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What do I do if my professor plagiarizes my idea?
December 15, 2009 7:11 PM   Subscribe

I suspect one of my undergraduate professors is writing an article based on an idea I proposed to him last spring that he intends to submit for publication in a literary journal. What should I do?

The only proof I have is an email I sent to the professor that details my research into an overlooked (or at least unwritten about) aspect of a specific text and my undercooked insights as to the significance of my findings. I don't have any written responses from him and we only communicated about the idea verbally, in his office. During these conversations, he admitted to me that he had never considered my reading of the text and had never read an article mentioning my findings. Subsequently, he produced some findings of his own, but on their own they were very unremarkable because they mostly augmented what I had already discovered. He presented them during lecture almost parenthetically, with a wink and a sidelong glance in my direction, but he did not discuss my findings or mention I was the catalyst for his insights.

This was not an assignment for class; I never turned anything in that he graded. He was determined to get me to write something with him and submit it to a journal, but I refused because literary studies was my secondary field of study—I have since gone on to graduate school to study in an unrelated field—and I have little desire to see my name in print (if I did, it would be on my own terms, with my coattails free of parasites). Does my reluctance to pursue this give him license to write an article presenting my research as his own? What recourse do I have if I find my ideas in print, under his name, given my limited amount of proof? Would the email I sent him be enough to get a journal to force him to share his byline with me or to print an addendum to the article?
posted by anonymous to Education (37 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
You pointed something out to your professor, and it sounds like he did the work of fleshing it out, writing the article and submitting it -- after giving you first whack, which you declined.

If you are concerned about parasites and coattails, I'd let this go and continue your own graduate studies.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:17 PM on December 15, 2009 [10 favorites]


Have you talked to him about this yet? If you want, as you mention in your last sentence, for him to share his byline or have an addendum to the article matching your input, the first step would be to tell him that you feel that your work played a large role in his work and that you'd like some acknowledgment of that if and when he publishes. Since you're no longer in the same academic field, it seems you'd have little to lose. As to the other aspects of your question, I'll let those more knowledgeable of the academic world answer.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 7:18 PM on December 15, 2009


I was nodding along with you in indignation until this:

He was determined to get me to write something with him and submit it to a journal, but I refused because literary studies was my secondary field of study

In that case, he isn't really stealing your work. He wanted to co-author with you (for an undergrad, that's a HUGE deal). Just because you came up with the idea, does that mean it's off-limits even though you aren't pursuing it?

Email him first requesting a brief nod in the article, but really you've stepped away from this.
posted by Think_Long at 7:18 PM on December 15, 2009 [17 favorites]


Urg, "mentioning your input," not matching.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 7:18 PM on December 15, 2009


So let me get this straight. You talked about an idea. And you both decided it had great potential. He said something like 'You should do something with this!' You said, 'Eh. Nah.' He said, 'You should really do something with this!' And you said 'Nope. I really don't want to.' And so he decided to take the idea and do something with it.

Uhm I don't understand what the problem is. It's an idea. He did the work that you didn't do and you want him to credit you (though you have "little desire to see your name in print"). Maybe I'm seeing something incorrectly but I think that you have no right to ask for your name to be affiliated with what he is getting published....
posted by lucy.jakobs at 7:19 PM on December 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


You know, I'm sorry -- I was being too harsh, snarking about parasites and whatnot. This doesn't sound like academic dishonesty to me, though, as you imply with "plagiarizes" in the title. He deferred to you and you declined; be graceful and move on.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:28 PM on December 15, 2009


If you have little desire to see my name in print then why would you force him to share his byline with [you] or to print an addendum to the article?

He asked you to help him, you said no. You went into an entirely different field and wanted nothing to do with it, while your professor is obviously a professor in that field out of dedication and really wants to take your findings somewhere.

I'd be proud of myself, not trying to alienate someone who has shown strong interest.
posted by june made him a gemini at 7:31 PM on December 15, 2009


How do you know that he "intends to present your research as his own"? How do you know he's not going to credit your original conversation as the starting point of his own inquiries into this particular topic or slant on a topic?

