17

I'm really not sure how to proceed from here.

I'm an undergraduate Computer Science student, planning to earn my MSc in the next couple of years.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with a professor (I'll call him A) on an informal setting, and, since he was my teacher on an area relevant to the subject, I discussed with him an idea I had, and about how I was trying to make it my own thesis project.

I have also previously "pitched" this idea to another professor (B). He liked it, and we agreed that once I graduated, he was willing to be my advisor, and I could work on it.

However, I was recently shown the list of thesis proposals for current students, and my idea was among them - being supervised by prof. A, and an unrelated professor, C.

The details are so close to what we have discussed that this is almost surely no coincidence.

Now, I can't say I'm 100% sure he stole my idea, but he didn't mention any of this when we talked, and this thesis list was made after our conversation.

Anything could have happened: either I'm right, or prof. C actually came up with the same idea, or prof. A had a similar idea in the past but didn't tell me about it.

I don't know how to proceed. I am already skeptical of academia - seeing my peers work on projects and write papers that didn't interest them, for the sole purpose of earning an MSc, means I'm not interested on working for it unless it's a subject I really care about. That is - I either find anything I want to work on, or I don't care about earning an MSc at all. This was the case. I found a project I wanted to work on.

My question is on the ethics of what may have happened. I have zero experience on academia or research environments, but I have always considered ideas as important as research. That is, copying an idea is as serious to me as copying research. This would fall into plagiarism.

  • Is this perspective shared among actual academics? Am I naive in thinking like this?
  • Am I right in wanting to "keep" an idea to myself, in order to work on it later?
  • Should I just stay quiet the next time? Shouldn't I be able to discuss these kind of things with people I consider to be honest or "bona fide", without having to be afraid of being copied?

I see multiple possible courses of action, but in the end, I don't know what I want to achieve. The thesis is already assigned, so I probably won't be able to take it away from the student who got it. I also don't know whether this is an ethics violation from prof. A or not, since this is "just an idea" that I voluntarily shared with him.

I can confront prof. A about this, either sending him an e-mail or speaking with him in person, to get his side of the story.

Or I can go to prof. B and tell him about this situation, to see what are his thoughts on it. He looked interested on working with me on this, so maybe he'll know better how to proceed.

What is the best (or "a good") course of action now? I don't feel I should forget this whole story and move on to a different subject, but I don't see what can be done now.

  • 4
    I think your case really depends on two factors: 1. How did you discuss the idea with prof A? Verbal or written e-mail? If it was all in verval communication, you probably don't have a case. 2. Did you discuss the idea with prof A in details and in depth? For example, anyone can have a research idea on why people like to get on social media so much? Unless you already have a specfic method to tackle it, you can hardly say anyone stole it because anyone could easily come up with this idea. – scaaahu May 8 '15 at 5:58
  • I believe one recommended procedure when having an idea is to write up a preliminary draft of it, and put it somewhere public where it will be time stamped. That way you can assert prior art. You could also, or additionally, circulate the draft publicly. And make sure anyone you are discussing the matter knows about this. I'm not offering this as an answer, because it doesn't really answer your question. And I'm not sure such a procedure is complete protection, but it is a lot better than nothing, and might make something considering an unethical procedure think twice. – Faheem Mitha May 8 '15 at 11:27
  • FWIW an office mate of mine once described a similar experience (described an idea to a professor, and later discovered he had published a paper on it), and you can find others described on this site, so such things certainly happen. – Faheem Mitha May 8 '15 at 11:28
  • My father, who was a professor for many years, once told me that profs do this all the time. He told the story of a professor who was furious when a student took out a copyright on one of his papers. – BobRodes Aug 5 '15 at 1:47
21

I think it's very clear that you should talk with (B). You had previously discussed this idea with (B) so s/he knows that it was something that you had been considering. Furthermore, (B) also presumably knows the situation within the department better than you. Maybe (A) is known for doing things like this. Maybe the overlap isn't as serious as you think and (B) can reassure you that you can still do your thesis as you wanted to. No one here can decide whether either one of these is the case.

