I'm in junior high, and earlier this year, we had a science fair. My science project was mostly experimental pure math, and came in first overall in our grade.

Today, I was doing some research on a related topic, and came upon a published paper in a moderately respected journal. This paper had the same title as my science fair project, the layout was the same, the method was the same (down to the variable names), and the results were the same. The only thing that had changed was the wording, and the addition of an abstract. I have no idea how the author of this paper even came upon my project, presumably it was published on my school's website for some period of time or one of my teachers sent it out, but I really don't know what to do.

So, I really have two questions. Firstly, what can I do about this, and secondly, it had never occurred to me that my work may be of the quality to publish, so once I do get this situation sorted out, could I possibly think of publishing my results myself?

EDIT: Glad to finally be able to provide an update. Thank you all for the immense response this question received. I took Dr. Clark's advice and started at the level of my school. Apparently, my paper was shared with the local university's algebraic number theory professor, who shared it with his students. From there, even with that professor's help, I've been unable to trace it, but I'm almost sure that's how it got out.

A very long time ago I emailed the journal, simply making them aware of the situation and stating I have proof if it's needed, and got no reply. About two months ago, the paper mysteriously disappeared from the journal. And around that time, too, I got an opportunity to submit my paper to a state-wide high school competition. I just found out this Saturday that I won, and will be having my paper published in the state STEM journal. Again, thank you all for all the incredibly helpful advice. I would be lost without it.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 18:48
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    Congrats on the publication!
    – Clément
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 14:36
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    Now that things have settled down, is the paper available online? Can you share it? Commented May 6, 2021 at 13:24

6 Answers 6


The other answers don't seem to be taking into account that the OP is a 13-year-old junior high school student whose work was presented in a school science fair. I think that treating the OP as a "very junior researcher" is a bit unrealistic and also may place too large a burden on him. Every week on this site we see adult researchers placed in great distress and turmoil by issues of plagiarism and academic priority. These are not easy matters to resolve, and they place a high level of burden on the individual academics because academia is essentially self-policing. A junior high school student is not a professional academic, almost certainly has none of the procedural training and academic contacts that a professional academic would, and therefore does not have an ethical obligation to respond as a professional academic would.

The first thing I want to say is that I don't think the OP is obligated in any way to respond to this incident, as other answers seem to imply that he is. He can do so if he wants to, but if so I would recommend getting help from someone else.

Another important issue here is that the OP doesn't even understand the mechanism by which his work was made public. To me this seems to suggest that if he wants to pursue it, he should begin at the level of his own school. Presumably there is some teacher / faculty advisor involved in the science fair. I would contact them or have a parent contact them. This really is (or could be) an issue in itself: a school should not be releasing a student's work on the internet without the student's permission or awareness.

If the OP doesn't have a clear understanding of how his work got made public in the first place, then unfortunately it seems to me that he is in an unusually poor position to press a case of academic priority. He could contact the editors of the journal, submit all the evidence of his work along with the chronology, and the authors could respond simply by saying "We don't know anything about this. Actually our work was done [at some earlier date]. As far as we can tell, some kid stole our work for a junior high school science fair. What should we do about this?" and I don't see what the editors of the journal could plausibly do to resolve the situation.

This sounds bad, but let me make a few more comments:

  • In my experience, outright theft of work by serious academic mathematicians is extremely rare. One of the reasons for this is that the worldwide mathematical research community is relatively close-knit. If you're working in area X, then you probably trained at a certain set of universities and have affiliation, direct or indirect, with very serious senior reputable workers in area X. Having a senior worker in area X think you've stolen someone else's work is a penalty far beyond the reward of publishing the work, in most cases (contrary to what popular culture may lead one to believe, the vast majority of contemporary mathematicians build their reputation on a steadily accumulating body of work, not one miraculous theorem). Most areas of modern mathematics are so technically intensive that there are very few to no real outsiders contributing. However, a real outsider -- e.g. someone who has had no face-to-face interaction with any university faculty member -- who does do significant mathematical work is unfortunately in a much worse position.

