My friend, a graduate student answered an exam question (in Data Mining field) with a method she's going to propose in her thesis, which has not been published yet as it is still unfinished. The (soon-to-be) thesis itself propose a single new method.

What caused her anxiety:

  1. Her lecturer is currently on a research in data mining too and they are not in the same research group.
  2. The exam question itself contained a statement like this, "Use whatever method you know of".

The point is that my friend is afraid that her lecturer may pick that method to incorporate or develop in his research while he wouldn't know that it is actually a part of his student's research. If that happened her thesis would be in jeopardy.

From my previous question in SE, I get that lecturers really rarely mine ideas from students' exams, but my friend is still worried because her thesis is basically proposing that one method.

What could my friend possibly do in this complicated situation and state of mind?

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    I am finding this scenario very hard to wrap my mind around. I can't imagine an exam question for which a thesis proposal would be an appropriate response, I can't imagine a thesis the matter of which could be summarized in an exam situation, and I can't imagine an instructor who would take a student's exam solution as a basis for their work. Could you perhaps start with explaining why the student feels that the instructor will make use of the student's exam solution as part of his work: is there any concrete reason? Dec 17, 2016 at 2:45
  • I've added more explanations. Thank you for the pointers. :) Dec 17, 2016 at 4:28
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    @PeteLClark Neither could I, but then academia.stackexchange.com/questions/81731/… Dec 17, 2016 at 7:22
  • @TobiasKildetoft but you see how it's posted by the same user
    – user52663
    Dec 17, 2016 at 7:50
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    This sounds like a classic "talk to your advisor" situation. The details sound too thorny for us to understand and address effectively, and I'm getting the impression that there are also cultural factors at play - this situation sounds completely bizarre and improbable from the perspective of any country I'm familiar with. The student should talk to her advisor about her concerns and ask for advice about how to proceed.
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 17, 2016 at 7:55

2 Answers 2


Your friend's concern is pretty far-fetched. Researchers aren't usually in the habit of mining student exams for research ideas. Even if the professor was inspired by it, it's quite likely he would want to discuss it with the student anyway, and the thesis issue could be brought up at that time.

But if she is still worried, there's an extremely simple solution: just tell him about it. Send a short email mentioning that the exam question turned out to be related to her thesis work, and that her answer is based on her research work so far; and that if it's something that interests him, she would be happy to meet and tell him more. (But it would be a good idea to check with her advisor before that meeting, in case there is some information which is proprietary or confidential or otherwise should not be shared at all.)

Now he knows that it is part of her research, and the feared scenario is averted.

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    Even if the professor was inspired by it, it's quite likely he would want to discuss it with the student anyway I can tell you have never been to a university in an (ex-)communist country, my friend. Or even if you have been it was some defect in the Matrix. Jan 24, 2017 at 11:58

In addition to @NateEldredge's answer:

Even if the lecturer would want to steal the idea that would hardly be practicable in this case:

  • the answer to the exam question is an excellent proof that she had the idea at latest at the date of the exam. And presumably independently of the lecturer (in case they'd claim to have had that same idea before - which does make sense for exam questions - see the answers to the OP's other question).

  • And the thesis topic and/or her ongoing work (and lab book / thesis drafts / whatever) would show that as well.

Slightly off topic but hopefully reassuring: My personal experience in "exposing" research ideas to other groups is not only that they do not steal your bright ideas but they even like to avoid doing your work: the typical answer I get is that this is extremely interesting and would I email them the paper once it is out, please?

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