You seem to be jumping to a lot of conclusions about what's in an article you haven't read. And it's not like you now have eternal rights to any for-publication discussion of this topic; it would be appropriate for him to acknowledge his communications with you as part of what helped shape his ideas, I agree, but you don't know that he's not going to do that.

People can't plagiarize ideas about literature. They can plagiarize other people's writing, which is inappropriate; they can use people's ideas without attribution, which is inappropriate; but they can't plagiarize the idea itself.

So if you would like him to credit you and your insights in his article, you could send him an email saying something like, "Dear Professor X: I heard you were planning an article about how Heathcliff is actually a vampire, based on textual similarities between Wuthering Heights and Polidori's The Vampyre. My hope is that you'll include a mention of how I was the one who first brought this idea, and the textual parallels, to your attention." If he doesn't act on that, he's being a jerk to you. But he's not "plagiarizing your idea."
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:31 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


in my field, there are three criteria for determining authorship:

1) contributing a critical idea to the thesis of the paper, which it appears you have done.
2) actually doing the legwork-- in my case that involves doing experiments and sciencey things with beakers and whatnot.
3) writing and editing the manuscript.

pick any two and you're an author. ideas do not make a paper. email the dude and ask him how you can help flesh this out before causing a snit.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 7:34 PM on December 15, 2009


I'm sorry, but you can't copyright (and therefore, you can't plagiarize) ideas. This is why you should have taken your professor's advice and written about the subject when he encouraged you to do so.

Also, your characterization of your professor as a "parasite" is really, really strange. It sounds like he was trying to encourage you--if a professor offered to co-write a paper with me as an undergraduate, I'd be flattered, not insulted.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:43 PM on December 15, 2009 [5 favorites]


I'd say "next time, don't pitch the idea you're really married to," but it doesn't seem like you were really married to it in the first place.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 7:50 PM on December 15, 2009


10% inspiration, 90% perspiration.
posted by OmieWise at 7:53 PM on December 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


If you mean you had a half-baked idea that you talked with a professor about, then he's not stealing your research, because you don't have any research to steal. And you don't "own" a half-baked idea unless you're the first to mention it in a published article or a recorded conference paper. And even then you don't own it very much.

The professor would not be appropriating your research unless you had completed an exhaustive literature review to be reasonably certain nobody, ever, had considered this reading, had made a serious effort to locate all of the readings that were similar to the reading you proposed and demonstrated clearly and distinctly that the reading you proposed has important differences from the extant readings, clearly identified all the passages in the relevant text that supported the reading, indicated which might work against it and offered argument why your reading is nonetheless reasonable, identified works in other texts by the same author that support that such a reading is reasonable for that author's works, that describe similar readings for other authors that are regarded as similar to the author, and so on, AND you had handed all this over to him and he used it to write up the results himself.

You're in graduate school. If it's in an academic field as opposed to professional, let me offer you a bit of advice. You're going to talk to people in your field about your field. Unless you're a clod, you're going to exchange ideas with people, and suggest ways to improve what they're working on. You would be wise to do so freely and be supportive of people who take your suggestions to heart and whose work is improved by them, even though it is very unlikely that you will be listed as an author and there is a strong chance you won't be formally acknowledged. If you're that person who bitches and moans every time something you talked to an author about makes it into print, then nobody will ever want to talk to you. If you're that person who hoards every idea in fear that someone else might scoop you if you take it to a conference or mention it to anyone, none of your work will ever be polished enough to see publication.

I mean, this is normal. I could point to working papers and publications by several people that incorporate points I made in discussions with the authors, and I can think of at least one string of several working papers that I would bet money saw print because I kept prodding the author with the relevant idea. I'm not an author on any of them. I don't think any formally acknowledge me. Shit, some of them are downright critical of work I've done. And you know what? Awesome. That kind of interaction is the heart of any scholarly community.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:53 PM on December 15, 2009 [23 favorites]


I think that the most appropriate citation or credit due in this case is in an acknowledgements section of the paper (in my field these are at the end of the document). I use acknowledgements to credit funding sources (like "this paper made possible by a grant from the national science foundation grant number XYZ"), but also to give credit to colleagues who helped to shape the idea and the paper. I frequently get into great discussions that don't rise to the level of authorship, but deserve mention.