  • As a consequence of the above, when a brilliant 13-year-old's work gets stolen, it's very likely that it gets stolen by people who are not serious academic mathematicians, and it gets published in a journal which is not really serious and reputable. If this is the case, then the stakes may be too low to justify the time and effort of trying to resolve the situation. I am a professional mathematician, and if someone republished my work as their own (this has never happened to me) I would probably be upset and try something to fix it, but there are some journals where I would give up rather quickly.

So as a summary answer to the first question:

Firstly, what can I do about this,

Take it slow, starting in your own home and at your school. See if you can get some help with pursuing your claim. If the claim turns out to be more trouble than it's worth to press: you can choose not to press it. Try to gain a clear understanding of how this happened, so that it will not happen again.

As to your second question:

secondly, it had never occurred to me that my work may be of the quality to publish, so once I do get this situation sorted out, could I possibly think of publishing my results myself?

As I said in a comment, I would advise almost any junior high school student not to think about publishing their mathematical work. Note that I did not say to stop or slow down in the learning and doing of mathematics in any way. In fact, the point is that the publication process is something that is done by professionals largely for reasons of professional exigency and not because it is pleasant or educational in its own right. When I work with PhD students to try to get their first paper published, there comes a point where they realize that the amount of effort to do so (even after all the theorems are proven) is something like 2-10 times as much as they expected. It used to be that math PhD students could mostly just concentrate on the math and not worry about publishing anything until after they got their PhD, but unfortunately those days are largely gone. (In my department, one of the required features of the postdoctoral application is the publication list. An empty list is surmountable, but it certainly does not augur well.) Moreover, undergraduates who do summer math research are now being much more pressured to write up their results -- even when they are not really significant, and even when they were largely put up to the results by their faculty mentors -- and this is very worrisome. The OP is 13 years old. It is widely recognized that children of this age should not be working: the Fair Labor Standards Act says that in the US one must be 14 to legally work at all. This does not apply to mathematical research, and it is certainly legal for the OP to pursue publication, but it is almost as worryingly too-soon for the OP to try to pursue this as if he had a serious, difficult job.

Let me say finally that I looked at the OP's internet profile, and it is clear that he is remarkably talented and precocious. I highly encourage him to continue his study of mathematics, so long as his motivations for doing so are his own. Based on what I've seen of the OP, I do not discount the possibility that he has already done work that could get published in a reputable journal (although that is highly unusual for someone of his age). What I would say to him instead is: keep doing what you're doing. Think about where you are now compared to where you were a few years ago and try to imagine where you'll be a few years in the future (while still in high school!). If you're still doing math 3,5,10 years from now, what would your future self advise your 13-year-old self to do? Is the work that you're doing now going to be a shadow of your later work?

Look e.g. at Terence Tao, who is arguably the world's leading mathematical-prodigy-grown up. According to wikipedia, he published "his first assistant paper" at the age of 15. But I don't know what that means, and I can't find the paper. His first that is catalogued in the standard places was published in 1996, the same year he got his PhD, at the "advanced age" of 21.

Note also that you should not hesitate to interact with the mathematical community, as you have been. I see that you have a blog. This gives you a great place to post your work, talk about it there, and get feedback from others.

The very last thing I'll say on the matter is that you said the project in question is on elliptic curves over finite fields. In fact elliptic curves are my leading research interest at the moment. So I would be happy to see your work and give you some feedback on it. Of course you should not send the work to me if (i) you are not ready or (ii) have any concerns about it being stolen by me! For the latter, I might recommend putting it on your blog first and then sending me a link to the blog. But I am aware of some contemporary research on this topic and would be happy to steer you in a good direction if I can.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Commented Dec 25, 2016 at 3:37
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    Dr. Clark seems like a super-cool and super-nice person. He's a credit to his discipline and his university. Commented Dec 26, 2016 at 9:22
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    Plot Twist: He stole OPs work┌( ಠ‿ಠ)┘ Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 22:55

Your story describes an example of plagiarism — someone is passing your work as their own. This is serious academic dishonesty. I recommend you contact the editors of the journal and explain the situation. You should provide as much evidence as you can — this may include photos from the fair, confirmations from the organisers, contact information of someone who visited the fair and who is able to confirm that they witnessed you presenting the material.

