Some weeks ago I went to a conference with some of the leading minds in my field of research. One of the speakers (professor A) mentioned a problem that bothered him and that was unsolved up to that point. After the talk (when most had already left the room to get coffee) professor B mentioned a possible algorithm to A to solve these kind of problems (myself and some others followed the discussion with interest).

Out of interest in the topic and motivated by the prospect of a novel algorithm, I spent some time working on this question myself - combined the suggestion of professor B with some of my own ideas and indeed found an algorithm that solves the problem. I can even proof convergence, error bounds, etc. The suggestion of professor B was enough for a working algorithm, but I think that convergence and correctness proofs are only possible with the addition of my ideas.

The question is how to proceed now. If I had thought of the initial idea myself it would be obvious that I should write it up and get it published. As it stands I obviously have to get in touch with professor B (and professor A?) though.

Is it too presumptuous to propose a collaborative paper to professor B? Should I also contact professor A? I can assume that he at least also worked on the same problem these past few weeks... I could just mention them in the acknowledgment part of the paper - but that would still feel like I stole their idea.

I could just write them, what my ideas are on the topic - but I would feel more comfortable doing so if they already communicated a will to collaborate with me. As it stands they don't even know I worked on the issue... On the other hand if I write something along the line of "I have found something. If you are willing to collaborate I will share it with you." it feels somewhat like extortion...

Is there some etiquette how to handle this situation or is it just "first come first serve", and I should see that I get the results published? (OK, the latter is definitely rude - but still...)

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    You are "currently a masters student", therefore in your email to Prof B you could say, "Sorry as I am currently a master student I do not know the eradicate on how to handle this.."
    – Ian
    Jul 21, 2015 at 10:13
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    @ian "eradicate" --> "etiquette" Jul 21, 2015 at 13:28
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    I agree with much of what's in the answers posted so far, but want to highlight one point that came out in the discussion: The details of the right way to proceed might depend partly on how substantial Professor B's verbal contribution to your solution is. If you're not sure how much credit B deserves, then you should consult with someone in the field. Some of the suggestions suggest ways to use Professor B as that person, but you might also want to consult with one or more professors in your department.
    – Mars
    Jul 21, 2015 at 18:28
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    Do you have an advisor? I would think the first person to ask would be her/him...
    – Joe
    Jul 21, 2015 at 20:28

4 Answers 4


You should definitely get in touch with Prof B, but don't propose a collaboration immediately (that would indeed be a little bit presumptuous).

Thank him for his idea during the conference, and tell him some outline of your results (you may want to share the paper if you feel comfortable). And then end the email with something like "given that the origin of the idea was initially yours, I was wondering how you felt about a possible co-authorship? If you feel that this is not possible, would you mind if I put forward your name in the acknowledgments section?"

That way you leave the choice up to him, and he can have an easy way out if he doesn't feel like being a co-author for any reason.

(EDIT: Regarding Prof A, it might be good etiquette to get in touch with him to make sure he's not working on the same stuff, but I don't think it's strictly necessary)

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    One possible issue with this approach: Prof B could feel insulted that you seriously considered the possibility of not listing him as a coauthor. Based on the way the question described it, I would think B is a shoe-in for coauthorship (unless he declines). A reasonable person would overlook such feelings, I think, but of course not all academics (or all people) are reasonable.
    – David Z
    Jul 21, 2015 at 6:47
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    @DavidZ Good comment. I think you mean "shoo-in" (grammarist.com/spelling/shoo-in). Jul 21, 2015 at 14:01
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    @EthanBolker I'm not sure I've ever seen it spelled that way, but yes, that is what I meant.
    – David Z
    Jul 21, 2015 at 14:19

If I read "If you are willing to collaborate I will share it with you." in an email from a PhD student I'd internally LOL and ignore that line! :)

Actually it sounds like you've done enough independent work for a paper already.

I think the main thing is to be honest and open with them.

An obvious question is do you want to publish alone? (There are a lot of benefits to having "Professor Hot Shot" as a co-author but in some cases they are exaggerated).

Presumably you would appreciate their views on it though, and certainly it seems best to give them a relaxed way of claiming co-authorship.