I think you could email the professor and gently remind him that you (helped) him come to this idea and that you're really excited to see it published. I'm sure he'd be willing to credit you, but that will have basically no weight in any future endeavors. But it might give you a sense of justice, if that's what you're itching for.
posted by zpousman at 7:57 PM on December 15, 2009


The only proof I have is ...

You have no proof. Focus your attention on the study and major you actually care about.
posted by smoke at 7:57 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


hey, if i were you- i'd write him an e-mail telling him how much you love the article, and the way he flushed out the idea that you came up with and how cool you think it was that he thought your ideas were worth taking so seriously. and then ask him for a great letter of rec for whatever you could use one for. doesn't look like you have a reason or justification for taking some credit for this, so you should get what you can get appropriately
posted by saraindc at 8:04 PM on December 15, 2009 [5 favorites]


my undercooked insights

Exactly. "Undercooked insights" regarding a topic do not an author credit make. A lot of blood, sweat, tears, cups of unappetizingly cooling and neglected coffee, bouts of hard thinking, long hours staring at small print in articles at a desk, eyes stinging from staring at a screen, nights without sleep, and rounds of nitpicky editing go into article authorship. Your former professor did more than his due diligence by offering you the chance to co-author a paper on the topic (somewhat emphatically, from your description). As others have pointed out, an idea is not something you can copyright. Further, I have to say--in any academic field, there really are no new ideas that exist independently of others' work. Part of the research process is to re-work existing ideas over and over in new ways, with different points of view. Your professor is doing absolutely nothing wrong by furthering that research process, and treated you more than fairly by seeking your participation and basically offering you an author credit on a platter. You can't just throw an idea out into the field, shrug and walk away because you don't care to pursue it, then try to glom on after someone else has realized its potential and done the grunt work. As they say, you snooze, you lose--academic publishing is a kind of arms race, and if you don't run with an idea, someone else will beat you to the punch. Guaranteed.

I would really let this one go, perhaps sending the professor a courteous note congratulating him on the news of his upcoming publication and fondly recalling your early discussions regarding the idea. Only do this if you can be sincere about it, though, and mean the good wishes attached. You can also write your own paper on the topic, with your own even-more-cutting-edge and unique spin--if you're seriously committed to the topic this time.


(I am not an intellectual property lawyer.)
posted by sarabeth at 8:07 PM on December 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


(I apologize if that sounded harsh--I didn't mean it to be, and I sympathize with your situation. Good luck on your further research.)
posted by sarabeth at 8:10 PM on December 15, 2009


it would be on my own terms, with my coattails free of parasites...

Multiple authors aren't necessarily parasites; they're a part of academia. This is what happens when one person has a good idea (in this situation, you) and pitches it to another (your professor) and you agree to jointly work on it together -- you produce a paper with two authors.

I'm not trying to pile on, here, but I wanted to emphasize that your prof. isn't being a parasite here; he gave you ample opportunity to work on this with him and you declined. It's the mark of a good professor when they try to get you to work with them to produce a paper for publication -- this is a great learning experience as a student, and not all professors want to do this kind of thing with their students.

When you publish together, you benefit from having your professor's name attached to the work (which may mean that more people will read it, pay attention to it, and be interested in producing work related to it afterwards -- scholars tend to talk to each other through publications, and breaking in to the discussion isn't always easy) and he benefits by producing something original and exciting and previously undiscussed.

You gave up your hold on the idea when you declined to work on it further even after he seemed determined to work with you on the project. If another opportunity like this presents itself, you should go for it, unless you truly are done with the idea. It's confusing to me that you're upset: isn't the point of having good ideas sharing these ideas with others? In academia, that sharing is mostly done via publication.
posted by k8lin at 8:38 PM on December 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


I have since gone on to graduate school to study in an unrelated field—and I have little desire to see my name in print

You're a grad student who doesn't have a desire to see his name in print...
posted by atrazine at 8:40 PM on December 15, 2009


Ask for an acknowledgment or to rejoin as a secondary author.
posted by nestor_makhno at 8:59 PM on December 15, 2009


I'm sorry, but you can't copyright (and therefore, you can't plagiarize) ideas.

