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Plagiarism is,

the "wrongful appropriation" and "stealing and publication" of another author's "language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions" and the representation of them as one's own original work.

as defined here,

and

According to U.S. law, the answer is yes. The expression of original ideas is considered intellectual property and is protected by copyright laws, just like original inventions.

as mentioned here.

However, what is the definition for expressing ideas? What is the limit for person B(ob) to be have plagiarized person A(lice)'s work?

Clearly, Alice has to prove that she expressed it before Bob. But what counts as a proof? Please consider the following scenarios:

  1. Alice asks a question in StackExchange (or any other site), defining her problem in detail, and Bob somehow figures out what the answer is. Instead of writing the answer, he publishes the paper himself.

  2. Alice writes a technical report (not a full paper) and publishes it in her website. Bob downloads the technical report, shares it with his teammates and soon, they publish a paper based on Alice's technical report.

  3. Similar to (2), Alice has published a technical report in her website, defining a problem, with a first-attempt solution, which clearly can be improved. Bob, on the other hand, sees the technical report and finds a better solution. Then, publishes it. Now, Alice cannot publish her results because Bob's solution is better.

  4. Alice spoke about the problem (or experiment) she is working on in an informal public place (e.g. cafeteria). Bob heard it, and found a way to solve the problem (or carried out the experiment she intended to). He published it in a journal.

Important note: I am pretty sure, in all cases Bob has plagiarized Alice's work. What I am asking is, can Alice actually prove that her work is plagiarized? Especially, in case 4, can she show witnesses about her talking about the project first?

What if Bob was working on the same problem longer than Alice? Does just expressing the idea make it Alice's?

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    I'm not a lawyer, but I think what Bob has done in ever case you listed is legal, outside the case that he signed a non-disclosure agreement. This is why people are secretive about their preliminary results. – Cliff AB Jan 14 '16 at 20:40
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    Plagiarism is not a legal issue, so it's completely unclear to me what you're asking. – Dan Romik Jan 14 '16 at 21:39
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    Does Bob cite Alice's work and make clear the distinction between what she did and what he did? If so, there is no plagiarism. – Nate Eldredge Jan 14 '16 at 22:39
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    @NateEldredge, not plagiarism, and hardly any truly objectionable behavior at all. – paul garrett Jan 14 '16 at 23:45
  • Some issues: 1) The question in the title of your question does not quite match those in the body. 2) I think you are conflating expression of an idea and idea. – Wrzlprmft Jan 15 '16 at 8:45
4

Summary: if Bob is the genius who can easily spot the answer to Alice's question or if he's willing to dig into the work for weeks or months, what he produces is (deservedly) his work.


Copyright is about works (that is here the form of expression of the idea), not about the idea itself. In order to protect a (technical) idea, Alice needs a patent.

Also in science, you can (and are expected to) use other people's ideas. But you must properly attribute their origin.

Assuming that the answer is not entirely trivial, it qualifies as work of its own. Bob's work that is. Question/problem and answer/solution are typically considered different ideas, and often the work to get the answer/solution is considered larger than the work of identifying the question (although that shouldn't be underestimated, neither).

Alice asks a question in StackExchange (or any other site), defining her problem in detail, and Bob somehow figures out what the answer is. Instead of writing the answer, he publishes the paper himself.

Thus, he can post it on SX where he licenses the use of this per CC-BY-SA. This means, Alice when writing her paper, needs to attribute Bob properly.
Bob is free to publish his answer wherever he likes. Thus, also in a journal. Note that the answer without Alice's question may not be quite understandable, so he needs to attribute Alice for the question (which is also CC-BY-SA licensed). In addition, in a scientific paper he needs to cite Alice's question.

There's nothing wrong with a paper "A (new) solution to Alice's problem". In practice, I guess Bob could contact Alice to make a shared publication: at least in my field this could be a typical constellation of Alice Applicationexpert together with Bob Theoryspecialist. And even though Bob may be able to spot an answer, this doesn't mean he recognizes all that was behind the question.

Alice writes a technical report (not a full paper) and publishes it in her website. Bob downloads the technical report, shares it with his teammates and soon, they publish a paper based on Alice's technical report.

Here the question is what this "based on" means in detail: it may be anything from plagiarizing over derivative work, dependent work, to Bob's own work - depending on how close it is to Alice's report. Whether derivative or dependent works violate Alice's copyright depends on the license Alice grants. If she did not specify anything, it is a copyright violation. (Plagiarized work is a bit difficult, because Alice could license her work in a way that does not require attribution by Bob - but in a scientific paper, he still needs to cite her properly. Plagiarism in science does not have the totally same meaning as wrt. copyright issues)

Side note: Many technical reports I know are actually more comprehensive than the respective paper.

