9

In response to a solicitation in an area of my expertise, I approached a known expert in a different field; I had thought of a way to apply that field to solve the problem. He liked my idea and set up a meeting with him and his postdocs; over time, we went through several rounds of written communication, proposal outlines, research plans, and revisions amongst us.

Midway through, I learned more about the solicitation and concluded that it wasn't a good match; we discussed this, decided not to apply, but that the plan was good and that we should look for other sources of funding. As we did this, we continued to do some revisions together.

A while later, he sent me an email that he found a good source of funding, that he has a good relationship with the source and doesn't really need a partner for it, and that he is going to apply without me. I was quite upset, but, seeing that he was telling me and not asking me, and that I had no way to stop him, said "okay, makes sense, please send me a copy of the proposal and keep me informed."

In truth, his proposal was advanced far beyond what I had last worked on. But, the core idea was mine; and I have the records to attest to that, not to mention that his postdocs could verify that as well.

Assuming he gets the grant, I have no desire to get a share of the funds. At this point, he can do the rest of the work without me. He really is an expert and manages a very large, very prominent research program with lots of high profile funding. And rightfully so - he produces results.

What I would like is coauthorship. After all, the entire approach is my idea. I thought of using his area of expertise to solve a very high profile problem of growing importance in my field, and described to him in detail why all the indigenous methods to my field are failing, and why an approach drawing on his expertise could succeed.

What is the right way to handle this? I won't be satisfied with an acknowledgement at the end; I'd like to be one of the authors. I'm happy helping with the research further though I'm not sure he feels he needs me.

And, moreover, is this type of behavior acceptable? Do I have any leverage here? Do I need it?


CLARIFICATIONS:

  1. To clarify, while I certainly didn't do the research yet, it was more than just giving him an idea. I sent an outline, discussed the plan, and spent hours revising and iterating on their research plan. I'll be equally clear that the final proposal was very high quality, and went far beyond what I had worked on.

  2. From the responses, it seems this falls into a grey area. So let me revise my question: Given that he's probably going forward with this, what's the best way to approach him and ask to be a coauthor? I'd be happy being involved with the research itself, but I'm not sure he wants that. He'd probably be best off career-wise keeping it to him and his students (and, mind you, this is a researcher who puts a lot of effort on career advancement - he's an equally talented businessperson, albeit in academic research, as scholar).

  • I'll add that I realize that the smart thing would have been to say then "okay, assuming I'll be a coauthor", but I didn't think to do that at the time and it's water under the bridge now. – SRobertJames Apr 1 '15 at 5:04
  • 1
    Having a good idea is not enough to become a coauthor. – Tobias Kildetoft Apr 1 '15 at 5:45
  • 2
    @TobiasKildetoft , but taking someone's idea, and turning it into a paper without any credit given is also very disingenuous. – Peter Apr 1 '15 at 8:57
10

I am somewhat surprised about the answers so far. The behavior of the professor as described seems at least a little unethical at best, and downright exploitative at worst. If a more junior researcher comes to you with a good idea and some first steps towards a concrete research plan, and you answer with (basically) gee, good work, now please excuse me while I do this research with my own students, I have a hard time seeing how this would be in any way considered fair. Asking the OP to be happy because he "helped progress science" after all is ... ok, I have literally no good word for this expectation. As we all know, reputation is the currency of science, and it sounds like the OP was badly short-changed.

Whether the professor "needs" the OP or not is, to me, not really the important question here. The OP had the original idea, so it is unlikely to assume that he would be entirely useless in the remainder of the project. Hence, cutting him out of the research basically right from the start seems really awful. The least you can do is take him on and give him a chance to contribute to the research - if it then turns out that he or she actually lacks all the relevant knowledge to contribute from the project from then on (unlikely), you can still decide together to part ways later on.

And, moreover, is this type of behavior acceptable? Do I have any leverage here? Do I need it?

I wouldn't consider it ethical at all. Whether you have any leverage is another question - likely no, as (as correctly noted above), just having the idea by itself does not warrant co-authorship (but you should have been given the chance to do more), but it is kind of too late for this now.

I'd be happy being involved with the research itself, but I'm not sure he wants that. He'd probably be best off career-wise keeping it to him and his students (and, mind you, this is a researcher who puts a lot of effort on career advancement - he's an equally talented businessperson, albeit in academic research, as scholar).

As I said, it is a bit late to ask for co-authorship of a thing that's already been written without you. If you don't actually want to be involved in the rest of the project, I am not sure what you can realistically ask for. In this case, I am not sure if you can get much more than an acknowledgement that you brought the idea to the mind of the professor.

