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Rephrased question: Can a PhD supervisor take unpublished ideas from a student's dissertation and work on them hence denying the student the opportunity to work on her ideas herself?

I completed a PhD and took on a short postdoc immediately afterwards with the same supervisor. The idea was to be doing something while I apply for bursaries or funds to continue research on the ideas I proposed in my thesis. Throughout my PhD I had minimal supervision and minimal input of any sort from him. In fact, in 5 years, he never proposed or even simply put me on track to an idea or a solution. I know for a fact that my supervisor barely read a fourth of my dissertation; however, I had spoken to him about my ideas several times and they are mentioned in my dissertation as my own. I know he is aware of that because I sent him the acknowledgement part by email before putting it in my thesis.

Now he decided to take my ideas for himself and got a new student to work on them with the contacts I developed myself because he was incapable of doing that himself. I supervised the new student who is working on my ideas for a particular application and got him going etc and I will be on the eventual paper. However, my supervisor has now decided to apply my idea to another application which I proposed myself in my thesis as well and given that I am leaving soon, I’ve been told that I will not be on that paper because I haven’t contributed directly. Beside the fact that this is still an application of my idea and one that I suggested myself in my thesis, the supervision I’ve given to the student is perfectly applicable to this idea as well because they are related.

Can my supervisor do this even though he knows I want to work on them myself? Can I stop him from doing this? Frankly, I’m gutted and totally demoralised. There is no way for me to compete with him and get a paper out before him.

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    given that I am leaving soon, I’ve been told that I will not be on that paper because I haven’t contributed directly — Why can't you continue to contribute directly after you leave? Don't you have email? – JeffE Oct 14 '17 at 20:13
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    You could write a better paper with the most important ideas you didn't talk about to anyone. If you don't have any of those, well then this is a great chance to learn to always build a buffer of those! – mathreadler Oct 15 '17 at 0:03
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    In these kind of situations, the devil is always in the details and students often feel unfairly treated. I am sorry if you feel so. My advice is that on long term try to be useful in a way that that people want to ask your advice or collaboration even when your contract is over and they have no legal obligation to do so, and if you cannot for some reason, learn to walk away. Academia can be unfair, but you better of spending your time with useful arguments. If you already asked your prof, and he is not willing to include you, generally it is not a good use of time arguing with him on it. – Greg Oct 15 '17 at 4:46
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    @mathreadler Why should one learn that? – JiK Oct 15 '17 at 15:16
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    @JiK : Because ... situations like this one can happen to anyone and you better not be the one falling on your bare ass when it happens but have some jokers / good cards up your sleaves.. – mathreadler Oct 15 '17 at 16:16

10 Answers 10

68

A PhD dissertation is published work, not a private document. It is publicly available to anyone with a library access (via interlibrary loan or via an appropriate dissertation vendor).

Of course, if anyone (including your former PhD supervisor) uses results from the dissertation, they must include an appropriate citation. That way you get a credit for your contribution.

If your contribution is considered valuable by the standards of your field, you can write it up and publish it in a refereed journal for better visibility (compared to the dissertation). You can also upload your thesis on an institutional repository or arXiv.

My advice: do not waste time arguing about ownership of ideas. It will not help your career. You had one idea that was good enough to interest people; make more!

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    There's also the converse attribution that even if the student writes up a paper himself, the supervisor is likely entitled (last) authorship by having provided funds, supervision, PI rights at the University, etc. which directly contributed to the research. – user71659 Oct 15 '17 at 7:24
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    @user71659: 1. Most of these don't entitle to authorship; is the philanthropist who contributed to a research institute one of the authors of the papers? 2. In some fields / countries / universities it's customary for the supervisor to be added as an author, in others it isn't. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 15 '17 at 14:24
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    @user71659 Don't use code formatting for quotes, it messes up screen readers. – JAB Oct 15 '17 at 17:31
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    @user71659: acknowledgement and authorship are completely different things – Taladris Oct 17 '17 at 1:45
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    @user71659 PI status does not confer the right to authorship. Students at reputable institutions, even in Germany, can and regularly do conduct research without direct involvement of faculty. I do not expect to be a coauthor on all my PhD students' papers, even if I'm funding them; I am only a coauthor on papers to which I directly contribute. My advisor was not a coauthor on most of my PhD papers. Honorary authorship is considered grossly unethical in my research community. In short, your universal claim is false, and continuing to repeat it will not make it true. – JeffE Oct 17 '17 at 18:19
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Your question has two layers in it, and I feel that separating these would be of value:

On the ethical layer, ownership of ideas plays a neglible role in academia: It's commonly said that ideas are a dime a dozen. The hard lifting is in the execution of an idea, and this is also what eventually leads to the most significant kind of academic credit, authorship. So, from this perspective, your supervisor did nothing wrong, as no other person would have done by executing an idea found in some other person's thesis.