The presentation at a science fair is a recognised way to disseminate your work. Plagiarising someone's work from a fair is not different from stealing work published in another journal. It may be a bit more difficult to prove the case (that's why you may need witnesses), but the rest is the same.

  • 1
    I found that a colleague's paper had been plagiarized and re-published by a junk journal and they were quite responsive and removed the paper quickly.
    – Nathan S.
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 4:37
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    In terms of 'proof', you may also want to keep in mind the publication date. If this went through any peer-review process at all it was probably in the pipeline for a bit too. Basically: don't make it seem like YOU are in fact the plagiariser!
    – Weckar E.
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 9:23
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    Also, talk to your science teacher (or whoever you have who plays an academic advisor role). Honestly, a journal might not take you seriously if you write to them and say "I'm in junior high and an academic plagiarized my work," so it will probably help to have an adult in your corner. Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 18:41

Math is a "publish or perish" discipline in academia. I can see someone who is desperate to keep their job using another person's work to do so. I can easily see this happening if they think the person who produced the work is a child and feel that they have a very low probability of being found out and even less of a chance of it being pursued by a child. Whole cloth plagiarism in anathema in academia. Get caught and not only are you out of this job, but likely won't get another one anywhere else either. It's a surprisingly small world and word gets around.

I would strongly suggest that you find out how your paper was leaked. If it was published on a web site, via a teacher who saw it, etc. It may not be as innocent as some of these folks think. Allow me to acquaint you with my own story. I had some of my work (poetry) published by a former teacher under a pen name. They had all been homework assignments. I recognized not only my own work but that of several of my classmates in this fairly acclaimed volume of poetry.

I knew where it had come from and when confronted privately, she admitted it but continued to deny it publically. I finally contacted the publisher, provided copies of my working drafts that were decades older than anything she had and they pulled book from publication after I threatened to get my former classmates and sue them. The last time I saw her she was angry and bitter because they made her pay back the advance and also pay for the all the unsold copies of the book that they had already printed.

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    Did this really happen? What title was the book published under? There's no possible reason you can't tell us, is there?
    – Laurence
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 12:06
  • 1
    Yes it really happened and no, as part of the settlement we got with the publishers I can't tell you that. Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 18:23

It may be plagarism, it may be parallel work. What gave YOU the idea for the project? Was that source available to others? Was your project title an obvious descriptive one, were your variable names similarly obvious? It's easy to focus on the similarities, gloss over the differences.

No-one's going to prison over this. But why not contact the other author and, in a completely non-accusatory way (and I MEAN completely :-) point out the coincidence?

  • 15
    Thanks for the answer! I had considered parallel work, but it seems a little bit too much of a coincidence, seeing that all of the proofs were the exact same, and they weren't blindingly obvious and succinct either (since I don't have much experience, my proofs are kind of ramble-y). Also, there were a lot of patterns that I found in the data, and I had to choose just a few of them to talk about, and this person also chose the same patterns. A lot of my variables were greek letters too, making the chances that he chose the same things accidentally a little suspicious.
    – Nico A
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 17:32
  • But I definitely will get in contact with the author and see if I can sort this out without getting the editor involved! And by "experimental pure math", I mean making conjectures based on patterns in data and then proving them and showing their implications. Thanks!
    – Nico A
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 17:33
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    I feel like this answer is 90% more questions and 10% answer. The questions in this response should be posted in the comments section of the original answer for clarification. Then, you can provide an informed answer based on the author's response.
    – acidnbass
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 19:24
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    It seems to have helped the questioner though! Especially as the problem wasn't really "What do I do about this?" but "How do I come to terms with this?".
    – Laurence
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 10:42
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    @TreFox I'm not saying don't talk to the author, but I'd talk to your teacher first. Whether the author has committed plaigarism or not (and you make a pretty convincing case that they have), if it looks to a reasonable person like you have a case they'll probably be quite panicked - plagiarism is serious business. They'll probably at the very least be very defensive; they may be quite aggresive and offensive. I'd also add the details in your first comment to the question; it's useful information for all readers of this question.
    – arboviral
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 21:54