Copyright infringement and plagiarism are two independent issues. It is possible to infringe copyright without plagiarizing, and it is possible to plagiarize without infringing copyright. While I agree the case at hand is neither, one does not imply the other, nor does lack of one imply lack of the other. Sorry for the derail, but I didn't want this all-too-common misperception to stand unchallenged.

posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:17 PM on December 15, 2009 [6 favorites]


I'm actually on the other side of a similar situation. I have a colleague that mentioned an idea to a group of us at the same time. The insight that he shared isn't in his specialty, but it is in mine. After thinking about it a bit more I approached him again and we discussed it more carefully. At that point I decided that it is an idea worth pursuing, and (rather awkwardly) said so. I also made it clear that I would be perfectly happy to co-author with him, and I made it clear that if he wanted to pursue it on his own I would certainly defer.

He has not followed up with me at all. So, frankly, I feel perfectly fine in pursuing it on my own. If I do write that paper, I will give him proper credit in a footnote.

So, maybe that is something you could do. Send him a polite e-mail congratulating him on the project and asking whether you could read it. Then if you aren't mentioned at all and you feel very strongly about getting some sort of credit, you could, again politely, request that he add you in a footnote.


I pretty much agree with what everyone has already said. You don't indicate having done nearly enough work on the project to be a co-author, and your indignation is, frankly, unwarranted.
posted by oddman at 9:43 PM on December 15, 2009


He was determined to get me to write something with him and submit it to a journal, but I refused...Does my reluctance to pursue this give him license to write an article presenting my research as his own?

Yes.
posted by bingo at 10:07 PM on December 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


I have little desire to see my name in print (if I did, it would be on my own terms, with my coattails free of parasites)

As others have said, this attitude is really dramatically out of synch with the culture of academia. I would encourage you to get the fuck over it; you'll be the happier for it.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:25 PM on December 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


Dude. He---very politely---asked you to be a coauthor. You turned him down. You were an undergraduate. There's an awful lot you didn't/don't know about actually writing a publishable article. Simply having an interesting idea does not mean you somehow 'own' that idea in perpetuity. There's no plagiarism here. Especially since you explicitly told him that you were not interested in pursuing the idea---because you said you did not want to be a coauthor.

What on earth do you have to be pissed off about?

If you had agreed to coauthor, there would have been a potential parasitical relationship, but it wouldn't have been on the professor's side.

What recourse do I have if I find my ideas in print, under his name, given my limited amount of proof?

They're not your ideas any more, and as you said, he did a bunch of research in addition to whatever you had discussed (based on your report of the situation, it doesn't sound like you left him with a bunch of printouts or anything). Clearly, you were not interested in your idea, or you would have been willing to pursue it.

Does my reluctance to pursue this give him license to write an article presenting my research as his own?

It really doesn't sound like that's what's going on here.

Ideally, he will have given you credit in an acknowledgement, but given that you didn't choose to actually do any of the work writing the paper, I don't see why you should think you deserve more of the credit.
posted by leahwrenn at 11:49 PM on December 15, 2009


You deserve the good feelings of engaging in an intellectual exercise that resulted in something good. You don't deserve and are not entitled to anything other than that. Congrats on your spark!!!
posted by 2legit2quit at 3:03 AM on December 16, 2009


No one publishes his or her first scholarly article as a single-author piece. Having ANY publications as an undergrad is a big frickin' deal, no matter what field it was or what you are in now. You shot yourself in the foot, and now you want us to help you fix it? I think it's too late for that.
posted by caution live frogs at 5:11 AM on December 16, 2009


Frankly, this is not making you look good. The phrase "dog in the manger" comes to mind.

Drop it. Your might have other good ideas in your new unrelated field. Worry about them. Let the kids in the other sandbox get a thrill out of what you no longer give a crap about.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:00 AM on December 16, 2009


Send him a bottle of wine and congratulate him on writing the paper.