On the interpersonal layer, your supervisor is behaving unfairly by consuming your resources (ideas, but even more so skills, time, contacts) while not offering you to join the resulting projects, even though you are interested in them. Unfair treatment feels bad, and you have good reason to avoid your supervisor in the future for that. Other than that, I'm afraid there's not much you can do here.


Edit: In the second part of my answer, I assume that you have unambiguously and clearly expressed your interest in being involved in the work that will lead to the follow-up paper, even though you will leave the group soon. If this is not the case, this is the thing you should do immediately.

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    They are, but there's also a minimum number of characters that I can edit, which sucks sometimes. – Stephen S Oct 15 '17 at 13:26
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    In fact, more than rules and regulations, I sort of was expecting him to be correct on a moral level. I guess I was too naive and trusting. I'm a fool. I also disagree with the concept that: "ideas are a dime a dozen". In my limited experience, to find something (a problem or a solution) which is both relevant and original is pretty hard. In fact, my supervisor has quite literally abandoned other projects to keep working on my ideas/concepts. Thank you. – M. Mare Oct 15 '17 at 18:19
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    To your second point, can't OP, as JeffE suggested, request coauthorship on the second paper? Offer to continue to supervise the student from afar and contribute to the final paper? – Dawn Oct 16 '17 at 16:45
  • @Dawn You're right: I assumed that the OP already did that, but this could be a false assumption. I edited my answer accordingly. – lighthouse keeper Oct 16 '17 at 17:04
  • “your supervisor did nothing wrong, as no other person would have done by executing an idea found in some other person's thesis.” I find this surprising: in my field (pure maths), it would be considered bad form at the very least to work on an idea that a colleague had suggested (especially a junior colleague) without first checking whether they were working on it themself, or planning to do so. Applying their ideas in a direction of your own would be fine, but OP explicitly says “this is still an application of my idea and one that I suggested myself in my thesis” (emphasis mine). – PLL Oct 17 '17 at 14:26
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I would explicitly discuss it with him and say that given its your idea and you know the details better than anyone, you want to be involved in the project and still have a leading role. You are leaving so you have nothing to lose by being assertive in a discussion like this. You can say they would lose valuable support and expertise that would help accomplish this whole cluster of projects that just spawned from your PhD. He probably will still come up with an elaborate excuse so that even if you are involved you wont be taking a central role. For the future I suggest keeping your ideas for yourself and share only things with colleagues, supervisors and community overall when they take a more "material" form... By that point then authorship and ownership should be less fuzzy...

2

Your Ph.D. advisor should NOT be competing with you. Even if his actions don't rise to the level of plagiarism, he is likely violating the Faculty Code of Conduct at his university. You should report him to your university's RIO. It's an RIO's job to look into these kinds of matters, and he or she will NOT be annoyed at you for wasting their time.

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    It is unwise to speculate about what may or may not annoy a third party - especially when it concerns their time. – emory Oct 16 '17 at 0:15
2

Preamble

Since a country wasn't specified, I'll throw in a case against such re-use. Plagiarism isn't necessarily the case if the work was properly cited, used only in relevant parts and not re-written verbatim in large chunks.


Background

Depending on the intellectual property policy of the university itself, either the student, or the prof, or the university itself, owns the rights to any profit or IP generated through the course of one's studies. Most universities demand that all IP generated in a degree program by a student is owned by the university, regardless of whether or not the university provided any funding or real help.

Two Canadian universities that do not do this (that I know of) are the University of Waterloo in Ontario, and Simon Fraser University in BC. In the case of those two universities, it is very different: the student owns 100% of the rights to his/her research, and around the time of thesis defense, may:

  • Make the defense private to only people relevant to the defense.
  • Make all attendees sign legally binding waivers (i.e. non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs) that puts them on the hook for "perceived financial loss" if they disclose the contents of the thesis early.
  • Decline requests from students, "trouble makers", etc, that want to attend and will sign the NDAs, but likely wouldn't be able to pay for the damages incurred by disclosing the details of the thesis.
  • Request that publication of the entire thesis, with the exception of the thesis title (don't make it too descriptive), is delayed for one year.
    • Around 8 months after the (successful) thesis defense, the student may make a request for a second 1 year delay of publication, so that (provisional, draft, or full) patent applications can proceed.

