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A couple of months ago I've discussed some question (the question itself might not be too creative, as a in-some-sense natural although not asked before followup for an open question that was closed last year) with a superstar in my field with whom I'm in decent working relations (and he's a very very nice person).

We've discussed the question and possible directions for a couple of times in emails and a meeting over this two months, had no real progress at all, but in the last one after some discussion he mentioned a direction that we both agreed should be checked. Afterwards I went abroad (academy related) for a few weeks so I didn't get to continue thinking about it.

When back, he informed me that this general direction (after using interesting and non-trivial tools) has worked and that he has solved the problem, started writing it, and will write me an acknowledgment.

Now, as I made no contribution to the right solution or writing, I assume that even if he would offer coauthorship I was supposed to decline. Yet, I'm unhappy for not being informed during the progress and given the chance to make this contribution even if it was clear to him that he can solve it by himself...

As I don't really think "What should I do?" would sprout any answers that will be very helpful, I'd rather ask what do you recommend doing in order to avoid such situations in the future? And also, if indeed I get that supposedly big acknowledgement in a paper written by one of the biggest names in my field - is there anywhere or anyway where it is appropriate or helpful to mention it?

Thanks!

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    What makes you unhappy about being in acknowledgements, anyway? Would you feel better if he didn't attribute you at all? – Ébe Isaac Jan 20 '16 at 7:49
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    I guess he means he's unhappy about not being an author – MathAndCo Jan 20 '16 at 7:54
  • @MathAndCo: But the OP states "as I made no contribution to the right solution or writing, I assume that even if he would offer coauthorship I was supposed to decline". What does that supposed to mean? – Ébe Isaac Jan 20 '16 at 8:28
  • That he (rightfully IMO) hoped that if he asks a person a research question and discusses it with him, he'd be given the oppurtonity to write with him if any of them will be able to make progress – MathAndCo Jan 20 '16 at 8:30
  • This is the problem with working with brilliant people. When they get a brainwave, they can run far faster and further than you can see, all that remains for you is dust. Let's face it: he solved the problem, you didn't work on it. Acknowledgement is more than appropriate here. Learn, observe, and next time, if it is important to you, work on it, too. And be happy that you have to opportunity to work with such a brilliant (and nice) person. You will have opportunities for other papers. – Captain Emacs Jan 20 '16 at 11:34
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To avoid similar issues cropping up again, after the initial brainstorming phase, it's important to agree on a plan for who is doing what. If you agree on a direction you both think should be checked, then make sure you have the discussion about who is going to carry out the next step, and if it's not you, then make sure you identify something concrete that you can contribute later on. If the discussion is in person, then fire off a quick email afterwards to confirm what you understood from the meeting so that you both have it in writing.

Can it be useful to you that you are acknowledged by a superstar colleague? I think so. I've seen many application forms that ask you to show that you are able to foster collaborations with colleagues outside of your research group. This is the kind of example that you could put as evidence that you are working with some great people.

In your current situation, I think you are probably right that there's not much you can change at this point, but there are perhaps a couple of things that you could try:

  • If you are able to see a possible extension or improvement to what your colleague has already done, then suggest it, and jump in there straight away with "... I'll get straight on to looking at that" (i.e. don't give him an opportunity to just take your suggestion and use it himself). You might be able to push your way into being more integral to the paper.
  • You say he's a very very nice person, it might be worth talking honestly! Not an easy conversation to have, but you could try something like "Wow, that was quick work, I'd been wondering if we might have worked on it together! Is there anything further that I could contribute?" ... so long as you can make sure that it comes across as positive rather than bitter.
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    Don't bring that up! You will damage the working relation, especially as he seems to be nice. In the best case, you'll look needy. Pick a topic, work on it, and after you have done some groundwork, you can bring it to joint meetings. Now you have a contribution. Again, be aware that if he is outstandingly brilliant, he may quickly move far beyond your original outset and you may be left behind again. Then it's clear, you can try learn from him, but you cannot really collaborate, because you have little to contribute (for example, check out the history of people after they met Feynman). – Captain Emacs Jan 20 '16 at 11:41
  • Depends on the field, in my area (biology) very little is achieved without data, and that takes time. It would be hard for a lone genius to sprint ahead without any help in doing the legwork. Though from the timeline described by the OP, I can believe we are talking about theoretical work in this instance. – user2390246 Jan 20 '16 at 12:09
  • Yes, this has the signature of theoretical work. With experimental data, my answer would have been very different. It can be a huge amount of work to get it, and there, an acknowledgement would not have been enough. – Captain Emacs Jan 20 '16 at 12:46

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