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I am an assistant professor in a business discipline. A couple of months ago, I came across (through casual chat) that a senior colleague of mine plans to pursue a research idea that I myself was also planning to pursue. I asked whether I could join her and her co-author on the project and she declined. But she said I could work on it myself. We didn't share any details of our thoughts afterwards. So we don't know what exactly each other's research question and progress on the project.

I went ahead and explored the project with the research question I had in mind. Now I have a finished draft of my work. I don't know the status of my colleague's project.

Now I would like to submit my paper to a journal. But I am not sure whether I should publicize it by e.g. posting it online/on my website. I am afraid that my senior colleague (she will be on my tenure committee) will be pissed off if I do so. She may think that I am scooping her. On the other hand, without publicizing it, people in my field (or potential referees of my paper) will not know that this work is mine and the paper may not get exposure/comments (which may not be critical).

What should I do? I don't think I have done anything unethical, but somehow I feel that I am stuck in a dilemma.

  • How about approaching her with :" Hey, how's everything going? I just would like to get your thought over my draft paper that I'm planning to submit soon ". – seteropere Aug 2 '16 at 6:14
  • Thanks. She is very aggressive personally and I do not want to piss her off or invoke any actions from her now before I see a more clear prospect of my paper being published well (our field is very competitive). I am also worried that she may forcefully add her and her co-author onto my paper or allege that I steal her idea and ask me to kill my paper. Honestly speaking, in the very beginning I am very happy to collaborate to share my thoughts. But now I have pursued it in a long way based on my own thoughts. Adding them onto my paper/killing my paper seems a bit unfair to me. @seteropere – allen Aug 2 '16 at 22:23
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The fact that the colleague in question will be on your tenure committee seems to, on the surface, complicate matters. However, it's not like you had a conversation with her, made no mention of a possible collaboration, and took the idea and ran with it:

You reached out to her by proposing a collaboration on the research topic, which she declined.

Thus you should do with your manuscript whatever is normal in your field to disseminate the ideas contained in your paper; e.g., submit your paper for peer review, post the manuscript on your webpage/upload the manuscript to a preprint server (if this is normal in your field/OK with where you plan on submitting your manuscript), etc.

Also, if your conversation with your colleague was key in your research progress on the topic, then I think an acknowledgment in your manuscript stating that fact would be appropriate.

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    I'd like to clarify that you should only put this on your website or upload to a preprint server if that fits within the norms of your academic community and the requirements for submission of the journal in question (which is in the answer but somewhat indirectly). In some communities this is normal and allowed, and in some it is not. – Bill Barth Aug 1 '16 at 18:43
  • Yes, indeed. This is what I had in mind when I wrote "you should do with your manuscript whatever is normal in your field to disseminate the ideas contained in your paper" @BillBarth – Mad Jack Aug 1 '16 at 18:48
  • Right, but the stuff after the colon appears, to me, to be more imperative. I.e. that those are the norms of some community and that OP should do it that way. I think it's more subtle than that. – Bill Barth Aug 1 '16 at 18:49
  • Thanks! The initial conversation was very brief and not very informative. I believe that my research question is more interesting and fundamental to our field. I don't know how exactly she'll position her paper and whether she has done anything yet. We didn't talk about it at all after she declined my proposal of collaboration. In my field, people usually post their working paper to a preprint server but it is not mandatory. It is a bit subtle given that she is on my tenure committee. Maybe I will simply submit it to a journal and see how it goes and not post it online yet? @BillBarth – allen Aug 1 '16 at 20:26
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    The politics of this are lost on me as I'm not in a tenure-track position. If you have someone in your department who was supposed to advise you through your tenure process, you might talk to them, off the record, unless it's her. Lacking that, you might just skip the online posting and go straight to journal submission unless people expect a preprint to be on SSRN or the like to have the opportunity to workshop the paper with you before it goes to a journal. She knows she declined to work with you, so she would be completely unethical to hold that against your tenure case. – Bill Barth Aug 1 '16 at 20:50
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From your comments, it seems that this is not specifically relevant here, but if you are on reasonably good terms with your colleague who you know is working on a related paper you could offer to try to arrange simultaneous publication. In this situation you both submit your papers at the same time to the same journal and include this information in your cover letters. In my experience (having done this a few times) journal editors are very open to this and are willing to work with you, and it can be good for your relationship with your colleagues -- showing that you're eager to be cooperative while still not being scooped.

Of course, there are many potential problems with this. In one case we'd agreed to co-submit with some colleagues, but had overestimated our progress and were a few weeks behind them. They held on to theirs for a little while but we told them not to worry about it, and they ended up beating us into publication by a month or so; but we remained on good terms and I think we all appreciated the others good will and cooperation. Similarly, one paper may need more rounds of review than another, or one may be accepted while the other is rejected. But the main point is the initial presumption of good will, and the rest is more or less out of your hands.

However, this really is only a real consideration when (1) you know the other group is at a very similar state, (2) you're both on good terms, and (3) want to remain that way. In the specific case here, even if (3) is true, (1) doesn't seem to be and (2) seems dubious. In this case, following your field's normal publication-type process seems very reasonable.

  • Thanks, and I also appreciate your great suggestion. In my case, I am not sure whether the other group has done anything or whether they are still pursuing it (they may have tried something and then dropped, which I don't know either). Basically no information about (1) at all for me. I obviously wanted to keep good terms... @iayork – allen Aug 1 '16 at 20:27

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