Summary

If you have the right to delay publication due to you being the sole owner of your research, then yes: you can make your prof hold off on the work for 1-2 years. If you have the right to do so, this will likely sour your relationship with your prof, and being able to use him/her as a reference.

It's quite common for profs (at least in engineering) to have a piece of work that a PhD student did become the basis of the work for a fresh graduate student. Since there's now so much information on the subject, it provides a springboard for the next student to jump into academia.


My 2¢

  • If you intend to patent the work and make money off of it, see a lawyer. Since you likely did not take IP/legal precautions in advance, this likely won't be a fruitful endeavor.
  • If you're worried you'll be "muscled out" by your prof writing another paper on the subject, get cracking, and churn out more research of your own.
  • If you're feeling slighted by another student taking over your work, that's the norm in that industry, just like in non-academic settings when a new employee is brought in to replace someone who retired.
  • If you're upset on general principle that you aren't in control of the research anymore: that's just life, and the advancement of human intellectual progress. Don't resent it: we all benefit by the advancement of this body of knowledge. If that still bothers you, redouble your efforts to be an expert in your specialized area of expertise.

Edit

Here's an excerpt from SFU's IP policy guidelines:

The result of research is the generation of new knowledge. The "ownership" of that new knowledge, especially when it is knowledge with commercial implications and/or results in scholarly publications, is a sensitive issue. The question of ownership in the context of the student-supervisor relationship is often complicated by the close collaboration between supervisor(s) and student during the course of the research. It is further complicated by the fact that the University and possibly an outside agency provide resources (e.g. space, library, equipment, supplies) in support of the research.

At Simon Fraser University, unlike many other universities, the person (student, staff or faculty member) who generates patentable new knowledge is the owner of that knowledge; the University makes no claim on it, unless the University is asked to help with the patenting of the idea [see Policy R30.02]. The main federal and provincial agencies which support university research through research grants (NSERC, SSHRC, CIHR and SCBC) also make no claims on the results. On the other hand, copyrightable new knowledge (e.g. books and software) is usually owned jointly by the author and the University; consult Policy R30.01.

Research contracts with government agencies or private companies often stipulate that the rights to commercial exploitation of a discovery belong in full or in part to the sponsoring agency. Because it is University policy that the rights to a patentable discovery belong to the discoverer(s), the University will approve contracts containing such stipulations, as long as they do not restrict the ultimate publication of the results (see Graduate General Regulation 1.11.3).

And here's the policy for the University of Waterloo, outright noting that research and all possible IP derived from it, is the property of the owner/inventor(s). It's no wonder these universities churn out so many startups and inventors: the student has a reason to care about the commercial viability of the research due to having an exclusive view to a profit from furthering the research.

University of Waterloo has long been known for researchers who are entrepreneurial thinkers and industry partners.

At the core of entrepreneurship is Intellectual Property (IP) Rights Policy #73, also called "creator-owned," which grants ownership to the inventor. It's the engine for driving commercialization success of research-based innovations and may be the most entrepreneurial oriented IP policy in North America.

Waterloo embraces the philosophy that providing incentive through IP ownership is the best motivator to ensure that commercialization of research provides broad societal and economic benefit. The policy is a feature in attracting entrepreneurial oriented faculty and graduate students who want to engage in commercial enterprise (i.e., through contract research and licensing opportunities with industry or independently with their own research outcomes).

The policy and the university's entrepreneurial culture has positioned Waterloo as a national leader in the transfer of ideas and technology to the private sector.

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    The underlying assumption of your answer is that the mere statement of a research idea is already a unit of research work and, as such, automatically protected by intellectual property rights. I don't think that this is the case, but it would be interesting to see evidence for this assumption. – lighthouse keeper Oct 15 '17 at 14:43
  • @lighthousekeeper I'll add an example in the case of SFU while I look for Waterloo's equivalent one. I should re-assert my initial assumption: this is assumed to be valid in the case of a select few universities where "original research" is treated as something tangible that can be "owned". – Cloud Oct 15 '17 at 15:35
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    Thanks, but I think that's not the particular assumption I meant. I meant the assumption that an (unexecuted) idea is a research outcome. At least my answer would contradict this assumption. – lighthouse keeper Oct 15 '17 at 16:04
  • @lighthousekeeper Ah, I understand you now. Well, in the case above I provided, it's basically a game of "mine" or "I called it" with kids reserving swings on a playground: anything is fair game to "claim". – Cloud Oct 16 '17 at 13:31
  • Not sure where to conclude this from. The quotation from SFU you provided says "The result of research is the generation of new knowledge" and attributes the ownership of new knowledge to the person who generated the knowledge, but it doesn't say that it's fair to claim an unexecuted idea as a knowledge advancement. The quotation from U of Waterloo talks about "granting ownership to the inventor of research-based innovations", but it doesn't say that an unexecuted idea is an invention or innotivation. – lighthouse keeper Oct 16 '17 at 13:46
1

If he can use the material you developed while working there depends on your local laws. Are the rights owned by the individual teacher/researcher or the university or the boss of the research group or maybe someone else entirely?

