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Academic Theft

  1. Jul 15, 2007 #1
    I’ve just this weekend stumbled onto a major issue in my PhD. Annoyingly enough, only 2 months out from my projected submission date. I’m after advice from anybody on the forums who might be a senior academic/researcher who’s maybe come across something similar in the past.

    The background is that I am doing my PhD research under the auspices of a major national research project. Mid last year I went and visited a govt. lab for about 6 weeks in order to use some of their facilities. While I was primarily there to work with one person, everyone within the lab knew exactly what I was working on (the problem I was working on, the methodology I was using etc.). It was hardly a big secret, since they were all a part of this major national research project as well, they were just working on other bits of it.

    Fast forward to now…I got an email from someone who was familiar with my work who’d attended a conference last week telling me that someone from the govt. lab in question had presented a talk, which was more or less taken directly from the part of my PhD research that was done at the lab. This Senior Researcher from the lab had taken a significant subset of my problem, employed the exact same methodology I’d used, and effectively reproduced my results and then presented them at this reasonably large conference. Until I’d been to this lab, the methodology that I developed had never been applied to such problems before, and this methodology was (is) a major component of my PhD research. Yet the person I knew at the conference asked this researcher about whether they were familiar with my work, and the response was “oh yeah, I know all about that.” And when asked why they had effectively taken the work of a PhD student without their knowledge (I wasn’t added as a co-author or anything on the conference abstract), the researcher more or less admitted to stealing the ideas and methodology. Anyway, I told my supervisor about it, and his only consolation was that the researcher in question had only barely made a start on the intended journal manuscript, while mine is about 95% done, so I should be able to get my manuscript submitted first.

    Other than trying to publish my work first, is there any other action I can take against this person? I realize what this person has done is morally corrupt, but is anybody aware of what the legal standpoint on this might be?

    ps. not sure if this is the right sub-forum for such a topic, admins pls move if necessary.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 15, 2007 #2
    It would be a lot easier to take legal action if you could show in one way that he is financially profiting from your idea
     
  4. Jul 15, 2007 #3

    Astronuc

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    Well, in academic circles, if the other researcher used one's research and did not acknowledge or credit one's work, then the other is guilty of plagarism, and that certainly has significant legal consequences.

    In the US, such an individual would face suspension from an academic position, and possibly termination of employment, if found guilty of plagarism.

    There are also civil actions one could take, but one would need to check with the legal department of one's university or research institution. If it's all under the same government research organziation, it might be more complicated. One would probably have to go higher than one's supervisor, but with the supervisor's consent and support.
     
  5. Jul 15, 2007 #4
    That is a rotten hole to be in.

    Unless you have patent or pre-patent documents, I don't that there is anything official you can do unless the person tries to publish something. It's probably not worth trying to take any action against him either - it'll just take up too much of your energy.

    I agree that the best plan is just burn the midnight oil to make sure your paper comes out first - then Dr Steals will have to at least cite you.

    Out of curiousity, how is Dr Steals' work regarded by others in your field? Has he been known to poach other people's ideas before? Did he admit to being aware of your work in front of a large room of people? Perhaps your supervisor may be able to monger some support for you in your research community. It might also be worth discussing with your supervisor whether it is worth contacting Dr Steals directly about his lack of reference to your work.
     
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2007
  6. Jul 15, 2007 #5
    The problem is, that he couldn't reference my work, as I've not actually presented it at a conference or published it anywhere yet. The manuscript is still in prep. So I think I would probably have a hard time arguing plagarism, despite the fact that's essentially what it is. This guy is a senior researcher at the lab, so he's got a pretty strong publication record and while not one of the leaders in the field, he's still got a good reputation for what he does.

    I'm unsure whether this guy has done anything similar in the past though. And my supervisor has already spoken to him (which is how we know about the current status of his manuscript) and apparently expressed his displeasure at what had happened...But ultimately, my supervisor's response to me was to just hurry up and publish. Which is all well and good as the manuscript is nearly ready. But I don't like being rushed, getting my thesis in on time was far more important, and this is just adding really un-needed stress to the situation.
     
