown on the forum post has been faked - it would be even easier for them to argue this if you're friends with the person/people running the forum.

So you need to get some kind of trusted-above-reproach third party to provide an unimpeachable confirmation of the date that you posted it.

One way to do this would be using the Internet Archive's 'Wayback Machine' http://archive.org/web/

Save Page Now
Capture a web page as it appears now for use as a trusted citation in the future.
Only available for sites that allow crawlers.
As it says, it'll only work with sites that allow the IA web-crawler, so test it first with some other page from the same forum, and then once you know it's working post the paper and then get the IA to capture it. That'll prove the date on which you posted it.

Another way to do it would be to get a notary public to certify a document showing the paper, e.g. a printout of the forum post.

(I should add that my knowledge of this kind of thing is based on IP law e.g. patents/copyright rather than academic publication, but still, priority is priority).

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There are "trusted timestamp services" which use a combination of digital signing and included a timestamp with the document, as a cryptographically strong method of asserting that something existed unmodified at a particular date/time. Some of these services are free. So long as the services private key is never compromised, their public key can be used to verify the authenticity of the timestamp signature. Some of these services are free.

The only doubt that one might cast on the legitimacy of such a signature, is whether you somehow coerced the signing authority to falsify the date. So usually you want the service to be run somewhere that anti-fraud laws/regulations would give them credibility.

How much this would stand up in a court of law would probably involve expert witnesses that understand the process and can try and explain it to someone in a court of law.

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