(that being said, I wouldn't touch a collaboration with this guy anymore for the rest of my life)

4

As Kimball mentions, this falls into a gray area. However, presuming they left you out of the collaborators list, I wouldn't presume the professor would do such a thing "unintentionally". You should definitely ask again for involvement, but should also be prepared that your mails will go unanswered. The professor presumably doesn't want anything to do with you and however unethical that may sound (and certainly is), it is far more common than we in academia care to admit.

That being said, I really don't think you can force the professor into anything at this point. You shared your idea, that alone doesn't merit collaboration or co-authorship, it is your ability to produce results that counts. If you can build the idea up to get some results (even preliminary ones), I would suggest writing up a paper draft or even a research proposal and uploading them to arxive to obtain a timestamp. In doing so, you have a (remote) chance in making the professors life a little difficult, if you do it sufficiently before they get to mention it to their funding source.

Again, if you are not capable of writing up such a document, then your idea is really just an idea and anyone can work on it, with or without you. In that case you certainly shared it too soon, even more so, if the professor is not from your institution. This is a lesson, albeit a painful one. When you come up with something, you brood on it, read on it, research it, then you write it up. You repeat that process until you have a document that clearly establishes the "what you are going to achieve", the "which problem(s) you are addressing with it", the "who has done previous work on it" and a general idea of the "how are going to do it". You can at some point share your insights and thoughts with your most trusted immediate colleagues, but not so someone you don't know personally. After you got a document like this (usually around 2-3 pages), mind you, at this stage it is far from being called a paper, you upload it to obtain a timestamp. Then, you can contact collaborators which can help you with the "how", as in your case, so you can discuss your idea. You needn't mention the uploaded document, but not hide it either. You get some leverage in doing so, but it is never 100% fool proof and people bent on stealing your idea will find ways to do it, so you should also be careful who you want to collaborate with and what written terms of the collaboration apply.

1

Here is what the situation sounds like to me. You had an idea for a research project with a general approach in mind. Professor A is an expert in these methods, and you proposed the project to Professor A. You planned to work on the project together. Then he sent in a solo grant proposal on this project.

Revised below

Question: is your name mentioned in the proposal as a collaborator? At least in my field, one can apply for solo grants where the projects are collaborative, but planned collaborators will be listed in the proposal. If you are not mentioned in the proposal, this is not a good sign.

What to do: Send Professor A a brief email and tell him you think the proposal looks good and simply say you would still like to work on this with him (if indeed you want to put in more work--without more mork, you will probably not be a coauthor) and ask if he is open to that. Since this was (based on?) your idea, and you had originally planned to work together, there is a good chance Professor A will be sympathetic to this. However, it is possible that Professor A felt he has a project way beyond your original idea and, since he can do it on his own, he will. In particular, if your expertise will not even assist you in contributing to this project, Professor A is more likely to want to do this on his own.

Either of these outcomes may be reasonable, depending on the circumstances. An idea alone (or even a research plan) is usually not enough reason to be a coauthor, and once you suggest an idea to someone, they can work on it without you if they like, if you had no agreement otherwise with them. In your case, you were planning to work on your original idea together, so Professor A doing this on his own falls into more of a gray area, depending largely how similar the current proposal is to your original one. If they are essentially the same project, then dropping you from the project without discussion is unacceptable. If they seem like different projects, then he is not obligated to invite you to be a coauthor (though this would be the kind thing to do, at least if he feels you can contribute, and many faculty would do this if this supplants your old project). The issue is that the two of you may have different, naturally biased, views on how similar these things are.

Note: Some disciplines, and some colleagues, are more competitive than others. This makes some people paranoid, or at least judicious, about sharing ideas with their colleagues. There are pros and cons to both keeping your ideas guarded and discussing them freely with others. I don't agree with the other answer that you necessarily shared your idea too soon, just that you got unlucky in this case. One should be somewhat careful, but it doesn't sound like Professor A was angling to steal your ideas from the beginning, but he does sound like the competitive type.

Final remarks: If you couldn't have done without Professor A's, even if you don't end up as a coauthor, you've still helped advance science and you haven't really lost a publication, just lost that clean taste in your mouth. While it is natural to feel some ownership of ideas you've thought about for awhile and you want some sort of publication credit for them, a lot of the time these ideas don't work out to the point that merit a publication for you, though someone else may come along later, or frequently before you, and get something out of it.

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