Who Proved Theorem 5?

Let me start with a real story that happened a long time ago when I worked with my co-author on a math project. When I told him the idea I came up with, he dismissed it. The next day he came to me very excited with his new idea. He repeated the idea I had proposed the day before.

I said, “I suggested this exact idea to you yesterday.” He didn’t believe me. Luckily for our relationship, I knew him very well. He was not a person who lied. I remembered how preoccupied he was when I had laid out the idea to him. Now I think that he didn’t pay attention to my idea at the time, but it was lodged somewhere in his subconscious and surfaced later. I am sure that he truly believed that the idea was his. (Unfortunately, he didn’t believe me. But this is another story.)

This story made me think about the nature of collaboration and how people can’t really separate ownership of the results of a joint project. Let me tell you another story, one that I do not remember happening, although it could have.

I was working on a paper with my co-author on Sharelatex. One day an idea for a lemma came to me that we hadn’t discussed before. My co-author lives in a different time zone, so instead of discussing the idea with him, I just added Lemma 3 and its proof to our paper. I was truly proud of my own contribution.

The next day I came up with Lemma 4 while driving back home. It was another completely new direction for our research. When I came home to my laptop, I discovered my Lemma 4 neatly written and proven by my co-author. Is this lemma his? It can’t be completely his. It was a natural extension of what we discussed; he just got to a computer before me.

Did you notice in the last story that the situation is symmetric, but my hypothetical feelings are not? In a true collaboration ideas are bounced off each other. Very often people come up with the same idea at the same time, but you can’t ascribe ownership to the first person who speaks. Because of many stories like this, I made a rule for myself: never discuss in public who did what in a joint paper. Just always say “we.”

Unfortunately I keep forgetting to teach my PRIMES/RSI students that. The question usually doesn’t come up until it is too late, when one of the students in a group project during a presentation says, “I proved Theorem 5.” Oops!

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One Comment

  1. me:

    A very common occurence. It’s a bit ugly in work-life in corporations (when your peer gets a bonus/promotion for regurgitating something that you created, most of the time unknowningly).

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