I assume that TreFox is really a math genius (or stumbled by chance over something relevant) and somebody has stolen an published his ideas. Copyright does only protect the very "expression", but not the "idea", so this does not really apply. However, stealing the "idea" is the serious scientific fraud.

I really want to emphasize this point: it does not matter whether TreFox would himself have been able to write a formally proper manuscript, if he had the "idea". Even the actual importance of the 'idea' is if minor importance, if the wrongdoer considered it important enough for stealing. Scientists live from their ideas: they get their job because they had ideas, and they will loose them, if they stop to do so. All scientists dream of immortal fame because of their ideas. A scientist most certainly looses his job and never finds another if they are found out to have stolen 'ideas'. The scientific community will not need lawers for this. Personally, I would refuse any professional contact to a person I believe has done so. Therefore, the accusation waived cannot be more serious. Thus, reconsider whether your accusations are really true.

Probably a parent or teacher may not be aware of the seriousness of plagiarism in science. An adult is needed as backing, but he should come from the scientific community. Maybe you should contact the math faculty at he nearest university with compiled evidence, they might be quite eager to unmask the perpetrator (but check whether the wrongdoer is not affiliated at that university).

If TreFox' claims can be verified, the editors will certainly publish a correction, with TreFox as the main author. Age does not matter, if the math is correct.


Have you fully determined if any assignment of rights were made when you applied to present at the fair?

For example, if you participate in the Google science fair you agree:

Ownership of the Entry/Grant of Rights: You will retain ownership to your Entry. However, by entering the Competition, and to the extent allowed by law, you personally, and through your parent or legal guardian, grant the Competition Entities and their respective affiliates, licensees, promotional partners, developers, legal representatives, assigns, agents and licensees (collectively, the “Licensed Parties”), a perpetual (or for the maximum extent permitted by law), worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive, sub licensable, unconditional and transferable license to edit, modify, cut, rearrange, add to, delete from, reproduce, encode, store, modify, copy, transmit, publish, post, broadcast, display, adapt, exhibit and/or otherwise use or reuse (without limitation as to when or to the number of times used), your (or your Team’s) Entry, name, address, image, voice, likeness, statements, background and biographical material including, but not limited to, all materials submitted in connection with the Competition, as well as any additional photographic images, video images, portraits, documents, interviews or other materials arising out of your participation in this Competition (with or without using your name) in any and all media, in any language, throughout the world, and in any manner, for trade, advertising, promotional, commercial, or any other purposes without further review, notice, approval, consideration, or compensation to Entrant or any third party.

So it's quite possible they have the rights to publish your work now.

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    No, we didn't have a legal contract laid out for a middle school science fair. But I don't think it's a question of legality, but of academic integrity. They may have not broken any laws, but slapping your name on someone else's work is dishonest from any viewpoint.
    – Nico A
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 21:46
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    This answer is beside the point. Claiming someone else's work as your own is plagiarism.
    – arboviral
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 21:57
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    I'll just note that those details had been left vague in both the question and the comments. I was attempting to highlight certain assumptions being made. Without the ability to view the fair entry and compare it with the journal submission, we don't really know enough details. I'll further add, I just found a random middle school science fair that has effectively the same clause. They can publish whatever you present however they like!
    – Inviktus
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 22:09
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    So if this applies, it says that the science fair organizers can legally (though still not ethically) allow someone else to publish your work under their name. If they actually did that intentionally, it would be a gigantic scandal that would totally discredit the organizers. But I see no indication that this is the case here. Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 22:30

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