I have gotten an idea in the field of Computer Science that it can result in a research paper. The problem is that I lack the adequate background in one part needed for this research, mostly mathematical stuff. I have contacted one professor in Europe by email, and asked some mild questions about some topics that could be helpful. The doubt that I have is if I should better tell to that professor about my whole research idea, so maybe he/she would be able to help me more.

Actually I am a university lecturer and independent researcher, but in the university that I am working they do not give any salary or benefits for making research. I am doing this mostly because I like it.

Should I tell to that professor my whole idea? or maybe that person could steal it and because he/she has research funds can do it and leaving me aside?

  • 32
    "Don't worry about people stealing an idea. If it's original, you will have to ram it down their throats." Howard H. Aiken (Quote according to Wikiquote).
    – Dirk
    Feb 27, 2013 at 20:13

6 Answers 6


You need to consider what role you want the math professor to take: are you looking for a co-author, a collaborator, a consultant, or a service provider.

Since you lack background in one area and are working in a place that does not prioritize publications, I would consider bring the individual on as a co-author. If that is your decision you need to provide the co-author with everything you are planning on doing so that he/she can make an informed decision. This obviously puts you at risk of being scooped. This then leads to the question of how to minimize the chances of being scooped. The first thing to remember is most researchers do not want to get into a publish first race. Scooping tends to be accidental and a result of two people independently starting the same/similar projects. You can minimize your chances by contacting an established person who is known to play "nice". The second thing you can do is to bring the research along as far as you can without the collaborator. This means they will be starting from so far back that it is unwise to enter the race.

  • 19
    a co-author, a collaborator, a consultant, or a service provider — Hint: Nobody wants to be a service provider.
    – JeffE
    Feb 27, 2013 at 15:11
  • 23
    @JeffE: then what are you doing on StackExchange? :-) Feb 27, 2013 at 23:39
  • 4
    He's being a consultant :)
    – Suresh
    Apr 1, 2013 at 19:50
  • 7
    ...or a collaborator.
    – JeffE
    Apr 2, 2013 at 7:18
  • 2
    And occasionally, if he's editing a community-wiki answer, a co-author!
    – tonysdg
    Oct 29, 2016 at 0:24

This is a common in most fields, I am not a mathematician and hear it occassionally in my field as well. The simple answer is that there are never any guarantees against that someone will/can "steal" an idea. I write quotation marks because there is a grey zone between really taking it and getting own similar ideas based on pieces of information.

One way to establish "ownership" of the idea is to provide something tangible that provides documentation of the idea with your name on it such as an abstract from a conference, poster contribution or something similar. I cannot see if this would be possible in your case, given that you say you are lacking some pieces.

Approaching another scientist to establish a collaboration is a good idea. I would not use the suspicion that the idea will be stolen as a basic assumption, the large majority of scientists do not steal ideas in my opinion. So the problem is to increase your knowledge about the person(s) you intend to contact. Does someone in your neighbourhod know the person(s)? Try to hear if they have a reputation (good or bad, no partuclar reputation is also good in my opinion). Then write and ask about the interest in collaborating, specifying what expertise you seek in the collaoration. How much you wish to reveal of your complete idea is difficult to say but you will have to provide enough detail to clearly explain why the sought expertise is required. If you then have some way to indicate the your idea is known as your idea by others, it may work as a deterrent but I would avoid being to "paranoid" in the first approach.

I do not know if this will help you in your quest but getting to know your possible contact will help to remove the unknowns which are instrumental in building your uncertainty.

  • 1
    +1 for presenting: you could present the basics of your idea, and use it as an advertising pitch to get collaborators to help you flesh things out further.
    – aeismail
    Feb 27, 2013 at 13:46

I don't have a big academic experience yet, but would like to share what I learnt.

First of all if you have an idea you can write a technical report where you describe what you doing, what you found up to that point. If you place the technical report on the University website, you can always say that you started with the idea and you wanted to develop it to a research paper but you have a trace that it is yours. (If you don't have data and results yet, you can write technical note where you describe what you going to do)

Second thing I learned is that if you have a good name on your paper just after your one, the paper will be somehow "stronger". Probably researchers will look first for the name of a well known professor and his publications instead of your one if you don't have many. Your name should be first anyway as it is your idea. In future your paper will be cited more often and will get better score. As far as I know it is worth to have co-authors.


Collaboration (and co-authoring) is generally a good thing in science. Very few people can be a real expert in more than one field, so if you lack the skills needed to write a solid paper, recruit someone as a collaborator (but always make sure that their contribution is appropriately rewarded or other researchers won't want to work with you).

I would tell the prof that you have a good idea for a paper, but that you need to work with a mathematician and ask him/her if he/she would like to collaborate, and then decide whether to tell him/her the details once you hear what sort of terms would suit him/her. Be direct and up-front about what you want; it may not go down too well if the Prof. gets the idea that you are trying to milk them for the information you want via the "mild questions" without them getting due credit.

In my experience though, the easiest way to get a mathematician you can trust is to marry one. ;o)

  • 2
    Using arXiv (arxiv.org) rather than the university depository would be even better as arXiv has a reliable time stamp. Mar 2, 2014 at 17:21

You already asked him some mild questions. Obviously, you feel that the answer from him is not enough for you to go on. You need more info for you to carry out your research.

Ethically speaking, if he participates in your research, you need to give him credits for his contribution. At the very least, you need to mention him in the Acknowledgement section in your paper.

Or, you can cite his contribution in the paper. I have seen authors do this by saying some thing like

J. Doe (private communication, 2013).

You can refer to this link

It would be even better to include him as a coauthor. It’s up to you.

If you want to be the single author of the paper and worry that he might steal your idea after you tell him details of your idea, then I would suggest you to

Narrow down the math stuff to general math only questions.

You are working on CS related research, he may or may not know what you are up to. He may not even be interested in your CS subject. Most mathematicians just want to do math stuff only.

Once you can narrow down your questions to math only, not only you can ask him but also you can ask your questions on public forums such as our sister site Math SE or MathOverflow. (I see that you already asked a question on Math SE. Have you tried MO?)


First, I strongly suggest you to study THAT yourself. At the end of the day, if the "professor" collaborates with you, and if he made a mistake, you will be to blame as well. Likely, the "professor" will tell you things like "sure I can help you" when in reality he will pass it to one of his PhD students. You claim to have a Computer Science degree, right? Then, you have some math background. Well, use that to study that for yourself. Get better on math. Do not think about the paper now, but about learning. As a researcher you have learn so do it. Then, if you further believe you want help, look for it. (Maybe I can help you, btw) Good luck :)

  • 2
    Why the scare quotes around professor? Also, your answer sounds very cynical: "At the end of the day, if the "professor" collaborates with you, and if he made a mistake, you will be to blame as well." Well, sure: all coauthors are "to blame" for any mistakes in their paper. No problem there. "Likely, the "professor" will tell you things like "sure I can help you" when in reality he will pass it to one of his PhD students." I'm not sure why you think that's likely -- I've never seen or done it -- but if the professor puts the OP in touch with someone else who can help him: sounds good. Oct 28, 2016 at 17:20
  • 3
    "Get better at math." Well, there's some constructive, actionable advice. While you're at it, get richer, get more attractive and get better at playing the piano. Oct 28, 2016 at 19:39

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