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By chance, I am reviewing now the paper which I recognised as a paper of my colleague. We are from the same institution and I am surprised that I got this paper to review, but, on the other hand, I am lucky to see it before it's published. My colleague mentions in this paper the methodology like it was his idea but actually, I am the one that developed it, made it work and applied it, together with the help of my supervisor. In short, he wants to be the author of the idea and the methodology. This is, in fact, what comes out from the paper.

I am now preparing my own paper about this methodology and my work, and I don’t have any publication on it, so far, just a poster from when I participated at a conference six months ago.

I talked to him about it but he doesn’t feel that it is wrong or ethically incorrect.

On top of that, we have the same supervisor. I talked with him as well, and he was threatening me, in a political correct way. He claims that it is okay, and in my paper, I will have just to cite their work in the introduction. He also stated that my work has a different approach in a small detail, so I will criticise their method and put mine as the better one. However, it isn’t true, because my approach is based on the methodology mentioned in the paper which I am reviewing now.

I really don’t know what to do. I was thinking to not review the paper, but it doesn’t solve the problem. If I reject it, I will have to write the reason why I am doing that, and it may turn my supervisor against me.

I would like to act in the most appropriate and ethically correct way. Just don’t know how. I would be grateful for all insights.

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    What does "threatening in a political correct way" mean specifically? – Stephan Kolassa Dec 3 '16 at 8:56
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    This sounds horrible, but I'm having trouble picturing the mechanism which allows this to happen. The person who stole your work is a fellow graduate student with the same advisor as you? That sounds like a much closer connection than "from the same institution": shouldn't you be in the same research group / lab / project / etc. and thus working in close proximity to each other? Didn't you have a lot of conversations about your work (e.g. at the time of the poster session) with both your fellow student and your common advisor?... – Pete L. Clark Dec 3 '16 at 21:49
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    ..Concerning your conversation with your colleague: "I talked to him about it but he doesn’t feel that it is wrong or ethically incorrect." He doesn't feel that stealing your work is wrong or ethically incorrect?!? I feel like I am missing some nuances here. If it is all really as bad as it sounds: I think you should get the heck out of your PhD program. You don't want someone who stabbed you in the back as your former thesis supervisor -- in my opinion starting from scratch would be less bad. And if you start from scratch you can still pursue your intellectual claim to the work. – Pete L. Clark Dec 3 '16 at 21:54
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    Something majorly wrong in this research group. – Coder Dec 4 '16 at 3:13
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    Schedule a physical meeting with the other student, your supervisor, the project manager, and a neutral witness. At that meeting, present your evidence for priority and ask to be given appropriate credit for your work, either as a co-author or by citation/acknowledgement; warn everyone in advance that this is the purpose of the meeting. If the faculty in question either refuse to acknowledge your evidence or refuse to schedule the meeting, don't walk, run. – JeffE Dec 4 '16 at 18:22
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I see two possibilities here.

1. The poster doesn't prove decisively you must be credited for the developing the method

In this case, you are in quite a bind. You see, nothing you've told us can be established as fact, as it lacks corroborating witnesses; it will be your word against your colleague (and perhaps even the word of your advisor), since nobody is ever going to examine the details (like source commit logs) to determine who's right. The situation is indistinguishable from the outside, without much effort, from you just trying to claim credit that you are not due.

I would suggest, in this case, to write the PC chair, inform him/her that you are certain this is a paper by your colleague, and that you can't review the paper since you're biased - without saying a single word about the ethical issue, or why and how you're biased. Then go tell your colleague that you've done so - but show him a printed copy of the email, don't send it beforehand, so that s/he doesn't misconstrue anything and try to use it against you somehow. When you talk to him/her, try to make use of the fact that you did not take the opportunity to claim right-of-authorship vis-a-vis the PC, as psychological leverage against him: "I didn't tell them that XYZ because I think the fair thing is that we resolve this issue between us, but how could you submit a paper behind my back like this? etc. etc." You might even go as far as threatening to claim his paper is taking credit of your own work, as a way of pressure him/her: Even though you won't do it, it's still the danger for him/her of a lot of hassle and a question mark on his/her reputation. You could also threaten going to the faculty management, or whoever is in charge of graduate studies (i.e. not through your advisor), or taking it up with the graduate researchers' union for an internal resolution dispute (I hope you have such a union) etc.

Note: I'm suggesting this somewhat aggressive behavior since your advisor won't back you. If he had been at least neutral I might have suggested something different involving him/her.

2. The poster proves you must be credited for developing the method

This next piece of advice is, again, due to the fact that your advisor has threatened you and has acted in a generally underhanded way; had that not been the case I'd make another suggestion that would be more forthcoming and open.