I suggest-

Write a quick rough draft, with credit to Professor B for proposing the algorithm. ("We show [blah] for an algorithm proposed by Professor B"). If you really made substantive changes to the algorithm, you could say "a variation of an algorithm proposed by Professor B".

In acknowledgements mention the the problem was posed by Professor A. Also acknowledge the conversation afterwards (and other participants, if there were).

Send the draft cc'd to both profs, (and also your PhD supervisor / someone trust worthy, if you don't trust profs A+B). Mention you were interested in the problem and listened to their discussions (even though you didn't actively participate, right?). You did some work, and showed [blah]. Mention that a rough draft is attached, and you'd appreciate any of their comments. Ask explicitly whether they feel sufficient credit is given to their ideas. Say very that you'd be happy to change the credits, or even write a joint paper.

If you want them to be a co-author, I think it's fine to say that!

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    +1 Honest and open is absolutely the way to go: whether they end up as co-authors or not is much less important than making sure there are clear lines of communication.
    – jakebeal
    Jul 20, 2015 at 18:34
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    Inviting "Professor Hot Shot" to be a coauthor is highly unethical if they have not contributed enough to the work to warrant coauthorship. I wouldn't classify "Hot Shot suggested maybe X would be a good starting point, and that's how I got started" as sufficient for coauthorship. That's worth an acknowledgement, either in its own section or in the introduction, nothing more. Jul 20, 2015 at 21:22
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    @zibadawatimmy That really depends on what X actually proposed: a half-baked idea would not merit co-authorship, but a complete outline of a solution missing only straightforward details might.
    – JeffE
    Jul 21, 2015 at 4:10
  • @JeffE True. The OP wasn't entirely clear. He didn't state how much X proposed and laid out. Just that there was some discussion that he was following closely. A lengthy discussion may, indeed, have included a significant hashing out of the solution, rather than just an off-hand comment that some approach may work. Jul 21, 2015 at 4:18
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    @zibadawa timmy - agreed that hot shots shouldn't be invited to be coauthor if they haven't contributed much (regardless of any advantages, which, as I mentioned are often exaggerated anyway). However, in this case it doesn't seem clear cut, and I think in such circumstances the OP's preferences can come into play. Generally it seems an ambiguous situation, and my answer certainly wasnt intentionally advocating inviting a co-author who has done no work. Jul 21, 2015 at 11:01

So, this is definitely a sticky area and hard to advise seeing as I don't know the personality of either professor. However, the fact of the matter is that you did take the extra step to formalize and create a working solution. Seeing as we don't know the extent of Professor B's contribution, it is hard to tell how far the ethics of intellectual property will kick in.

That being said, technically, you could go right ahead with your paper as long as you are sure to give proper contribution during your motivation section i.e ("With the discussion and ideas of Dr. B, such and so became a tangible idea" or something).

However, I am going to assume that Professor B (And Prof. A) have a good reputation in the research community and have lots of papers/citations under their belts and it could be very helpful for you to send a friendly e-mail saying something along the lines of "I wanted to thank you again for conference presentation and wanted to follow up on the discussion afterwards. I have pursued the topics further and found XYZ solution and would like to know if you would like to collaborate with me on a paper." In doing so, you will most likely have a good name attached to your paper(and all the help that comes with it) and still maintain first name.


The other answers are excellent but I also want to draw attention to some points.

Although a lot of starting PhD students think that the more authors on a paper the less work people will think they did. I came to realize that this is not true, no one really cares how many authors are on the paper, the first author is usually perceived as the one who did the majority of the work and/or paper writing, the last one is usually the supervisor. That's about it..

That being said, there is no harm of having more authors, involving professor B and professor A is not just the right thing to do etiquette-wise (particularly professor B), but it will also have a positive impact on your publication.

  1. As they are more experienced in that area, their contributions to the paper will probably make it more likely to be accepted at a decent conference.
  2. The more authors from different institutions the more exposure the paper gets. The paper will appear in the publications list of all co-authors, giving it a higher chance to be cited and this will reflect positively on your academic profile.

So bottom line, I suggest you contact them (individually) and tell them that you worked on that solution, and ask them if they are interested in co-authoring a paper out of that work.

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