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After completing my dissertation proposal, I got data from a company for the idea. After that, I was searching my dissertation advisor.

I talked with an assistant professor(A), and then he asked me to send all of the collected literature and the proposal to him. A few days later, he informed me that he could not accept me as his student.

I found another professor(B) and then began to work with him(B). However, my new advisor(B) forced me to give up the proposal without any clear reasons. So I needed to give it up because for a month, he(B) kept asking me to find a different topic.

About 2 years later after the time, I found that my advisor(B) and his former student(C) had been working on my proposal topic and began to submit several papers.

The story was that: His former student(C) was in a relationship with the assistant professor(A) I sent my proposal and literature to. The assistant professor(A) sent the stuff to her(C) (my advisor's former student). She(C) contacted my advisor(B) to ask for my advisor's help to develop the idea and so….

Such a thing happened one more time. My advisor's point(B) was that she was unable to find a topic and so he(B) had provided research ideas to her(C), and so on.

This Fall, her(C) tenure will be under review. I'd like to send a letter to her dean to inform this. However, I am unsure how to do that effectively. Any suggestions?

By the way, I do not work with the advisor(B) anymore. I had a chance to talk about this matter with the assistant professor(A). He said that he just shared the proposal with her(C) because it was an interesting idea. He did not know the other stuff - why and how she worked the topic with the professor(B). Finally the advisor(B) said that it happened because she(C) brought the idea to him before I met him.

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    @MadJack I didn't read "relationship" as a romantic relationship before the edit, did I miss something? – ryanpattison Apr 30 '15 at 22:43
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    @rpattiso You didn't miss anything so much as I took it and ran with it. I edited that out and I'll let OP clarify. Thanks. – Mad Jack Apr 30 '15 at 22:49
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    @rpattiso: And which alternative interpretation do you suggest for "was in a relationship with the assistant professor" if you didn't read it that way before the edit? – gnometorule Apr 30 '15 at 22:57
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    @rpattiso In a relationship can only mean a romantic relationship to me. If it was another kind, you might say she had a relationship with him, but not that she was in one with him. – starsplusplus May 1 '15 at 13:52
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    If the OP's not a native English speaker then he may have mixed up the relationship nuances, so we should wait until OP clarifies to make a judgment. – daaxix May 1 '15 at 17:47
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Pragmatically, your best solution might be to just move on with your life. Not all wrongs have a good remedy.

It's not entirely clear from what you said about whether C did anything wrong, or whether it's directly relevant to C's tenure case. But even if C did something wrong, it might be hard to prove it, as it will be full of "he-said-she-saids" and "C should have known" and so on. (For instance, how will you prove that C knew that the ideas were improperly shared/appropriated from your proposal? How will you prove that your ideas are substantial enough that you should have been a co-author?)

And even if you were to prove it, there's a non-trivial risk that your standing in your community will suffer. You could become known as "hard to work with". Given how the process works, it's a near-certainty that if you were to send a letter to the dean complaining about this, word will get out.

Instead, there's a good chance that your best response is to simply move on with your life. When a collaboration with someone goes bad, the most effective remedy is often simply to not work with them again. Yes, it sucks, but that's life. The best strategy is to learn to be resilient, bounce back, and keep doing good science. Do good science, and people will come to respect you. Don't worry too much about others; focus on yourself, on being the best person and the best scientist you can be. It's natural to be angry and upset; my advice on that is to find a sympathetic friend and tell them how you're feeling -- take a moment to get it out of your system... and then move on.

Caveat: This answer is speculative. It's unlikely we'll be able to give you definitive advice, given the level of detail in your question. It will be difficult to give conclusive answers to your situation with any degree of certainty; only someone with detailed knowledge of the specific situation you're in can help you. Therefore, if you still have doubts, I suggest finding a senior member of the field who you trust and respect and talk privately with them to solicit their advice.

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    I am genuinely wondering: Why would it be unwise to share the details in public? Why is there this kind of atmosphere in academics of sweeping things under the carpet if they make someone look bad? Thanks for answering my question in advance. – L0j1k May 1 '15 at 3:50
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    This is, in a sense, a terrible answer. Is there something special about academia which means that people should not stand up for what is right? – Lembik May 1 '15 at 6:38
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    @L0j1k: there are other places than academia where snitches get stitches, it's not special. You'll see this approach on workplace.SE too, ranging from "pick your battles" to "shut up and keep your head down, serf". Doesn't make the reprisals right, just that when you analyse the problem in terms of likely outcomes, and authority is unable or unlikely to protect you, then the prognosis often isn't good. That said, never mind A/B/C, the people who think of you as "hard to work with" because you object when people refuse to work with you and lift your proposal anyway, are the absolute worst. – Steve Jessop May 1 '15 at 9:34
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    This statement " You could become known as "hard to work with"" is just ridiculous. It is like blaming the victim of rape for the rape itself. People need to stand up against these kind of actions, especially in academia, otherwise it emboldens bad behavior and unethical actions. – daaxix May 1 '15 at 17:52
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    @daaxix Problem is: we have seen only one side of the coin. While I tend to believe OP the way this is described, I know from cases where junior members of academia (won't mention levels) have believed they invented something which was stolen from them by a prof while it was them that didn't understand the prof in the first place, and when they understood they thought it was their own idea, they forgot where they got it from and thought the prof had stolen it from them. This is usually not a serious threat to an established prof, but still this is what the warning "hard to work with" is about. – Captain Emacs Oct 20 '16 at 8:19
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In two of the answers, people just suggest you to move further and forget about what happened. I disagree with it and think that if you truly believe that people took advantage of you (in my answer I assume that you described the situation in a correct way), you should stood up for yourself and be firm.

