This is my first semester as an assistant professor. I developed a project (with three publishable sub-topics) and got the IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval. I prepared a proposal to attend a conference, and submitted it to get my Departmental approval.

Then suddenly my Department Chair and a director "insist" that the project is from their idea; so I should stop working on the project and then give it to them. Even my chair sends me a formal email including staff members - I developed their idea and so it is unethical....

I decided to leave this school from this ridiculous situation. However, I am still unsure how to handle this situation. I really do not care whatever they do. I just do not want that they use all of my instruments such as surveys for their study. However, I really do not know what to do. Would you help?

  • 3
    What documentation do you have that it is your idea? Can you produce dated documents showing that you've been involved since initial conception? Emails are great for this -- they're automatically timestamped -- as are really any file whose metadata can be examined (for a creation date). Additionally, what outcome are you looking for? If you simply don't want to turn over your data, you may be able to simply transfer it to a private encrypted device. However, be aware that the school may legally have a claim to (parts of) the work you did using university resources -- check with HR.
    – tonysdg
    Oct 14 '16 at 0:25
  • What country is this in? Is there an ombuds office or some sort of faculty oversight committee?
    – Kimball
    Oct 15 '16 at 14:34
  • I'm not going through every single scenario, but assuming that you are "right" and "you cannot do anything about it", can you quickly publish what you have (under your name only)? Will this help (if it is doable)?
    – The Guy
    Nov 10 '16 at 17:04
  • Give us the whole history. Were you there, in another role, before you started your current position? Nov 10 '16 at 18:27

Please note before reading: The text below contains only my opinions.

Accusing someone with stealing ideas is as ugly as stealing the idea itself. As far as I understand, the department chair really liked the project and trying to get on the gravy train. Therefore, I do not believe trying to be reasonable with these kind of behavior will get you nowhere. Especially including faculty members, who have literally nothing to do with this matter is extremely rude and unprofessional.

If I were in your shoes, I would do follow these steps:

  1. Explain the situation to the students working in the project (if any).
  2. Ignore his mobbing (yes, I think this is heavy mobbing), and hand in nothing including surveys, project reports etc.
  3. Write to IRB about this matter immideately and ask them for approval that the work was submitted by me.
  4. Ask him to file a written complaint with the evidence that proves the idea belonged to him originally.
  5. Collect/copy/back-up everything that proves the project proposal does not belong to the department chair.
  6. Write to the dean (or whoever he is subordinate of) about this matter, asking to resolve this by official methods (as I have stated, this is clearly mobbing).

It is your own decision to leave the school. I would do the same, probably. But please keep in mind that these kind of issues can only be solved by legal process. All he can do is denounce you, and at this point, he will do it anyways if you drop the project.

Also, I believe that keeping your so called "ideas" to yourself is a responsibility. Either you immideately execute your ideas, or you accept the risk that someone can do it before you.
And there is nothing to do after that happens.


Why hasn't 'let's collaborate' been considered?

If it's that good an idea, it's in your departments best interest to pursue it. Moreover, inter-departmental collaborations look good, and often lead to a powerful product. Remember, you're fighting for the same team.

Is it really the case that you both have the exact same idea? More commonly, you've wandered into a field that your colleague feels territorial over. Give him or her their props, toss them a compliment, then suggest you team up. Suggest a two-paper series with them as senior author on one and you on the other.

You have to be able to navigate these things because they don't go away, even if you do decide to leave the institution.


If you were smart enough to have it version-controlled, ask them to provide the documentation that theirs is older. If they can't and still demand you turn over your work and credit, inform the board of regents/trustees for your institution that an exposure of an ethics crisis and bad publicity for the institution are looming unless this problem is addressed immediately. Nothing gets the head honchos moving like the threat of a scandal being broken on national news.

If their project is older, ask to collaborate, because you've obviously shown the initiative to get as far as you have. If they're not open to that, say you will publish only derivative or orthogonal work to theirs and give them ample credit, but that you're passionate and want to pursue it. Usually even the old guard can be brought around by a combination of congeniality and reason.

In reply to the person below: I fail to see how that's harsh. I was using Git since my third semester in university, and the professor who introduced it had worked in university for the bulk of his career as a theoretician. Academics not keeping up with tech and best practices is a reason academics get a bad rap. If you did not defend yourself reasonably against known problems in academic power structures, I have no sympathy for you. I had my own poaching attempts I had to fight off as a Computer Science grad. If you don't cover even basic defences like this, exactly how smart are you really?

In regards to further replies, you can't back-date verified version control very easily, and you certainly can't do it at all with Git or Stash. If you're still using SVN, seriously, get out of the stone ages.

And as a final defense against these parasites, just encrypt your data with AES 256 and throw away the keys. It's a cheap, effective way to prevent their ill-gotten gains.

  • 4
    If you were smart enough to have it version-controlled -- that seems a bit harsh, as I doubt most people use version control (outside of anyone who deals with software). Though hopefully with projects like the Open Science Framework, it'll become more and more prevalent.
    – tonysdg
    Oct 14 '16 at 1:23
  • 2
    A question: how does vc solve the problem? The OP could have changed the dates on their system and then post-hoc version controlled their work. What's the protocol that you have in mind that would guarantee authentication? Oct 14 '16 at 2:12
  • 9
    I have a git commit dated in the 18th century. That proves that I am 300 years old, and I invented computers, Linux, and git before the French revolution.
    – Davidmh
    Oct 14 '16 at 7:45
  • 3
    So in a post where you make disparaging remarks about the knowledge of technology in others you fail to understand the difference between Git and Github. The irony is great. Oct 15 '16 at 5:23
  • 2
    Github is ok assuming you are happy to have it public (or are ready to pay). In the first case, your bosses are not the only one that can scoop you. Oct 15 '16 at 11:11

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