Similar to (2), Alice has published a technical report in her website, defining a problem, with a first-attempt solution, which clearly can be improved. Bob, on the other hand, sees the technical report and finds a better solution. Then, publishes it. Now, Alice cannot publish her results because Bob's solution is better.

See above. Note that Alice may be still happy even if Bob did not contact her, because Bob's paper allows her to concentrate her efforts on the application problem she wants to solve. It may also be that Alice still needs to write her paper, because Bob did not talk to her and unfortunately did not know about some implications of the question - so his answer is a good hint, but does not entirely solve the problem.

Alice spoke about the problem (or experiment) she is working on in an informal public place (e.g. cafeteria). Bob heard it, and found a way to solve the problem (or carried out the experiment she intended to). He published it in a journal.

I've tried to find solutions I need by talking/asking on conferences quite a bit. Far from anyone stealing my ideas, I typically hear that everyone would like to get informed when I find and publish a solution - meaning that noone is willing to relieve me of the work to find a solution.

In other words, in practice there's quite a barrier to this type of scooping because if Bob is not willing to cooperate with Alice, he needs to put in the effort Alice has already put in. Thus he goes for an uphill race when trying to be faster than Alice with the publication.

Also, are you seriously underestimating the amount of work that goes into preparing and actually doing an experiment? By the way, in many fields, Bob would get a much better experimental paper if he pooled his efforts with Alice and they got twice the sample size for their paper.

Again, if Bob performs his own experiment, it is his own. Then there would be two studies that more or less coincidentally show the same (well, if they actually show the same...).
Sometimes the time is "ripe" for some specific question - so this can also happen totally innocently. Scientifically speaking this is good, because experimental science nowadays has IMHO more problems due to a lack of replicate experiments than the other way round. Again my experience is that in this case the studies will still not be quite the same.


How can Alice prove that her work was plagiarized

She needs to show that Bob copied her work without license and without proper attribution. That is, she needs to show

  • Which part(s) of Bob's work are the same as hers, and
  • that her work was done first.
    The method that gives you best legal chances is: use a notary. That's very expensive, though. There are less expensive methods that should work in practice. E.g. if it is about the idea how to set up the experiment, Alice could show her paper lab book where she always neatly puts all her thoughts with proper date etc. Same if there's a record of a lab meeting/seminar where Alice presented her results. If it is about some part of the paper, Alice could also show when she checked these sentences into the version control server her group uses. Of course, if Bob than shows that their VC server got his sentence earlier, Alice is in trouble.
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Probably the question cannot really be about plagiarism, literally, because most traditional senses of "plagiarism" refer to specific choices of language, rather than "ideas".

In the first three cases, Bob's behavior would be completely within the range of standard operating procedure. Public information is public. Yet, also, at the same time, many people would consider such behavior rude and mercenary. That's not the same as illegal or unethical, whether or not it is immoral.

(The fourth case is harder for me to simulate in my head, and I have no comment on it.)

Yes, one could imagine that mentioning a problem or idea publicly gives one some sort of right to it. However, in practice, this cannot possibly work, because it is extremely difficult to gauge what more is required to make an idea into something substantial. The only viable default is to imagine that whatever one says publicly is then truly available for all. One cannot control it, or guarantee "getting credit". Yes, the most virtuous people will give credit to the origins of their ideas, etc. ("Duh!")

If the real question is how to stake a claim on ideas in a fashion that prohibits others from doing anything with them ... as opposed to taking the idea, doing something, and giving credit for origins... I have no suggestion except keeping secrets.

EDIT: and, no, merely expressing an idea does not create "possession"... Not at all. But, among decent people, credit would be given. Can't rely on this, etc.

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    There's nothing wrong with 4 in general either, it's just scooping someone. Of course it would be polite to inform Alice you know how to do it, and possible suggest collaboration. – Kimball Jan 14 '16 at 23:56
  • @Kimball, indeed, a looming question is whether The Goal is scoring status points, or advancing understanding. I would claim (although it may be inevitable, given human nature) that while scoring status points may more powerfully motivate (some) people, it is inefficient in terms of advancement of understanding. But, as with other things, maybe the latter ideal efficiency is impossible "in real life". E.g., things connected to warfare nearly-universally garner more resource, more enthusiasm, ... – paul garrett Jan 15 '16 at 0:12
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    Fortunately, it is quite often also inefficient for Bob, because he typically first needs to catch up with the work Alice already put into understanding the problem/getting samples/setting up the experiment. That is, Alice may be threatened by Bob from an overwhelmingly large institute that is direct competitor to Alices small group. But small groups can look for a niche with entrance barriers (e.g. study samples that are hard to get). It would be very expensive to decide that just in order to scoop Alice of her experimental paper, n PhD students stop their project to do the Alice experiment. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jan 15 '16 at 0:38

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