I do agree with D.W.'s answer that your chances are not high, and not all wrongs have a good remedy, but I think that you have to report it because:

  • how the next potential students of A and B know that they are not people who should be trusted?
  • when you hear a shot and a sound of breaking glass in the night you call a police, not because you think that your information is enough to find a culprit, but because you do not want this behavior to continue. Whether they will be able to find a person who did it and whether it is really worth of opening a crime case is not your responsibility.

Sorry, but I am unable to give you a suggestion as to how approach this situation, but please do not give up.

  • No, if I hear a shot and the sound of breaking glass in the night, I call the police in the hope that they can stop the crime in progress and arrest the perpetrator while he's still perpetrating. That analogy doesn't apply at all in this case. – David Richerby May 1 '15 at 8:26
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    @DavidRicherby so if you would know that police would come in 10 minutes and the person is running away, will you just ignore it? If you need another example than how about this: if somebody would stole you mobile (you do not know who has done it, and it happened yesterday). Would you file a police report? – Salvador Dali May 1 '15 at 8:35
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    There are at least three reasons to report other than catching the perp in the act. One is prosaic, because you can't make an insurance claim for theft of your mobile without it. Another is to give the cops information about the crime in the hope it'll help them catch the perp later. Another is to give the cops information about crime in general, in the hope it will help them with resource deployment and preventative actions. It's arguably worth the police knowing about shots fired even though you don't know for sure they'll get to the bottom of it. – Steve Jessop May 1 '15 at 9:39
  • So three reasons to report: 1. You can explain the company who gave you the data why you didn't do anything with it. 2. You hope (A,B,C) get caught or better monitored. 3. The academia could introduce a registration system for entering ideas (patents?) when it happens more often. – Walter A May 1 '15 at 18:00
2

Move on and move far..

First of all, an idea is nothing in science. I know everything says the opposite in lecture rooms, but in practice an idea is just idea. When you work out someone's idea yourself (eg as a graduate student or a postdoc told by your prof), working on the details for several years, building up a whole research topic and writing several papers from a 5 min vague description that someone gave you - you will feel the same.

Second, it is very unlikely that a dean would even raise his/her eyebow, whatever you do. Unethical what A, B and C did if your description true? Yes. Happens often in science? Oh, you bet. Can you prove it? Do you have labnotes, with proper time-stamps and signature showing you made any preliminary work? Your story also contains a lot of allegations, juicy details, you cannot prove half of it and also makes A, B, C deny even parts of the story.

Can you argue that it is such an important issue that should automatically nill a tenure, or at least worth some serious disciplinary action? Even if you would have some evident, you have to prove some malicious happened, not an accidental negligence, so I hardly think. Also, there is a high chance that your dean / most professor in any disciplinary committee would share my opinion on the first point, even if you don't think so.

Third, and idea is just an idea. If you don't have 10 new every day, don't go to science. You may lost a couple of weeks (days?) of work, but going into battle for this will earn you nothing. Learn to keep a distance from people with questionable reputation.

Remark: anyone with a "-1" is welcome to actually comment or argue

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    This is a very negative answer, unreasonably so it seems to me. First of all, "an idea is nothing in science" is a terrible thing to say. It is not borne out by your argumentation: if as a graduate student or a postdoc you spend years implementing a professor's idea, then the professor gets credit for the idea: in many fields, as a coauthor; in some others, via an acknowledgment. So you seem to really be saying "In science, students don't have a right to be treated fairly." That may be the case in certain parts of science, but if so that's exactly what the OP is complaining about. – Pete L. Clark May 1 '15 at 5:04
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    Second, all the business about the OP arguing that someone should get tenure: of course that's not up to him. He can just present his case -- which he should do whether someone is going up for tenure or not -- and then it's up to others to evaluate it. Third, the idea that the OP has to "prove malice" is dead wrong. The burden of responsibility is on academics not to misappropriate others' work and ideas. Stealing someone's ideas by accident is a sign of gross incompetence and need not reflect better than stealing someone's ideas maliciously: the latter person sounds more competent. – Pete L. Clark May 1 '15 at 5:07
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    it was my -1 and I disagree with a couple of points here. First of all, ideas are be important as well. I am sure that if someone would mention the idea for fast fourier transformation, dijkstra algorithm or theory of relativity a year before each publication, a lot of people would come up with the solution/theory. The second is that a person should just ignore injustice. If somebody steals a mobile from me, I would report it to the police. I do not care that I have no idea who has done it, and that it happens a lot. Whether police will find a person or not - it is another story. – Salvador Dali May 1 '15 at 5:09
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    @Greg: If you think I've misread something, please point it out specifically. I explained why "An idea is nothing" is not a tenet of actual science. In fact it is the opposite of a basic principle common to all of academia, that ideas are treated with primacy and respect. All you seem to be saying is that some people behave badly, even very famous ones. As Salvador Dali says, because crimes are committed frequently does not make them okay. It is very irresponsible to suggest otherwise. – Pete L. Clark May 1 '15 at 5:23
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    "You misinterpret me on purpose." Certainly not. Your assumption that I am not proceeding in good faith is rather uncollegial. I took the time to comment on your answer, as you explicitly wrote that you wanted. Please decide: do you want people to explain why they disagree with your answer or not? If so, you need to be civil about it. – Pete L. Clark May 1 '15 at 6:41

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