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Ideas "Stolen" at Conferences?

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Hi all,

I was wondering if this (paranoid) preoccupation concerned other people: Do you feel hesitant to share new, original, unique, and thought-provoking material in a conference paper (that's not published but eventually will be) with the fear that somebody in the audience or in the panel "takes" the idea, runs with it, and publishes it before you do? 

I ask because this happened to a good friend of mine, and I'm afraid a very similar situation took place with me. The topic I presented on was quite specific, with an extremely specific methodological approach---not to mention that the book I was examining is quite understudied. I had hit a wall with the essay, put it aside for a year to focus on other projects, then as I was going back to the essay, I realized that an article with an eerily similar title and thesis statement as my conference paper had just been published! Given the author's institutional affiliation and field (which is the same as mine), I wouldn't be surprised if he/she was at that conference listening in on my panel! Cat's out of the bag, and there's nothing I can do about it. Has this happened to other people? 

Students are told never to plagiarize and always to respect others' intellectual property. Yet sadly some professors think that they can transcend those rules! 

All best,
Z

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If you put an idea out there, you should be aware that it's now in the public domain and anyone can pick up on it and essentially write your paper before you manage to. For that reason it may be wise to strategize about when you start presenting a new idea. If it happens to be the case that there is someone in the audience who works on the same problem as you and is familiar with the literature, you might be supplying them with precisely what they're missing to make their own theory work. In that case, they may beat you to the punch. So, someone could take your idea and run with it, but if their new paper is based on a presentation you gave and on any written materials that originated from your work, then that contribution should be cited and you be credited with coming up with the approach or proposing the idea (even if you didn't have a full theory of it at the time) or whatever else is relevant. If that is not done, you're looking at what you can call "idea stealing." If your original work was cited but then essentially someone beat you to writing the paper that would result from the idea, then that person is perfectly within their rights. It's all about how the credit to the original ideas was given.

 

Of course it still sucks if instead of collaborating, this hypothetical audience member doesn't approach you to discuss your contribution to their work, but I suppose that's not anything out of bounds. Just kind of sneaky and someone who I would mark as a person I want to have nothing to do with.

 

I know this is a real problem in some fields, but in mine people are happy to cite several people for coming up with basically the same idea at roughly the same time (independently). It's terrible if someone beats you to writing your own paper, so it's important to worry about this, but you also need to balance that with being out there and spreading your ideas. So it's a tough problem, but one that everyone deals with. I tend to opt to be out there and be known for saying certain things even if the papers come much later, because I believe it gives me the right image and authority so that people know to associate my ideas with my name. But yes, it is a risk that someone else will beat me to the final punch line.

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Always a pleasure to read your responses, fuzzylogician. ;) 

Just to expand the context of my post: This is also a problem in graduate seminars. A friend once told me that graduate seminars are fertile breeding grounds for professors who are trying to incorporate material (or think of material to incorporate) into their own projects. From what I have heard, many professors assign in their course syllabi books that are formative components to their articles (or book projects), hoping that graduate students' ideas (from either in-class participation or final papers) aid them with writing. I acknowledge, of course, a limit to the level of appropriateness associated with this approach. Yet, this is technically gleaning of intellectual property! 

Does being a student (and thus contractually bound to participate in class in order to succeed) presuppose an abdication of one's intellectual property to the professor? (I very rarely see article and book acknowledgments that thank graduate seminars participants). Thoughts? 


Wishing you all a wonderful evening,
Z

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Those are some hard questions! I guess (as always) it depends on the situation. Many seminars I've participated in (some of the best, in fact) were created around current research of the faculty leading the seminar, and I've never thought I was entitled to any particular credit if the professor then ended up producing work based on the seminar. I don't think anyone was stealing ideas from me just because I sat in on a 3-hour discussion with 10 other smart people in a room once a week. After all, it's the professor who compiles the reading lists and leads the discussion, it's the professor who produce handouts for the class and it's him/her who spends the rest of the week thinking about the topic of the seminar. If I all I did was read (skim, lets be honest) some papers and make some smart remarks, I consider that fair game. It's the same as if a colleague shows me work in progress or has me read a draft of a paper and I make some suggestions - I'd want to be thanked in the acknowledgements but that alone doesn't make me then see the work as partly my own, certainly not to the extent that I deserve co-authorship.

