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Is this plagiarism?

(79 Posts)
ChurchStretton Mon 17-Feb-14 09:49:42

I am an amateur astronomer. A few years ago I shared some astronomical discoveries I had made with a professional colleague based in the USA. In 2013 I discovered that most of my discoveries had been published – which was the good news – but that they have been published under the name of the professional astronomer I shared them with 3+ years earlier without a single mention of me appearing anywhere in either the article or the standard catalogue in which discoveries of this type are recorded.

I complained to him - "tough" summarised his 2 line reply.
I complained to the head of the US observatory where he worked - I was ignored, neither of my letters received a reply.
I went through the US based "Whistleblowing" process - the result of the "investigation" was never shared with me.

Am I being unreasonable to think that I have been mucked around long enough and it is time to go public?

ForgettableTampon Mon 17-Feb-14 09:52:26

Gosh poor you

Someone like Brian Cox might be able to point you towards a font of support? Tweet him.

lljkk Mon 17-Feb-14 09:55:44

Why wouldn't you go public, what would you lose for it?

kotinka Mon 17-Feb-14 09:56:28

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

LaurieFairyCake Mon 17-Feb-14 10:01:57

Have you kept the email which acknowledges that he said 'tough'?

ChurchStretton Mon 17-Feb-14 10:58:19

I have copies of everything! I think I have been patient long enough so unless somebody can think of an alternative I think a public complaint is the only option left!

LeggyBlondeNE Mon 17-Feb-14 11:22:24

I don't know much about astronomy as a field, but if I published someone else's data without acknolwedging them and it wasn't an innocent mistake then I'd be up for gross misconduct and fired. And if it was an innocent mistake there would be an erratum adding that person's name to the paper.

If you can prove you did the actual work the same ought to apply. It gets tricky if he could have independantly found the same thing or just used a heads up from you as a spring board to investigate the issue himself.

MoutardeDeDijon Mon 17-Feb-14 11:29:36

Have you contacted the editor of the journal in which the article was published?

DreamingofSummer Mon 17-Feb-14 11:44:08

If this has been published in a peer review journal you should contact the editor and, if possible, the peer reviewers. You'll need hard evidence in the form of e-mails or copies of correspondence.

Good luck

LessMissAbs Mon 17-Feb-14 11:59:56

Isn't this more of a copyright/intellectual property issue than plagiarism? I thought plagiarism covered passing off already published written work as your own. This seems to be publishing previously unpublished joint work as being sole property, which seems to be different.

Anyway, I think you need to collect evidence that it was a joint discovery and try and have that reflected in whatever registration processes there are retrospectively. Has the work been previously published in a journal over here?

ChurchStretton Mon 17-Feb-14 13:41:31

I contacted the editor of the peer-reviewed journal in which the results appeared. He promised to get back to me but, despite a polite reminder, he didn't.
The Americans have also claimed that once discovery recognition has been given it cannot be altered - even if an error has been made.
Curiously the definition of what constitutes "publication" or "plagiarism" isn't nearly as clear cut as you might expect - or so the Americans would have me believe!

AngelaDaviesHair Mon 17-Feb-14 13:50:00

It sounds like research/scientific misconduct rather than plagiarism per se.
The journal should have a protocol for dealing with it and keep you in the loop, too. Wiki on it.

DreamingofSummer Mon 17-Feb-14 15:22:49

Church as the thief is in the US, there might well be a "no win, no fee" lawyer you could speak to.

Kemmo Mon 17-Feb-14 15:30:05

I agree that this is scientific misconduct not plagiarism.

The journal editor is the appropriate person to deal with, but bear in mind you will need to persevere to convince them.

madcows Mon 17-Feb-14 15:42:02

Does the professional astronomer have any links (honorary or otherwise) to any Universities? If so, contact their senior people in (something like) the Research Governance section of their administration. But go high - contact the senior people. If he has a formal link with a Uni then the Uni will probably take it quite seriously. But agree this isn't plagiarism (as you haven't written it up) but i would have thought it is misconduct.
I've just been involved in a plagiarism case (in UK) and the Uni were terrified (we had v strong evidence) and acted very quickly.
Hope this helps,

Kerosene Mon 17-Feb-14 15:45:08

Regarding the journal editor - is the journal a society-published journal, or published by one of the big publishers?