One word of advice: in talking with (B), present this situation as something that you are concerned about, but stay unemotional and stick to the facts: (B) knows that you were interested in this similar project, you discussed it with (A), and now another student is doing this project with (A). You do not need to connect the dots and accuse (A) directly of plagiarism or dishonest conduct in an initial conversation with (B). If this is a misunderstanding or miscommunication then doing so makes you seem aggressive and prone to jumping to conclusions. If (A) did something that is as blatantly dishonest as you have suggested, then that will be obvious to (B) as well.

  • Thanks! I, too, think that talking to B is the best thing to do for now. While I have a strong suspicion on what happened, I'm aware I may not have all the facts, and I don't want to make any unfounded accusations. This is probably what I'll do - although I'm not sure I would have thought about being unemotional about it. This is really getting to me. – Valmiky Arquissandas May 9 '15 at 3:32
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    Another word of advice: if you present this to prof B as "we talked about this thesis, and prof A has it in a list, and now I'm concerned that I'll have to find something else; is there a way I can still work on it?" then that might be a good way to get the "It's mine and he stole it" baggage off to the side. – BobRodes Aug 5 '15 at 1:49
2

I agree that you should talk to B about it.

In the meanwhile, let me offer another perspective. Given that you are an undergrad, it is possible that you are not experienced enough to judge:

1) what the research frontiers are in the field

2) how "close" two ideas are

For example, it may be the case that your idea was something general like "I would like to use technique X on problem Y". But the novelty may come from the fact that technique X needs to be modified drastically on problem Y (e.g. if Y is a super large dataset). In this case, ostensibly the ideas are similar, but in fact the core of the idea, at least from a "contribution to science" perspective, is different.

  • I agree I don't know how much of a "contribution to science" this is. My idea is mostly about applying things already being done in one context (information security and privacy) in a different context where it seems to be lacking (cloud computing). I think it is interesting, useful, and given the current US affairs (NSA, Snowden leaks, etc), this should be a great time to think about it. Maybe that's the reason why it was rushed into becoming someone else's thesis at all. – Valmiky Arquissandas May 9 '15 at 3:36
  • I think you will find a lot of people working on that. Anytime a technology rushes ahead of associated ancilliary technologies, everyone around notices that at about the same time. – Dave Harris May 27 '17 at 23:18
0

This is something everyone in academia is concerned about. I agree that you should discuss it with professor B as suggested in the positively-voted answers above. In addition, you can after that do a series of quick research pertaining to your algorithm and produce something publishable, possibly collaborating with professor B. A conference paper is a good target.

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Anybody can steal an idea. Theres not much worth of an idea in itself. The main thing is the execution. That nobody can steal. IF you believe so much in your idea. Why don't you make it a reality. Before Google there were 100s of search engines. So idea in itself is worth a dime. It's the real tangible form of it which matters. If you like it so much , go for it before anyone else.

  • 8
    "Anybody can steal an idea." OK. Also anyone can steal a car. "Theres not much worth of an idea in itself." That statement runs directly counter to core ideas about academic integrity. "The main thing is the execution. That nobody can steal." That is manifestly false: unfortunately, intellectual property of all forms is stolen fairly regularly. "So idea in itself is worth a dime." This is also false: manifestly, some pure ideas are worth a lot of money. It is also irrelevant: stealing ideas without clear financial worth is just as unethical. – Pete L. Clark May 8 '15 at 19:03
  • That kind of opinion is what I'm looking for. Unlike the other answers I've had, you seem to consider ideas to be worthless by themselves, and only when implemented are they valuable at all? Is this the line of thinking you see in an academic context? – Valmiky Arquissandas May 9 '15 at 3:46
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    There is a lot of truth in this answer, even if it is not particularly helpful to the asker. – Cape Code May 9 '15 at 11:41
  • No I am talking more in context of industry so may not be very suited to academia. But Yes of course implementation is the key in industry. And in academia also, once you get an idea if you don't do experiments to show that your idea really works, then whats the point ? I advise you to work on your idea independently to make it a reality. Good ideas are stolen always so that at least proves that your idea is worth pursuing. Good luck. – Coderaemon May 9 '15 at 12:41
  • You can't patent or copyright an idea, but that hardly means that it's "not much worth" in it. Any inventor's ideas were at one time just an idea, and many of those ideas made people millionaires. There's also often great value in being first-to-market, so to have someone working on your idea before you do can make a huge difference in the future. – Terry Lewis Jun 11 '15 at 2:53
-6