  7. Jul 15, 2007 #6

    ZapperZ

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    Your supervisor should have been the person who handled this for you. He/she should have approached this researcher and asked him what he is up to.

    There are two issues here that needed to be settled:

    1. Did the researcher had prior permission from your supervisor to present the work?

    2. Why did he not credit you?

    There are unanswered questions here that you did not specify. First of all, did this researcher heads the group or facility that you were using? It could easily be that he was the one who provided the funds for the research project, or it came out of a research grant in which he was one of the PI's (Principle Investigator). This means that he had a substantial hand in the direction of the research work. Thus, he might have some "claim" to anything that comes out of it.

    Still, it needs to be clarified that if you were the one who did the majority of the work that produced that result, not only should you be credited for the work, but any paper in the works should have you as the first author (unless this is a high energy paper and you are one of 200 people working on it).

    If this can't be solved by your supervisor, then if this researcher is an employee of a US Nat'l Lab, then there are several channel of grievances that can be taken. Since you didn't say which lab it is, I can't tell you exactly what to do. But here at Argonne, if this person is that high up, you can ultimately write a formal complaint to either the Division director, or the Associate Lab Director for that division. Ethical transgression like that is often taken seriously. However, to have the full weight of it taken seriously, your supervisor must be a willing and full participant of it. As a graduate student, your complaint may not get the same attention as it should.

    Zz.
     
  8. Jul 15, 2007 #7

    robphy

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    Sorry to say this now...
    but hurry up and publish!
     
  9. Jul 15, 2007 #8
    No

    No idea.

    No this researcher is certainly not the head of the group or the facility and is definately not the PI on the research project. He is an investigator on another project totally unrelated to what I'm working on. So I can't rightly see how he'd have any just claim.

    Agreed. But there are only 4 authors on this paper :smile:

    This isn't within the US, but the lab situation is similar. I just had a chat to someone in the graduate school about it, and they had a similar opinion to my supervisor. Hurry up and publish. Though they did suggest that after I've got the paper submitted, to write a nice polite letter to the person concerned telling them I've submitted and that they might be interested in referencing it :tongue2:

    I suppose I just needed to vent more than anything. I always knew I was going to be limited in what I could do about it. And everyone seems to be saying the same thing. Publish. Tis just frustrating :yuck:
     
  10. Jul 15, 2007 #9

    G01

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    This really sucks. Good luck to you and I hope you get this resolved, and the outcome is favorable to you, quark80. People like this researcher, if your description of his actions is accurate, sicken me. Good luck and PUBLISH!!
     
  11. Jul 16, 2007 #10

    J77

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    Get your supervisor to approach this person directly!

    You may see a certain hierachy having still to defend your PhD -- but someone supervising you should see no such barrier; even if this guy is a "senior" researcher.
     
  12. Jul 16, 2007 #11
    In other words, pinching ideas from what someone *tells* you verbally is very difficult to prove and, de facto, perfectly legal? Plagiarism only counts for published work?
     
  13. Jul 16, 2007 #12

    ZapperZ

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    Then you need to figure out how he came into possession of your work. If this is not something that his group is doing, then your supervisor should have confronted him and asked how he got your result, and why he's presenting it as if it was his own.

    There really shouldn't be a question at all in terms of "publish first" here. This issue should not even occur. Even if you publish first and he publishes second, the fact remains that, if what you described is true, he has no business in publishing something he or his group didn't do, and certainly it is professionally wrong to steal someone's data. You can easily write to the journal that published his paper and report this. After the Schon debacle, and the scandal surrounding the South Korean geneticist, many journals are more vigilant about such things. The APS, for instance, has a clear guidelines and ethics issues for naming authors, and their responsibilities to the paper. I suspect many other journals have similar policy.

    In all of this, I am baffled why your supervisor appears to not be doing anything much here. Why isn't he/she confronting this person, or be furious that such a thing is going on? I can tell you without a single doubt that if such a thing were to occur here, all hell will break loose. You just don't do such a thing, and what is worse, taking advantage of a graduate student's work. Your supervisor/advisor should be doing more than just to advice you to "publish first".

    Zz.
     