Take a look at, and see if the publisher is a member. You may also want to take a look at their published cases, in case you can see a similar resolution. Also have a look at the retractionwatch blog. I don't know about the discovery register, but it sounds fishy to me.

I can't speak for US-based societies, but all of the commercial publishers will have comprehensive policies around plagiarism. Unfortunately, dealing with plagiarism takes a lot of time, as you need responses from everyone, to chase it up at many levels, and give substantial amounts of time for a response. It may be that they're not sitting on your complaint, just not able to update you. I've also known some journal editors sit on a complaint and not done anything until the publisher got involved.

I don't know astronomy as a field, but I do know journal publishing - PM me if I can help further.

MaidOfStars Mon 17-Feb-14 16:22:51

Do you have evidence that you made these discoveries first and subsequently shared them with him? Emails, letters, any correspondence? Without that, you're screwed (and rightly so, otherwise anyone could make up any old kind of malicious complaint). If it's just verbal communication, I don't think you have a leg to stand on. Sorry.

If you believe your claim can be easily verified, contact the President/Principle of his university and outline your issues. If it's a commercial publisher, persevere, and be less polite this time. If it's a society publisher, I don't know what the best course of action is.

What type of resolution do you want here? Do you want a first author position on the relevant manuscript? Do you want the discoveries named after you?

DescribeTheRuckus Mon 17-Feb-14 16:31:36

Even as a PhD student, we are told to be somewhat careful about sharing our research...especially if we aren't published yet. I am afraid that if you haven't published your discoveries, or had them documented somewhere, there is no legal recourse you can take. Your US colleague is a twat for using your stuff, but really, you should have made sure to have your stuff documented in some way before sharing.

MaidOfStars Mon 17-Feb-14 16:38:36

I am afraid that if you haven't published your discoveries, or had them documented somewhere, there is no legal recourse you can take

In terms of IP/patent etc, my understanding (from biotech etc) is that if you can prove ANYWHERE that you documented something, not necessarily publicly but even in your own lab book, you can claim IP. This is why many people don't erase/scribble/Tippex in their lab book - single neat line so underlying text is still legible.

I suspect two-way correspondence between the OP and the professional in question, whereby the OP's claim to be the discoverer is acknowledged, may be enough here.

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 17-Feb-14 17:19:54

I would have said it was plagiarism. We have tutorials doing the 'what is plagiarism' and students are always told that passing off someone else's ideas as their own counts. Given you wrote to/emailed him, you have a written record.

It's certainly academic misconduct. Normally you'd have a footnote saying 'for x, y and z I owe thanks to Ms so-and-so, who discussed this with me in a private conversation of [date]'. It's really shabby not to acknowledge.

ChurchStretton Mon 17-Feb-14 17:48:00

My results were published in a number of places - indeed they can be found on-line in archives that well pre-date (i.e. by years rather than months or weeks) the publication by the American professionals. I even have emails from the professionals confirming receipt of my spread sheet of results.

MaidOfStars Mon 17-Feb-14 18:00:19

My results were published in a number of places - indeed they can be found on-line in archives that well pre-date (i.e. by years rather than months or weeks) the publication by the American professionals. I even have emails from the professionals confirming receipt of my spread sheet of results

So what exactly has this professional astronomer done? Claimed to be the first to discover? That seems unlikely, given that they know you had archived/documented your data. Have they actually "extended" your discovery? So perhaps you published that you'd found "something not yet defined" and they published that they'd found "a defined object"?

WillieWaggledagger Mon 17-Feb-14 18:10:42

if the editor is not responding, go to the publisher. it may be that you initially have to go to a generic author help email address, but your message should be directed to the individual responsible for the journal(s) there. as kerosene says these things are often complex and take a lot of time to resolve. the COPE link is a very good resource

presumably your results published online have not been referenced in the paper?

Without knowing the ins and outs of astronomy publication/catalogues, it's hard to know what has gone wrong or how to put it right...

Is there a reason that your initial publication didn't make it to the catalogue of discoveries thing? That seems to be where the problem started.

I don't think it's technically plagiarism because it's not an idea, it's a discovery. It's certainly not right but I don't think plagiarism is the right term to use.

Roseformeplease Mon 17-Feb-14 19:05:56

I know a tame (and well respected) UK based astronomer who might be able to help you. He is my Uncle and a Prof but pm me for details as don't want to say in public.

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