Some time ago I switched departments within the same institution. Before leaving I had an idea of a paper and started to work on it. I shared my thoughts on it with my then-coworkers and they praised it. So now, after I settled things in a new department, I continued to work on that paper and completed it. Before submitting anywhere, I decided to look for a new papers relevant to my work.

To my surprise, I have found a paper with my idea (implemented in a somewhat narrower sense) by several of my previous coworkers, with whom I have discussed it. Without my name on the paper of course. The paper was published a few month after I left, so they probably started to work on it immediately after I left.

Most (if not all) conversations were done verbally, so I don't have any proof that I am the original author, and I also don't know any authority that I can go to and explain the issue.

What bothers me is if I publish the paper now (even in a broadened version of it) it would look suspicious to an external observer, as if we (together with ex-coworkers) are trying to overuse and multiply a single result or even worse that I'm plagiarizing over their work. As we are in the same institution and had previously coauthored some works, nobody will believe similar papers are a coincidence or a an independent inventions. (And they would be right. It's not.) I think that in the worst case it can destroy my reputation and career, or maybe it's a non-issue and I'm worrying too much.

I can see several possible extensions and further research paths to the paper. But if I'll try to develop these ideas and publish an advanced version of the paper, there is no guarantee that they aren't doing the same. They could even had already submitted them somewhere. And if I submit my version, the reviewers may reject it because of its similarity to theirs. This again can be devastating to me.

What options I have, as I see it:

  1. Pretend I don't know about their work, and publish mine as fully original, without citing them. Even if it's still a more general view on the subject and I know I'm the original author, it doesn't seem ethical to me. And we're still in the same institution, what make things worse.
  2. Do more research, make more advanced paper and cite them accordingly. But they may even have submitted an advanced version somewhere. I can't be sure if I'm overlapping with them or not.
  3. Change the field of study completely to not overlap with them in the future. Seems to be an overreaction.
  4. Change the institution and then publish. Will it help? I'd still be their co-author-in-the-past. Seems not to be a solution at all.
  5. Mention them in the acknowledgements. Thank them for praising my work, and cite them through a footnote. After all, what acknowledgements are for if not to thank your colleagues? But I doubt any editor will let it pass.

TL;DR Several of my ex-coworkers rushed to publish my ideas as their own while I was working on these ideas. I worry that my future publications on the theme would overlap with theirs and be considered a plagiarism.

So what should I do? Am I right that my wrong actions could possibly damage my reputation and career?

UPD. Thank you for your answers, I see that I have to cite the paper by the old department researchers (still not sure how: through a regular citation or a footnote in the acknowledgements), but I'm not really convinced and just want to be sure that I would not get into any (more) trouble if I'll continue to do research on the topic (especially in the case when editor/reviewers will get similar papers from different people with the same affiliation). Maybe someone has had such an experience as a reviewer?

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    What about a variation of 1 and 5? Publish your work as independently carried and mention the competition in passing? If you have done a somewhat better job out of it, it is probably worth publishing anyway, and if it was your original idea you are likely to have other ideas in the future, so do not agonize over this. – chris Sep 20 '15 at 15:13
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    Option 2 is the correct one. if you know of previously published work, hiding it from your readers is unethical and annoying. – Cape Code Sep 20 '15 at 15:58
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    Option 2. Do the work quickly and post a preprint as soon as you have it if your field uses anything remotely similar to the arXiv. That way, even if they have already submitted a bigger paper to a journal, you get priority for the expanded research, and they must cite you or pull their expanded paper depending on how different it is. Openness is the friend of priority! – E.P. Sep 20 '15 at 19:19
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    Option –1. Continue working with your coworkers in your old department even after you started working in the new department. The fact that they continued working without you is arguably no less problematic than the fact that you continued working without them. – JeffE Sep 20 '15 at 22:31
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    I would advise caution, when saying "XYZ published my ideas as their own", esp. if they were working on related problems before. Even assuming you raised the subject first and that X was praising you, Y and Z could have quietly the same ideas too. Perhaps you are right, but the situations when you can be 100% sure are rare. Nevertheless, it's certainly strange that they didn't invite you to collaborate. – dtldarek Sep 21 '15 at 22:15

Option 2 is the right one. Do more research that builds on the ideas, advance the field more, and publish that, citing the first paper appropriately. Maybe they're also doing further work and advancing the field and will publish that too. If so, great! That's how science works. People publish papers and then they and/or others continue building on it.