 

If I pick up on a comment I made in class and develop my own project based on it, that's a different story. I know of cases where students have developed projects out of class papers or discussions, and there too it's clear where the credit goes: my project is mine and I thank the professors for their help and comments, but they don't get to be co-authors on my paper.* Or it might become a joint project with the professor and then authorship is obviously shared. I suppose I should make clear here (and with regard to my previous post) that I try not to present half-baked ideas before actually thinking them through, but I do occasionally make half-baked observations in class or in department-internal presentations and I think I've benefited just as much from colleagues' comments on these ideas as others have benefited from mine. Within a class environment and in my department, I feel safe doing these things. I don't know if I'd thrive in a program where you have to be secretive about ideas - the contributions of colleagues is essential to my work. It seems to me that your question is based on a premise that I just don't accept - essentially that you need to worry about anyone and everyone around you, that everything in the system is set up to use you and abuse you.

 

* My (main) field is actually somewhat weird with regard to authorship - professors are almost never co-authors with their advisees, even if their contribution is quite substantial. I know other fields are different, some with the advisor always being co-author on all of their advisees' papers. I have papers with professors, but it's always been a choice and when the project was really joint, not just me coming in for a meeting once a week and the advisor not really giving the project a second thought the rest of the time.

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At a conference, I would probably only present an idea if I believed that I could finish the work before someone else could. In Astronomy, this is usually true simply because I am the only one with access to my data (there is usually a proprietary period before it becomes public domain). Otherwise, a lot of theoretical work also involve a lot of very intensive code that would make it difficult for someone to reproduce exactly what I was going to publish from a 10 minute talk. I would also wait until it's almost publication ready because I wouldn't want to present a well developed idea -- I wouldn't feel comfortable presenting it unless it's something I've spent a good chunk of time on it already. Usually, this means that I would have enough lead time to finish the paper before someone else could "steal" it and "scoop" me. However, I'm currently trying to finish something I presented just over a year ago now -- I had planned to be finished by now but extra problems popped up!

 

As for "stealing", I would be pretty upset if someone saw a talk I gave, and then beat me to the punch. It wouldn't be technically wrong, since I acknowledge that presenting it means it is in the public domain, but I wouldn't be very happy about it. I would expect the other person to have the courtesy to tell me about it -- whether it's that they want to do their own thing based on the idea I presented, or to collaborate, or to just let me know that they actually independently were doing the same thing! I've seen papers in my field where two groups came up with an idea on their own, found out about the other, and then timed their publications to go in the same journal, in the same issue. The papers even mentioned this too.

 

So overall, by making sure that my stuff is good quality before I present it, I think my ideas would be well developed enough that I don't have to worry about having my ideas stolen. I think most people in my field are good enough people that they would at least tell me if they were doing the same thing. I also try to have a couple of projects going at a time, so that if something goes wrong with one, it's not like I lose everything! But I will probably be a little bit more careful to make sure my main thesis work do not get completely scooped when I get to that stage.

 

As for idea stealing in seminars, in my field, I would expect that the profs would approach the student about working together if a really great idea came up in class. In most of my grad classes, there is a large final project rather than an exam, and it's not too rare for these projects to be done so well, that the prof and student spend an extra few months after the course to make it into a publication. When this happens, it's usually that the prof wants the student to write it up and offer to collaborate and this usually makes the student the first author. I would expect that if a student came up with a great idea in a class (either through discussion or seminar), the prof would give the student the "right of first refusal" to develop that idea further into a paper.