However, there is nothing stopping anyone from doing their own work based on anyone elses ideas. Often it is not the idea but how to put it into action and make it work that is interesting.

It is not so seldom that an idea is presented in one paper, does not get much attention and then brought up again later by someone else who gets much more attention because of a better explained application or implementation of the idea.

1

I am not sure what the laws are in other countries, but in the United States, almost every university has a research integrity officer, whose job it is to look into these kinds of matters.

For example, here is a page about research misconduct at UCLA: http://ora.research.ucla.edu/RPC/Pages/ResearchMisconduct.aspx If you click on their Policy 993: Responding to Allegations of Research Misconduct, you can then click on "Look up contact person" to find that UCLA's Research Integrity Officer is Ann Pollack. Almost every university has such a policy and a person whose job it is to investigate.

You should write up your allegations of plagiarism clearly and include any supporting documents. If you are at a public university in the United States, you can frequently use the Freedom of Information Act (or its state equivalent) to request official copies of emails, for example.

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    The action being alleged here isn't plagiarism, though, provided that the advisor is going to cite the dissertation. There is no misconduct here, as far as I can see (as explained in other answers) and an RIO would be annoyed at you for wasting their time. – Nate Eldredge Oct 15 '17 at 14:14
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Just for example, there is a detailed explanation in Ownership of Intellectual Property for Purdue University.

Under Purdue policy, the University shall own all domestic and foreign rights in and to any and all inventions made or developed by all faculty, staff, students, and visiting scholars in the course of employment by the University, or through the use of University resources.

University resources mean any support administered by or through Purdue University, including but not limited to University funds, facilities, equipment or personnel, and funds, facilities, equipment or personnel provided by governmental, commercial, industrial, or other public or private organizations which are administered or controlled by the University

...

If a graduate student/post doc believes that they have participated in creating intellectual property that may be owned by Purdue University, they should first bring the intellectual property to the attention of their major professor or supervisor, or the head of their department. Then, the student/postdoc, in consultation with their advisor, supervisor, or head, should disclose the new intellectual property to the Purdue Research Foundation’s Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC). OTC has been assigned responsibility for evaluation, protection, and management of intellectual property owned by Purdue University.

...

Under University policy, net proceeds derived from licensing University intellectual property will be distributed one-third to the inventors/creators and two thirds to the University. One half of the University share will be returned to the inventors’/creators’ departments.

Basically, if there is no patent corresponding to what your idea is, there is no way you can prevent others from using the idea. Furthermore, the University insists that they own a majority share of any arising patent.

-1

I really don't think that is fair. A student in your class worked effectively and produced an outstanding piece of work that has not been published before. For you to take credit from your students work shows that you aren't teaching to help your student but instead teaching to improve yourself. Regardless of what is legal, you should not be allowed to teach if you are teaching to benefit yourself and not those who are there to learn from you.

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    This doesn't seem to answer the question as stated. – Elizabeth Henning Oct 15 '17 at 19:49
-1

You are asking: "Can a PhD supervisor take unpublished ideas from a student's dissertation?" What do you mean by "take"? My answer is: If somebody "takes" your idea and says: "this idea belongs to such and such person", he/she can take it and do anything with it. But if somebody attributes this idea to him/herself, this is plagiarism.

My definition of plagiarism is: "Plagiarism is a falsification of the fact of authorship." Unfortunately, my definition of plagiarism has not been adopted. In fact, it is legally correct.

Now, there is also another problem here. One cannot simply "take" unpublished idea. If it's unpublished, you can speak about it only with the note "personal communication from ....", i. e. the author gave you permission to publish it. If the idea was published, you must give valid reference, to journal, published dissertation, etc.

  • Now, I must add to my answer (second above) a note about so-called ownership. Published science is for anyone to use, well, if it is not patented. I guess there is a lot of misunderstanding and needless regulations here when ownership is somehow connected with authorship. They are totally different things. – Michael Pyshnov Oct 17 '17 at 6:30

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