While the authors of the first paper could have included you in the acknowledgements, the fact that you had talked about ideas with them isn't necessarily enough to warrant authorship and you certainly can't make the statement that "I am the original author." Unless you're accusing them of plagarism, one of the main points of free exchange of ideas within academia is so that somebody can build on those ideas and develop them out into a publication.

Imagine going to a conference and discussing ideas with people (incl. those from other institutions) and then somebody takes one of those ideas back and does all the work that's needed to develop it into a formal research contribution. They publish it, great. Then you read the paper in a venue for your field and build on the work, citing it and extending it further. That's basically how it's supposed to work.

nobody will believe similar papers are a coincidence or a an independent inventions. (And they would be right. It's not.) I think that in the worst case it can destroy my reputation and career. Or maybe it's a non-issue and I'm worrying too much.

Yes, I think you're worrying too much. It's fine that you had some conversations with colleagues exchanging ideas, and then cited a paper they published, in your own new extensions of the work. It is even possible for you to have extensions that are similar to extensions they may be now independently developing. If your colleagues did a good job of making the path forward from the last paper clear (to an expert in your field), it wouldn't even be that surprising if one or more others were doing a similar extension elsewhere. Credit your colleagues' publication and move the work on.

If you're concerned about duplicating efforts in expanding the work, you could consider whether or not you want to formally collaborate with your former colleagues on doing that expansion. Maybe they just figured you weren't interested or didn't have time when you left, but would appreciate having you on the team for further work (if they're still working on it); it seems they like the ideas you have to offer.
It's also possible they don't even know that you feel offended, especially if they're under the impression that these ideas were generally percolating in the department for a while before they actually did the work for that paper. They may have discussed the ideas with other people in advance, who are in a similar position to yours, some of whom may still be in the department, and some of whom may just feel happy that somebody actually did that work. It'll be your decision about whether you perceive enough of a breach of trust to prevent future collaboration or not.

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    Collaboration should not be a option, in this case. If the other people wanted any form of collaboration, they would have reached the OP when preparing the first manuscript and tried to include him in it. – Alexandros Sep 20 '15 at 14:58
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    It may be that OP had already signaled a "no" or "I'm too busy" answer to such a request in the course of OP's move. We don't know all the facts here. – WBT Sep 20 '15 at 15:21
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    Collaboration should not be a option, in this case. — I strongly disagree. Collaboration is always an option. The former coworkers might have concluded in good faith that OP wasn't interested in the topic any more after leaving their department and not talking to them any more. – JeffE Sep 20 '15 at 22:31
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    @JeffE They knew for sure I'll continue to work on the paper (I was quite explicit on that). Also they never expressed any desire to coauthor it even when I was working in the old department. I did all the needed thoughtwork to develop the ideas into solution, which I shared. I contacted them on different occasions after leaving, and they could offer a collaboration if they wanted. But they just bruteforced the text and the first data for paper to publish before me. I can't see how I could collaborate with them after all this. – LostInThought Sep 21 '15 at 14:32
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    In that case, I think you need to have a candid private discussion with your former department head that includes the phrase "legal representation". – JeffE Sep 21 '15 at 18:59

I have experienced a similar situation, however with the important difference, that I could proove others plagiarizing me by various written drafts that dated back to before others came out with the idea. Nevertheless I could proove the idea to be mine, it was not the same as if there were no other publications on this subject.

But maybe you could do the following: Neither pretend to not know of their work nor mention them in the aknowledgements but continue self-confident and try to find some nuances where you can broaden it without doing a lot more research.

This would raise your work above the work of the others and gives the clear impression that you do know more on that subject.

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    To be clear, are you suggesting that LostInThought should publish an expanded paper without citing his/her former coworkers' now-public work? That would definitely be unethical. – E.P. Sep 20 '15 at 19:21

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