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I am doing a PhD in economics. I had an idea on an issue of my interest. With making some research, I found out that there was a previous student at my university, who did not finish his PhD, but he made an unpublished paper on the idea that I had, which has been presented at a conference, and it is not a working paper which is registered to any database.

Probably I will do something different, but build my stuff purely on this idea, but do I risk to make something just slightly different from his stuff? In this case, is it plagiarism and also unethical? How should I handle this case?

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    Upload that unpublished paper under the author's name here. – Count Iblis Aug 23 '15 at 3:15
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    @CountIblis I'm pretty sure you are not supposed to upload things by another author without their permission. There are a lot of possible issues that could arise here. – Morgan Rodgers Aug 23 '15 at 5:37
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    Why don't you contact the student who left, and propose him to be a co-author of the paper you plan to write? – Danny Ruijters Aug 23 '15 at 13:47
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    @CountIblis I don't think that matters. And I don't think "permission should be obtained if possible" is valid either. Look at it this way: what if the original author had something plagarized in his paper. Something he meant to cite at some point, or meant to reword. But it didn't matter, because he didn't submit it anywhere. Now you put in on arXiv in his name... (for probably this reason, arXiv requires authors to submit their own papers). Much better to just cite it as unpublished, or as a private correspondence. – Morgan Rodgers Aug 23 '15 at 17:31
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    Copyright draws no distinction between "personal documents" and "work presented at a conference". Regarding Ryder's book, I find it implausible that he was copying text from Popov's preprint without permission. It's much more likely that Ryder wrote chapter 6 himself but was giving Wess and Popov credit for some of the ideas and explanations he used. (It's conceivable that Ryder got permission to copy some text, but there's no way Cambridge University Press would let him do it without permission, and I can't believe he just slipped this past his editor.) – Anonymous Mathematician Aug 23 '15 at 18:46
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It is easy to discharge your ethical obligations here: you treat the unpublished paper like you would any other source, i.e., citing it carefully and making sure not to rewrite sentences or rehash ideas without explicit attribution (include direct quotes if necessary, and probably don't include too many of those without a very compelling reason).

As you point out, the more serious risk is that you are starting thesis work on a problem on which someone else did a substantial amount of work on (though you worked on it independently) and that you may come out with little which is essentially new. You're right that this is a risk: it's a risk for all thesis work everywhere. Again my advice is to not treat this any differently than work that has been published: clearly you need to go substantially beyond it, or you don't have a thesis. Whether the prior work of this other person shows that this is a fruitful area for you to continue in or whether it is evidence that all the good stuff has already been done is one of those tough calls that your thesis advisor should help you with.

Finally, of course it is a shame if two people have done good work on something and neither of them publishes it. If it turns out that you do your thesis work on something else, then as a separate project (or perhaps better: a later project), you may want to explore a publication which is a synthesis of your work and this other person's. Offering him coauthorship would be appropriate, but if he is really out of academia then it becomes a service to the profession for you to publish the work, while accurately conveying its provenance. It's just that that kind of publication would probably not meet the requirements for a PhD thesis (and even if it did, it would not be a good launching of your career).

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You cite your source and give proper credit, even if it is an obscure unpublished manuscript. Your advisor shouldn't let you defend such a dissertation unless you really have made a substantial contribution of your own.

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    I would like to add that it is a good idea to try to obtain a permission from the former student to reproduce that unpublished paper. You can put it on your website say. Citing something that is impossible to find is only barely helpful to the reader. – Boris Bukh Aug 23 '15 at 0:10
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It is not at all uncommon for ideas to hit two entirely different and unrelated people at the same time, and they work those ideas up entirely independently.

So, well-along in the process, you discover that someone else is doing the same work. This is not plagiarism. I cannot begin to tell you how many patents are filed virtually simultaneously for the same design, developed entirely separately. Ideas are wandering around out there, and if you had the idea, chances are someone else did too.

It BECOMES plagiarism if, now that you've seen this other work, you co-opt it and claim it as your own.

Your problem is to fend off the appearance or "stink" of plagiarism, because the other researcher was in a very close milieu to you, and it would be easy to impute that you had opportunity. My advice: include an acknowledgement of the other work, with a brief precis of how it is similar and how it is different: i.e. you arrive at the same conclusion via dissimilar methods.

The strategy here is for you to do the "entanglement" of the two ideas yourself, control how it is presented and perceived, as you and this other researcher co-attributed, following independent but similar lines, instead of letting the greater community decide something decidedly less charitable for you later.

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