You may have the heard the phrase that "ideas are a dime a dozen". This is nothing to get pissed off about. In the future, keep your important ideas to yourself until you have published them. That should go without saying. The fact that you helped this professor could help you when you need a letter of recommendation so don't go burning the bridge.
posted by JJ86 at 6:39 AM on December 16, 2009


Copyright infringement and plagiarism are two independent issues. It is possible to infringe copyright without plagiarizing, and it is possible to plagiarize without infringing copyright. While I agree the case at hand is neither, one does not imply the other, nor does lack of one imply lack of the other. Sorry for the derail, but I didn't want this all-too-common misperception to stand unchallenged.

Sorry, I misspoke, and you're right. But here, the real crux of the matter is that OP didn't conduct or present research, and we have no way of knowing if what the professor will ultimately produce is stealing the ideas wholesale and presenting them as his own, which would be plagiarism, or if he simply used those as a jumping-off point into further explorations and research. Had the OP produced concrete text he'd shown the professor, he would at least have copyright on his side and in his defense--which is why it's important in academia to actually produce the work that presents one's ideas.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:44 AM on December 16, 2009


You missed that boat when he encouraged you to pursue the idea yourself and you, almost disdainfully from the sound of it, refused.

Sorry, buddy, right now you just sound bitter. Don't be angry at your professor, he did nothing wrong. You, on the other hand, are throwing a bit of an unproductive tantrum. Let it go and focus the disappointment on your new grad school research. All will be well.
posted by lydhre at 7:05 AM on December 16, 2009


Yes, I think that what the professor is doing is wrong. But, no, I do not believe that you have any recourse here.
posted by Citrus at 7:06 AM on December 16, 2009


I agree with everyone above, a half-cooked idea is dime-a-dozen. BUT I think if you still care about the idea, what you might do is email the prof and mention that you're interested in seeing how that idea developed and ask if you can see the paper when he's submitting it for publication.

This serves two purposes. One, you'll see the fleshed-out paper and possibly realize how much work has been needed to take a flash of insight into an actual contribution to the field. Two, you may be able to offer constructive feedback which both increases your contribution so that he might mention you in the acknowledgments and gives you a courteous way to remind him that you had something to do with the original idea. If it's not in print yet, then there's time to add acknowledgments during the long R&R process.

It seems to me that the only satisfaction possible here is an acknowledgment in the paper and the accompanying knowledge that the author recognizes part of it was your idea. I don't know what else you could possibly expect. Since you don't want to see your name in print (and why not? It's AWESOME!), what else do you want?

Definitely do not email him with guns blazing. For all you know, you're in the acknowledgments already and he fully remembers your contribution.
posted by parkerjackson at 7:53 AM on December 16, 2009


I agree with the consensus here. I just want to clarify that caution live frog's statement that "no one publishes his or her first scholarly article as a single-author piece" may be true in some fields, but is not at all true in others.
posted by umbú at 9:14 AM on December 16, 2009


No one publishes his or her first scholarly article as a single-author piece.

Not true for literary studies. Single-author articles are the overwhelming norm in that particular field.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:07 AM on December 16, 2009


I think you're drastically overvaluing your own contribution to this paper, and failing to see the investment that your professor has made (and was prepared to make when he offered to include and train you). Making an idea rigorous, contextualizing it, fleshing it out, organizing and writing it up, and dealing with the revision process are frustrating and time-consuming: from beginning to end the process can take months or even (in some fields) years. Moreover, your professor already offered you the chance to help make your idea into a meaningful contribution -- in doing so, he was also implicitly offering to mentor you, and to pass on some of the specialized skills that are necessary for writing and publishing academic work. This would have been yet another significant investment of time on his part.

You mentioned that you "care little" about publication, but to give you an alternative perspective, the best new idea is useless if it doesn't become part of the published literature. Publishing is not just an exercise in narcissism or in "see[ing] your name in print." It is also the primary way that academic fields progress. If you aren't willing to do any of the work involved in making that kind of impact, I don't see why you should get much of the credit.

I have to say, too, that there is something inconsistent about on the one hand disparaging the entire enterprise of publication as vain, and on the other hand caring so deeply about getting your name on the byline.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:10 PM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


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