Anyway, in this case, write the PC chair. Inform him/her that you are certain this is a paper by your colleague; and explain how you can't review the paper since you're biased. But write the explanation so that it is clear that you did a lot/most of the work - without suggesting you should be listed as an author, but in a way in which any reasonable academic would think that you should. Most importantly - refer the PC quite early on to the poster and relate your explanation to what appears on it, to lend your description more credibility. If there's some publicly-available source code which has not been covered by the poster, of which you are the author - refer to that as well.

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You shouldn't even think about it, do not review that paper, it's a clear conflict of interest, even more because the author is your direct colleague. And the only solution is to sit all together and explain to them that your contribution to said article is significant and you would like to be a co-author. If they have problems with you being a co-author and you have done substantial work then I would seriously consider if you want to be in this research group.

  • How can the OP "sit all together" with anyone about this without disclosing that he was given the paper to review? – einpoklum Dec 3 '16 at 20:41
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    @einpoklum i think the disclosure ship has already sailed when he mentioned reading the paper to his colleague. If they were doing it behind his back as it sounds, they would not let him know of the paper before its too late. – Mindwin Dec 4 '16 at 0:45
  • @einpoklum the reviewer is refusing to review so that is not an issue, this has helped the OP uncover this nasty behavior, which would have came to surface anyway when the paper got published. – Herman Toothrot Dec 4 '16 at 18:46
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There are two different questions here. One is easy, one is hard.

The easy question is: "Should I review the paper?". No. Definitely not. It goes against the ethical standards of every respectable journal I can think of, and you should contact the editor immediately.

The hard question is: "What should I do about the authors not recognizing my contribution?". It sounds like you have already approached them regarding this. You should try this again, bring a copy of your old poster, and clearly state that your goal is to be a co-author of the paper. If you are unsuccessful, you can try to approach a department head or similar, but that will most likely not give you anything but grief. If you think it would be possible to actually publish a similar paper yourself, you can of course do that. In my field it would not be possible to do that, but I guess it varies. At least you will have learned the valuable lesson to write up and publish your stuff if you want to be recognized for it.

  • However feeling sorry for the OP, I must agree with the last sentence. Leaving the topic dormant for 6 months really gives a feeling that the author does not care for it too much any more. – The Vee Dec 3 '16 at 12:39
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    @TheVee Having a poster six months ago doesn't automatically mean that the topic was dormant for six months. – BioGeo Dec 3 '16 at 12:47
  • @BioGeo That's right, I just read again that the paper has been in preparation (at first I understood it that "I am now preparing" was a reaction to this event). – The Vee Dec 3 '16 at 12:55
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    @TheVee: maybe that depends on subject. In my field (and some others, going by what I hear from friends) it may very often take well over 6 months between the initial development of an idea and the point where the results are ready to write up — either because of a lengthy experiment that needs to run, or simply because one’s juggling other projects in parallel in the meantime. It certainly wouldn’t suggest any loss of interest or priority on the method. – PLL Dec 3 '16 at 14:44
  • They are in the same working group, and they have excluded him and used his methodology to publish something, totally unethical! – Herman Toothrot Dec 4 '16 at 18:52
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  1. I don't know what the ethical culture of your department is. (I realize that his can in turn depend on the ethical culture of your country.) If you judge that the climate where you are would make it difficult to work this problem out successfully, then you may be best off keeping your head down, graduating as soon as you can, and looking forward to working elsewhere on future projects and future papers.

  2. Otherwise: Schedule a meeting with your supervisor. It might be best to meet at a neutral location such as a seminar room or a quiet coffee shop. At the beginning, state that you have a concern and a proposal. Lay out concisely the basic problem and then lay out your proposal:

    The work my fellow student (let's call him Jay) and I are doing is closely intertwined. We have each benefited from the group collaboration. Nowadays, all around the world, the ability to collaborate and work well in groups is highly appreciated. Jay and I can credit the role cooperation in the group has played, by including each other as secondary authors on our respective articles. Each one would be the primary author of one article, and each article would make reference to the other article, since they are both coming out of the same research group.

    Ask him to think about your proposal and then make a quick exit. It's best if your supervisor doesn't have an opportunity to say or imply anything nasty in this meeting, and you'll come out the best in the long run if you don't say anything negative either. Resist the temptation to have the last word (and run out saying you are late for an appointment, if that's the only way you can extricate yourself).

    It could be helpful to find an ally in your department to speak with your supervisor on the side, so that you are not facing this completely on your own.

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