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What is or is not intellectual property theft?

User: Nova - 06 January 2016 14:37

I'm looking for a bit of advice if possible? I am a second yr PhD student in Humanities. When I was applying for my PhD and funding I applied to another University as well as the one I am now in. I met with a potential supervisor about my topic and went through it all with them. They mentioned they had a current PhD student who was about to submit who was looking at a topic that briefly touched upon my own but they were looking at it from a completely different angle. I have been studying the same area since my undergrad so I had a lot to tell the potential supervisor as I was then tidying up my masters. The potential supervisor loved my topic and said there was a lack of research in this area and it should be definitely be researched. Well I ended up being offered a place at this university but they could not offer me full funding so I turned it down.

Over Christmas there I received an email from my supervisor telling me that he found out there was a postdoc at another university who was doing very similar stuff to my own research and they are getting ready to publish articles. I looked them up and it turns out it is this former PhD student who had been mentioned to me by their supervisor. Their research is now very similar to my own and it is either highly coincidental or there is something suspicious. I would love some other opinions if possible as to whether I am right to be suspicious or not and what I can do/should do? I haven't yet spoken to my supervisor about this, I am meeting them tomorrow face to face and will then.

Thank you.

User: pd1598 - 06 January 2016 14:55

It does sound suspicious to say the least. Whether it is IP theft I'm not sure. Sounds like a very worrying situation so I feel for you, hopefully your supervisor will be able to help.

User: Nova - 06 January 2016 16:48

I am/was very worried to be honest. However there are aspects to my research I have uncovered since starting my PhD which have came on leaps and bounds and have actually turned out to be my strongest things. I didn't know these things existed nor the results when I first applied for PhD and therefore I didn't pass it on to the potential supervisor. Funnily enough this other researcher is not doing any of this material. I can tweak my research so there is no significant cross over however I am really annoyed by the 'coincidence' of this though.

User: pd1598 - 06 January 2016 20:51

That's good - as long as this other research is not working in exactly the same area and reaching the same conclusions as you you'll be fine in terms of originality. It does seem suspect - see what your sup says.

User: Nova - 06 January 2016 22:50

Thanks very much for your advice. I know it is a tricky subject and I didn't know whether I should say anything to my supervisor. I will now though. Thanks!

User: pm133 - 08 January 2016 00:10

This is a terrible situation to be in and I hope you can resolve it. I know it is very common for students to be encouraged to talk about their work but I would never discuss anything in detail that I had not already published. At this stage, the consequences are potentially devastating if your ideas are stolen. It seems the currency of academia is ideas. From these ideas, funding flows and the whole process is cutthroat. This provides a breeding ground for the sort of ruthlessness you have witnessed. Academia SHOULD be collegiate but the process doesn't seem to allow for it. Good luck.

User: sisyphus - 19 January 2016 23:37

In science it is also known to happen that people make the same discoveries at pretty much the same time, so not necessarily suspicious. Ask an American, a Brit and someone from Japan who invented TV, and you will get three answers.

You may also wish to read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. Very insightful on this type of thing! Also something you may well need to mention and understand in a viva one day.

User: Nova - 20 January 2016 09:07

Thank you both very much for your replies. I have spoken with my supervisors and basically because I was discussing PhD ideas I wasn't under IP until I had signed my PhD contract after accepting a place elsewhere I am in the humanities and the subject I am focusing on is under researched with few studying it. That's what led me to think that it was highly coincidental and/or suspicious. Thanks again.

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