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I sent a paper to a fellow PhD student in my department for feedback. In person, he gave me some comments and implied that he had already considered some of the ideas I had suggested. I recently learned that, about one week after our meeting, a blog post was published anonymously containing many of the ideas in my paper. The blog is clearly written by the student to whom I had sent the paper and contains no mention of me.

Part of why I'm concerned is that if I now try to publish these ideas (in a journal, not a blog), I'm afraid that someone will accuse me of stealing the ideas from that blog post (or dissertation or journal article, if the blog post gets developed further). And, in addition to the possibility of being scooped, there is also the possibility of him having stolen my ideas here. So I'm wondering what to do.

On the one hand, he said or at least implied that he had independently come up with these ideas, and I don't yet have any evidence to the contrary. And I suppose this person's behavior may be what you would expect if he did come up with the idea independently before reading my paper—perhaps he's trying to stake a claim to the ideas before I publish the idea myself. On the other hand, it seems to me extremely fishy that the post was published so quickly after I sent him the ideas. And it also seems wrong (even in a blog post) not to at least acknowledge that these ideas have been independently developed by someone else (namely, me).

Should I:

  1. Email this person about it in some polite but non-confrontational way? (But I won't really be satisfied unless he proves to me that he came up with the ideas independently, by sending me a draft that was clearly written before I sent him mine.)
  2. Tell my or his advisor, or some other faculty member, about the situation and put it in their hands? (But I don't want to seem accusatory.)
  3. Just ignore it and try to publish the idea as soon as possible?
  4. Do something else?
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    3 ignore it. Blog posts don't count as publication. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 11 '17 at 3:49
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    Talk to your advisor about it ASAP, and collect any evidence you can for your ideas and when you had them (emails, handwritten notes, file timestamps on your computer/dropbox, dates of meetings where you discussed the ideas with others etc). You don't need to sound accusatory, just tell the facts in a neutral way and leave interpretation to others. Ask your advisor what to do. And probably it's best not to contact the other student in the meantime. – Dan Romik Feb 11 '17 at 5:27
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    Yes, as Dan said, see what documentation you can collect, just in case it turns out to be helpful. – aparente001 Feb 11 '17 at 8:08
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    @AnonymousPhysicist blog posts don't count as a publication, but they can most certainly count as (purported) evidence in an attempt to support a later claim of priority for an actual publication. So your argument is a non sequitur. – Dan Romik Feb 11 '17 at 10:17
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    I see that several people upvoted @AnonymousPhysicist'S recommendation. The upvoters must mistakenly think that mathematics follows the crazy and illogical rule some other sciences have that when two people try to publish the same discovery, the credit will go to the person whose paper appeared in print in a peer-reviewed journal first. Math just doesn't work like that, folks. If you publish something in a blog post that 100% establishes priority whether it's been peer reviewed or not. Unless it can be shown convincingly that you stole the idea, that is. – Dan Romik Feb 11 '17 at 16:18
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I found myself in a similar situation once, also with a blog post, though in my case the poster fully admitted posting my ideas and appeared to see nothing wrong with it. Fortunately, I later determined the specific idea wasn't as fruitful a line of inquiry as I initially imagined and happily moved on.

So, my suggestions to you:

  • It is fishy, and one clear lesson to learn is to not trust this person with your work in the future.
  • Hold on to records of your communication, in particular any emails where you discuss this idea and/or send him drafts. As was pointed out in the comments, blog posts aren't publications, but it's still possible someone notices in the future and asks you about it. Having the email where you sent your work to the poster for review from before they posted it is a solid defense.
  • Mention it to your advisor, but I would personally only do it as an aside, as something that annoyed you. You can handle it! If they, knowing you and the situation and the work itself, have other suggestions, they'll offer it at this point.
  • Don't bother bringing it up with that individual. If they did steal the idea from you, they can just deny it and all you have is circumstantial evidence. On the other hand, if they had indeed done similar work on their own already, then it seems they posted this in order to get their name on it before you (they can always claim their anonymous blog later), in which case you're competing to get this published. Therefore,
  • Take it as motivation to push through and finish your work both well and promptly.

Good luck!

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    You can handle it! [citation needed] – Dan Romik Feb 11 '17 at 10:19
  • Hah. Definitely needs a citation [citation needed]. – Jeff Feb 11 '17 at 15:30
  • Thanks @Jeff. Suppose I publish my ideas first. Do you think I'd have any obligation to note the existence of the blog post? Alternatively, suppose that he publishes the ideas in a journal before I do (either with or without citing me). Supposing that some journal was still willing to publish my work on the subject (even with me noting that similar ideas were published elsewhere by someone else, which I'd then clearly be obligated to do), would it then be permissible, or even obligatory, for me to note the "origin story" of the ideas (i.e., that I came up with them first)? – anongrad Feb 11 '17 at 20:35
  • @anongrad your focus on who publishes first is misguided. In math this is seriously not considered to be important. Actual priority on the other hand is obviously somewhat important (more so the more important the results are), but even then it's not uncommon to have different researchers publish the same results they each arrived at independently. In that case, everyone tends to accept that and give them both credit, regardless of who was technically first, as long as there isn't a suspicious story involving both of them being in the same dept. and one telling the other about their result. – Dan Romik Feb 11 '17 at 21:11
  • Bottom line: seriously my friend, speak to your advisor. Their advice will be immeasurably more accurate and applicable than anything you could get here. – Dan Romik Feb 11 '17 at 21:13

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