An idea is an important part of research, but copying an (unpublished) idea is not entirely plagiarism, I fear. Academia is dealing with a two-bladed sword here. On the one hand, it is about plagiarism and authorship and credit; on the other hand, really good ideas have to be preserved, even in case you lose interest in the matters (or drop out or sth like that).

I guess Professor A assumed that, since you are years away from your degree, and since master thesises, unlike PhDs, are not strictly required to dig into a completely new topic, academia can cope with multiple master thesises on your topic, and decided that he cannot wait to push such an interesting topic until after you publish your initial work, should that ever be the case. I don't know about your university, but at mine, a third-semester C.S. bachelor has a less than 50% chance of actually getting a master's degree. Most dropouts here are "caused" by mathematics and/or engineering basic courses, not by CS classes, and they also befall CS students who score above average in the CS classes.

Now, if you really want to pursue that issue, there are three leverages you have. Let's call them A, B and C:

  • Depending on your current situation, you can state to A that the "idea" of that master thesis is what you start working on very soon, and ask him to take the topic off his list for a certain amount of time. I personally do not believe that he will take it off his list for as long as three or four years; this is a really long time in CS.
  • You may also talk to your to-be-supervisor B, state to him the fact that you presented your ideas to A on that matter on , and that this very idea was published on the site only afterwards. If both professors are of the same institute, he should be able to sort it out (but I don't know if he will do it, for the aforementioned reason).
  • And you can send an eMail to C, informing him about the very same fact, and ask him whether he can definitely say that the idea of A is older, and if not, whether he is comfortable with being part of a situation of stolen ideas. This may only have the effect that C does not do co-supervision.

I personally would recommend against any of these actions, they burn bridges without promising any positive effect. But you should consider it a valuable lesson learned for your PhD:
Mouth shut, ears open!

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    "Mouth shut, ears open" is poor advice for a young scientist. Not only does science slam to a halt if people follow that advice, but also it hurts the individual in question. Even if an idea is borrowed here or there, the only way to build one's reputation is to share one's ideas. Waiting for an article to go through the publication system only delays the entire process. – Corvus May 8 '15 at 7:10
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    @corvus saw a friend drop out of PhD because after three years of research, he lost "his" topic to a "friend" who borrowed the idea and went fast-track, so don't tell me what is good advice on that matter and what isn't. – Alexander May 8 '15 at 7:13
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    @Alexander if we never took risks and always took the safest route, the progress of research would be painstakingly slow. We must intelligently choose which risks are worth the reward, and which are not. However, talking about your research is simply necessary both to improve communication skills, and get further ideas on what to do. Your friend's experience is unfortunate, but you should not let such an uncommon incident dictate such strong advice to everyone else. – Moriarty May 8 '15 at 7:50
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    @Moriarty So you say I should take an uncalculable risk, so that academia gets the reward? The very same academia that made talking a risk in the first place? Haha! – Alexander May 8 '15 at 7:58
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    @Alexander yes, I do say that. Of course, it's not only academia as a whole that gets rewarded – a PhD student who never talks about his work is unlikely to be very successful in getting postdoc positions or to develop fruitful collaborations. You should use caution and scruples, sure – but don't let unjustified mistrust hamper your work. Trust people on the strength of their reputation and how well you know them, rather than mistrusting them based on how well you don't. – Moriarty May 8 '15 at 11:26

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