  14. Jul 16, 2007 #13
    You are powerless!

    Your only hope for recourse is to ask your supervisor/head of Dept. to intercede on your behalf. No-one cares about your opinion. PhD candidates are about 4 steps lower down on the food chain than the woman who cleans the secretary's desk.

    My best advice is to PUBLISH PUBLISH PUBLISH. (Sorry- did someone say that before?)
     
  15. Jul 17, 2007 #14

    J77

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    If it doesn't burst too many political bubbles (although I think it would), if he publishes your work, you could always write to the journal, explaining the situation to them and asking for a withdrawal of the paper -- although this may require substantial proof, which may not be easy to come by with regard to scientific ideas.
     
  16. Jul 17, 2007 #15

    ZapperZ

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    Actually it is quite simple.

    IF this researcher didn't do any of the experiment, and if the situation is based on what we have been given here, then this person has no "lab book" to show of. So all the OP has to do is photocopy his lab book showing where the data being used in the paper is "identical" to the ones this researcher has published. This researcher has no "lab book" to back the claim that he or his minions did this measurement.

    Again, look at the investigation surrounding the Schon debacle and the South Korean geneticist. The lab book became a key evidence (or lack thereof) in the whole process. If you didn't do the experiment, but you reported it anyway, then you have fabricated the data, which is a big no-no, no matter where in the world you are. If you didn't do the experiment but reported someone else's work without permission, then you've stolen someone's work, which is also another no-no.

    I must admit that I'm having a bit of a difficult time accepting that we have the whole picture here. It is simply very hard for me to believe that someone would simply steal someone else's data/result, and reported it as his own. This is such a blatant transgression of ethics that one can easily be caught. I can't imagine anyone being that dumb to do something that stupid, big shot researcher or not. And the idea that one's supervisor didn't even do anything to stop this other than to advice "publish faster" just simply made my jaw drop. You never tolerate such transgression of ethics and sweep it under a carpet like that. That's just not acceptable.

    Zz.
     
  17. Jul 17, 2007 #16
    Well this guy hasn't fabricated the data. He's basically taken the problem I was working on, and reproduced the results entirely on his own. The issue here is that he KNEW what the problem I was working on was, he KNEW what methodology I'd used. But he's NOT fabricated (stolen) the results as such. He's just taken the problem I was working on and the analytical method I used and redone the entire thing himself.

    Maybe that makes a difference to this scenario?

    And FWIW, my supervisor has spoken to the guy concerned. But at this point he seems to think there's little that can be done about it other than just trying to publish first. My supervisor is angry, certainly, but that's not going to eliminate what's already happened.
     
  18. Jul 17, 2007 #17

    ZapperZ

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    Er.... YES IT DOES!

    Then this is a different matter. It isn't an "academic theft" as your topic indicates. That is why I said that I cannot believe this is what the situation was based on your earlier description.

    Unless you can lay claim to the methodology, i.e. there's a trail of evidence that this was something you created first, then this person has done nothing ethically wrong. He isn't the nicest person around to be doing such a thing, politically, he's a jerk. But administratively, he hasn't done anything wrong.

    It is why many groups will tend to not reveal too much on what they're doing until they have it all written down and ready to publish, unless of course one has a unique facility or work that no one can easily copy. Maybe from now on, people in your group will keep their work under wraps until things are ready to be published. This is also something you might learn from, and learn to limit your communication on what you do to the few people that you can trust.

    Zz.
     
  19. Jul 17, 2007 #18
    Well lesson has clearly been learned. I just figured that although we worked on different projects, that since it all technically falls under the one overall research project, that there might be some recourse. I'd also assumed since we were all working on the same overall project that I wouldn't need to worry about trusting anybody else within the group. First time I've ever come across something like this in my entire time at university, so it's just a rude awakening I guess :(
     
  20. Jul 17, 2007 #19

    robphy

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    On a related note,
    readers might be interested in this recent article from the Careers section of the 7/20/07 Chronicle of Higher Education:
    http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/2007/07/2007071601c/careers.html (online 7/16/07)
     
    Last edited: Jul 17, 2007
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