A recent exciting but unpublished discovery of mine was scooped by a colleague. I am a PhD student and I shared the discovery with the colleague a year ago. The colleague is a professor who came from the research group I work in. I found out about the scoop through my adviser who attended the colleague's talk about the discovery; the colleague's group did similar research that led them to the same discovery after we talked.

Obviously my adviser and I were surprised, upset, and angry. Initially after my adviser confronted the colleague about this the colleague was argumentative but eventually saw the light and became apologetic. The colleague offered to retract the paper that was accepted for publication but not published until we've published our findings (it's taken so long to publish for good reasons). However, the colleague is still pushy about trying to get at least something from their research out, but it is our judgement that any of their results would scoop my discovery.

Although I haven't talked with the colleague since this happened (my adviser has been mediating), I get the impression that the colleague did this intentionally with the hopes that it would go unnoticed by us.

So my question is this: what should I do to ensure this colleague receives their comeuppance i.e., does this deserve some sort of punitive action on my part? I haven't asked my adviser yet and any suggestions I receive here will certainly be discussed with my adviser.

  • 4
    Shameful. They absolutely should retract the paper imho. Jun 9, 2017 at 16:39
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    Happened to me by another PhD student and my advisor wasn't as supportive as yours. This is such a painful experience, I almost gave up on my PhD as it was the result of 1-year work. You have the right to your discovery, and they should retract, However, in a realistic scenario I would say your best bet is to negotiate a deal.
    – dan
    Jun 9, 2017 at 17:07
  • It happens more often than people like to admit. Good luck!
    – Greg
    Jun 10, 2017 at 2:40
  • "What should I do to ensure this colleague receives their comeuppance?" Take the moral high ground. Keep a clear image of what it means to do the right thing. Let this person stew in his own bad karma. Jun 10, 2017 at 2:45
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    @aparente001 I know where you're coming from but there are different ideas for what the right thing is. One path is for me to just let it go and hope karma works itself out; on another path I could make sure this person knows that they've really done wrong by alerting their boss. Certain misdeeds require punishment in order to hopefully prevent them from happening again. Both of these are good options, and neither is fundamentally better than the other as far as I can see. This confusion is why I asked the question. Regardless, I will just let my adviser take care of it. Thank you for sharing.
    – ZacHammer
    Jun 19, 2017 at 14:35

2 Answers 2


It sounds like your adviser is already on the case -- let her handle it. She may know the colleague better, may know better how to handle such situations, and is in a position where she may not care about consequences any more if she calls out the colleague about the issue (because she already is a professor). You, on the other hand, do not have this luxury and consequently would be better off letting someone else handle this as long as you think that it is handled in a way that goes in the right direction.

So, rather than being involved yourself, let her handle that and keep you updated as to what is happening.

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    In addition to this, the deal negotiated by the advisor (publishing first) looks excellent to me considering the circumstances (other paper already in press, other party clearly unethical). I would not break off negotiations just to satisfy a need for revenge or justice.
    – UJM
    Sep 11, 2020 at 16:33

Document everything and expose the thief. It will stop them and anybody else who can see what public exposure does to people who are deceitful and unjust. When you protect them or fail to nip it in the bud, they will only find a smarter, less conspicuous way to screw you over, again. It was what they intended to begin with. They are fighting without scruples, you need to defend and protect yourself without apology or fear. When someone tries this with you, they do not respect you.

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