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What a great topic and certainly something I've started to ponder as I conduct my own research and ponder the possibility of publishing and presenting at conferences.  On the one hand I agree that something presented publicly reasonably makes it "up for grabs", but on the other hand it seems like the appropriate (and professional!) action would be to offer to collaborate with said presenter or cite said presenters work within ones own work.

 

It seems that something like this might be avoided if research was only presented after it had been submitted for publication that way during the conference one could say "and publication is pending."  That would nudge members of the audience doing similar work to either suggest collaboration or to cite the presenters work.  I do realize that this isn't always possible especially if one hasn't finished writing up their work or the research is in progress.  Out of curiosity, is there an advantage to presenting research that is in progress at conferences?

 

As for graduate seminars, yes I would say that in some cases professors use them to generate fresh ideas to further their research.  However, when a student comes up with a really good idea the professor wants to use then they can ask that student if they're interested in collaborating on the research.  If the student declines then the professor is still free to run with the idea.  This has happened in my program, but perhaps not in others.

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It seems that something like this might be avoided if research was only presented after it had been submitted for publication that way during the conference one could say "and publication is pending."  That would nudge members of the audience doing similar work to either suggest collaboration or to cite the presenters work.  I do realize that this isn't always possible especially if one hasn't finished writing up their work or the research is in progress.  Out of curiosity, is there an advantage to presenting research that is in progress at conferences?

 

At some conferences, especially the ones that happen annually for your subfield, I think it's common to present a "progress report" of what you're doing so that you advertise your work and speciality to your colleagues. It's better, in my opinion, to package/present this type of presentation as showing preliminary results though, instead of just simply stating your problem and what you've done so far. That is, if you are working on a long multi-year project, you could try to logically divide it into two or more phases and present the first phase after 1 year, and let people know what's coming next.

 

You can also present work from a paper in progress in order to solicit early comments and reviews. If you are presenting to your own field, then the feedback you get after the presentation is likely to be the same reaction you would get from a journal review. In fact, if you are presenting at the annual meeting for your subfield, it's likely that the person/people who will end up reviewing your submitted manuscript will be in the audience (my field is small enough for this to be true). 

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So, I don't know so much about conferences, but I do know of cases where graduate students have had their work stolen by their professors. In some cases, students have had entire sections lifted from their work and reproduced in a professor's publication. But, and I really want to emphasize this, this is definitely the exception, a shocking ethics violation, and a thing people are appalled about when they hear it. That said, as a graduate student, you're not really in a position to complain about your advisor stealing your work assuming you want to get a PhD and a job. 

 

I haven't heard about this as much with conferences, like I said. I will say that at a conference a few years ago, I presented in the second of two sessions about the same topic and someone in the first session basically gave almost exactly the paper I had planned to give. We didn't realize this was going to happen (obviously!) and it has since worked out because we are friends and collaborators now. And, at least for me, the topic of that paper is one that I've sort of moved away from so I'm not so concerned about those particular similarities in our work.

 

I never had much of an issue with people "stealing" my ideas during coursework, but that's probably because my research topic is very different than that of most of the people I took classes with. (Then again, I also half-assed a bunch of my coursework if I'm going to be honest.) I'd personally be more concerned about ideas from drafts that you send to people to look over getting stolen. But, I only send my work to people I trust and who I know aren't going to steal my ideas. This is important to me because I'm going to be trying to establish a new tradition within a subfield in my upcoming publications, so I'm trying to guard the ideas as much as I can until then. Hopefully no one beats me to it!

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"Scooping" happened to my MS advisor shortly after I left the program, and with a new project he was starting that had potential to disprove one of the perceived "experts" in the field on the same topic.

 

Interestingly, conferences were not really where this played out...my advisor tried to collaborate in good faith, visited a few times to share data, and then this guy did some rapid fieldwork on the down-low and surprise! sudden publication where he did his own debunk of his entire career/research trajectory to that point. 

