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Do profs steal ( scoop ) ideas from their students?

  1. Apr 24, 2013 #1
    Do profs steal ("scoop") ideas from their students?

    I'm currently a second-year grad student in physics looking for a PhD advisor. This is my second time shopping around for an advisor. I thought I had had a group at the beginning of the year, but within a few months it became clear that that group wasn't a good fit for me and I left. So here I am. Again.

    During the time between leaving the old group and now, I developed a "theory" (for lack of a better word), researched previous work on the topic, worked through quite a bit of math, and wrote it up in LaTeX. I've also had a couple other grad students read my write-up and both have given me good reviews and encouraged me to get profs to read it, so I'm pretty sure my idea doesn't suck. I'm hoping this paper is sufficiently good to attract a good PhD advisor.

    That said, I'm worried about getting "scooped."

    One of the grad students who read my paper specifically said, "Do not show this to Professor X. He'll steal it." He then went on to tell me the story of how Professor X blatantly stole an idea from a former PhD student.

    So, clearly I shouldn't show my write-up to Professor X, but what else can I do to prevent getting "scooped"? I'd like to do something to establish that this idea is original to me, but don't think it's ready for publication yet. Even putting it up on arXiv seems a tad premature.

    Any ideas?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 24, 2013 #2
    That's a scary situation. Professor X will be able to steal any knowledge he wants from you already. Unless you're wearing a helmet equipped with technologies to block his mind probing. Good luck.
  4. Apr 24, 2013 #3

    Andy Resnick

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    This ethical problem is common- not the *actual* stealing of a student's idea, but the *perceived potential* to steal a student's idea. You have many options, actually:

    1) keep a signed and dated lab notebook, which provides documentation that you originated the idea, and on what date you originated the idea.
    2) discuss your concerns with a neutral party: the Department Chair, another trusted faculty member, etc.
    3) submit your results to a peer-reviewed journal

    etc. etc.
  5. Apr 24, 2013 #4


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    The point of having a supervisor is that he or she will mentor you as a researcher. It's great that you have some ideas and have done some work on your own. Ideally, a PhD supervisor will look at that, assess it, and give you critical feedback and guidance on what you've done. In this sense your supervisor becomes a collaborator who makes an active and substantial contribution to the work. There's should be no need to "steal" the idea, because if the relationship works like this, the supervisor should have his or her name on it when it gets published anyway.

    That said the real world isn't always ideal. I'm sure there are cases where professors have done exactly that you are worried about. One of the things you do when you're picking a supervisor is figure out which professors you are likely to do the most constructive work with. If a particular professor has a reputation for "stealing" his or her students' ideas - publishing them without giving the student credit - then this is a flag to avoid that professor as a supervisor.
  6. Apr 24, 2013 #5
    My proposition would be
    4) Relax about the topic.

    You're already worried about professors at your university "scooping" your great ideas. But science, assuming you want to stay in science after your PhD, has many more paranoia-inducing scenarios to offer. Give a presentation about your work? Dozens of potential scoopers listening and even taking notes. Chat with a colleague? Be careful what you say, he/she might get a good idea and get it published before you. Publishing in a journal? Tough luck, that doesn't guarantee you being recognized: Some big-shot in the field may just work on the same idea with several people, add some experimental evidence or crappy Monte-Carlo simulation and publish in a higher-ranking journal. Who do you think will have the impact (*)? If you are afraid of openly sharing your ideas, reconsider going towards an academic scientific career. Open exchange is an important and valuable aspect of university research.

    That said: If you have a bad feeling about discussing your notes with professor X, then of course you should not do it.

    (*) On a slightly related issue: I've had a very hard-working colleague who got lots good results. When he was looking around for a junior post-doc (first post-doc outside the university he did his PhD at) his current boss told him to reconsider joining the group of a particular big shot in the field. Not because he'd steal ideas - no senior scientist believes in other senior scientists stealing ideas from their employees. But because everything he'd publish while in this group would be attributed to the big shot in the perception of the science community, not to the no-name post-doc.
  7. Apr 24, 2013 #6


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    The only way to establish credit for an idea is to publish it. However once you publish it, everyone is free to use it to go further. So preferably it should be somewhat mature when you publish it. E.g. if an idea has significant consequences later, the person who publishes the more significant consequence gets more credit usually. But at least the origin of the idea has been made clear.

    So you should be working on this idea as hard as you can now. Another possibility is to establish a working relationship with someone more mature who can help flesh it out and with whom you will be willing to share credit. But probably not Professor X.

    The previous post is also true. I.e. sharing credit with a more famous person reduces the credit for oneself, as it is usually assumed that the more mature or stronger worker had the main idea.

    It is not at all uncommon for ones ideas to become "shared", but usually you will have more than one idea and at some point you will get credit. However the main remedy is to work hard on your own idea and publish it.

    Unfortunately students may get in the habit of discussing their ideas openly and not working on them as hard as competitive professionals, because while in school they are somewhat protected.

    In any case, one should keep working on ones idea, and even if someone else scoops it, work it out in your own way and publish it anyway. Always publish your own work. A less effective method is to send a preliminary writeup of your work to someone honest and sympathetic. Then at least that person will know the work and the priority was yours.

    What really matters is to focus on the work, not the recognition, although this is hard, in the general competition for jobs, students, and funding.
  8. Apr 24, 2013 #7


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  9. Apr 24, 2013 #8

    Vanadium 50

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    In addition to what Mathwonk said, good ideas are commonplace, and really are not worth stealing. It's the development of these ideas where the "value added" comes in. That's more worth stealing, but usually harder to steal.
  10. Apr 24, 2013 #9


    Staff: Mentor

    This crops up in work too where a colleague will disparage your idea and then sometime later present it as his/her own without your knowledge. Or a boss will strip your name off as the idea goes up the tree and he gets the credit.

    One time at GE, I got an Ideas award for a database app I wrote to manage report labels for the Honeywell 6000 printers. My reward was computed based on the saving and the resources I used to accomplish it. I got like $100 for it. Later one of my coworkers took my code as is and applied to another older computer system and got $500 for it since he didn't need to use any resources. I felt somehow cheated as I had asked him about including his labels in with the original system and he wasn't interested at the time. I guess I was too green to understand the way things worked at work.

    With respect to the Prof stealing, sometimes a Prof will have worked on the problem he's proposing to you but doesn't share his work with you initially because he wants you to discover some things for yourself first. That may sometimes be misconstrued as him stealing "your" ideas which were really his that he skillfully planted in you.
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