 

Only case where I've really heard of this happening...in my field, many projects require large groups and datasets that I imagine are hard for the lone rogue to steal/penetrate/replicate on their own.

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One thing that you can do to at least mitigate the "scooping" problem is to make sure that, if you're working on something interesting, people in your field know about it.  This may be counter-intuitive, but if you do a good job publicizing your project on "The Role of Feminism in Third-Level Widgetmaking," then folks will recognize it as your ideas when they see a scooped paper on "Third-Level Widgetry and Feminist Theory."  Does this prevent you from being "scooped"? No.  Not at all.  The only way to truly prevent it is to publish your work faster and/or wait until you are at or near publication to present.  But short of that, make a network of scholars in your field and talk to them about your work-- build a name for yourself.  One thing that's becoming quite common in my field is "publishing" working papers online (on SSRN).  Again, this doesn't help you beat scoopers to actual journal publication, but it does help get your ideas out there (and in a way that is "provably" earlier than scoopers' work).

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One thing that you can do to at least mitigate the "scooping" problem is to make sure that, if you're working on something interesting, people in your field know about it.  This may be counter-intuitive, but if you do a good job publicizing your project on "The Role of Feminism in Third-Level Widgetmaking," then folks will recognize it as your ideas when they see a scooped paper on "Third-Level Widgetry and Feminist Theory."  Does this prevent you from being "scooped"? No.  Not at all.  The only way to truly prevent it is to publish your work faster and/or wait until you are at or near publication to present.  But short of that, make a network of scholars in your field and talk to them about your work-- build a name for yourself.  One thing that's becoming quite common in my field is "publishing" working papers online (on SSRN).  Again, this doesn't help you beat scoopers to actual journal publication, but it does help get your ideas out there (and in a way that is "provably" earlier than scoopers' work).

 

This is a good point too. The more people know that you do this work or that you came up with the idea, the more likely that the referee or journal editor will see the "scooping work" and realise that you presented it first and suggest that the "scoopers" cite your previous work. There are probably pre-print servers for many fields (e.g. arXiv for physical sciences and math) and if you can at least get a conference proceedings, then at least it's something "tangible" to cite. At least this way, you will still get some credit/recognition for the idea.

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This is a good point too. The more people know that you do this work or that you came up with the idea, the more likely that the referee or journal editor will see the "scooping work" and realise that you presented it first and suggest that the "scoopers" cite your previous work. There are probably pre-print servers for many fields (e.g. arXiv for physical sciences and math) and if you can at least get a conference proceedings, then at least it's something "tangible" to cite. At least this way, you will still get some credit/recognition for the idea.

 

Yep, that's what I meant before when I said I like to put myself out there and be known for having certain ideas. I also post submitted papers and proceedings papers on linguistics archives as well as my website and recently I started posting links to my papers on facebook and twitter and they sometimes get picked up by others and shared. Can't get the word out fast enough once I have a new paper--being known and getting feedback and both very important. What has really helped me is having a mentor who is very active on facebook and is also friends with pretty much every linguist out there who has an account! After I saw the reaction the first time he posted a link to a new paper I had put on the archive, I started doing it myself (if he doesn't beat me to it!), with great reactions. (But I suppose doing this is field-specific so I'm not sure this is a habit everyone should just pick up without knowing how their field like to play.)

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So, what about when your advisor presents some of your findings as part of their research without listing you as co-author? We (grad students) didn't *write* the conference proposal or help with assembling the presentation, but some of the findings presented were our findings (verbatim), and a result of months of our coding which our advisor had almost no hand in. I don't need another conference presentation on my cv so I don't really mind being left off for that reason, and I don't think there's any way I'll say anything, but I'm trying to figure out if my feelings (of broken trust) are valid. As PI, they'll  certainly be a co-author on the final paper, but it's weird that *we* weren't listed as co-authors on the presentation, right?

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