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What should you do when you see a question raised in public, say here on stack-exchange, that you know the answer to, because you are looking into as part of current research project?

For example, I see a TCS.SX question that I know the answer to, because I worked on the problem recently. I haven't finished writing up the results yet and am trying to get a few more results to make an acceptable paper.

Should I contact the asker personally? Claim credit publicly by publishing answer on the site? What should I do?

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    $\begingroup$ This should be in meta.cstheory.stackexchange.com $\endgroup$ – Diego de Estrada Oct 20 '10 at 4:32
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    $\begingroup$ why should this be on meta ? this is not about the running of the site really. It's a genuine research process question. $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Oct 20 '10 at 5:18
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    $\begingroup$ Voted to migrate to Meta. From the way it is stated, the question is about how to behave on this website. $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Oct 21 '10 at 3:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Tsuyoshi: I had the same feeling when I voted to migrate to meta, but after Suresh's comment I changed my opinion. The situation is not specific to the questions on this site and applies to other situations, e.g. questions posted on blogs, or even to off-line discussions. $\endgroup$ – Kaveh Oct 21 '10 at 6:36
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    $\begingroup$ I've edited the question to avoid the TCS.SX-only interpretation that most people have chosen not to follow. $\endgroup$ – Charles Stewart Oct 21 '10 at 14:24
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I'll share my side of the story that is mentioned in Shiva's answer.

Shiva had several questions related to my own research (space-bounded algorithms for reachability problems). We were currently putting the final touches on a full draft of the proof, and were not ready to announce the result. However, it was clear that Shiva was very interested in this area, so I emailed him saying we had a result in the works and gave him just the theorem statement. A week later, we had our draft complete and I sent him a copy. A few weeks later we shared our updated draft on the ECCC.

This worked well for several reasons.

  • Shiva and I have never met in person, but now we know each other as colleagues interested in similar problems.
  • Shiva also sent me a copy of his most recent work, which is also related and interesting.
  • The questions gave me an extra boost of motivation to complete a full draft quickly.

I recommend this course of action in the future: partial disclosure via private communication, full disclosure, and public announcement.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for sharing, Derrick. This is a great story to tell if we want to publicize this site. $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Oct 21 '10 at 17:24
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Incidentally this happened to three of my questions. The authors contacted me through email and stated the main theorems from their work in progress that answered my questions. Later they were kind enough to send me a preprint before making it public. I was very happy and excited about their results.

I think it is a good research practice to share at least the main theorem to the questioner by email. If the questioner is working in the same field he might be able to appreciate your work and give very useful feedback. This will help in expanding your research circle which (in my opinion) is always good.

Once you mention that you are actively working on a problem and have partial results, people are often "ethical enough" not to work on the problem (or) discuss it without your permission. This universal strategy works very good for the entire research society.

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    $\begingroup$ It would be nice if you could list examples: this is a great aspect of this site that we should publicize. $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Oct 20 '10 at 5:19
  • $\begingroup$ Depending on the progress, could you imagine collaborating after "meeting" here? $\endgroup$ – Raphael Oct 20 '10 at 6:41
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    $\begingroup$ @suresh I will list the examples after talking to the respective authors. $\endgroup$ – Shiva Kintali Oct 20 '10 at 6:44
  • $\begingroup$ fair enough. you don't have to make it public now, but as long as you keep track of it somewhere we can ask for it when needed for promo material $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Oct 20 '10 at 6:59
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Here, where public interest in the problem has been expressed, I think it's good for science to make known the fact that you believe you have solved the problems and provide some concrete details of what you have achieved. If you have reason not to show your hand right away, I think the goal should be to figure out what you are now comfortable saying in public, and how to present it. So I argue against private email.

Something I've seen some people do is write research bulletins, a bit like personal technical notes, that summarise findings on a topic in some degree of rigour, but without attempting to be comprehensive in the way that makes writing papers for peer-reviewed publication so time-consuming. The progress reports that Harvey Friedman used to send to the Foundations of Mathematics mailing list would be a good exemplar of that kind of thing, e.g., Self-contained posting 82: Simplified Boolean Relation Theory.

Starting such a bulletin series to deal with this, and then posting an excerpt here seems like a good strategy, since it allows you to quickly identify your achivements, while being in control of what details you make public.

I don't recommend regular blog posts for this, since they carry some unwanted associations, that they are conversational, open to revision, and not properly referenceable documents. Writing in a form for publication on Arxiv would make sense, but a Research Notes section on your publications page linking to an html page would work.

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    $\begingroup$ I think one reason that Harvey can use this method is that he is really really really well-established researcher, i.e. a researcher with a similar research record can claim whatever she wants, but the situation is completely different for a junior researcher (or even for many senior researchers). Simply saying I have proven something does not have the same effect, IMHO, a technical report on university website or a draft on arXive/eccc are more applicable here. $\endgroup$ – Kaveh Oct 21 '10 at 9:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Kaveh: Yes, definitely, but I know of less well-established people who have used this strategy effectively. I don't dispute the existence of risks, but it's best for science if you do publish details, and you can manage the risks by choosing which details you make public. And sending private emails also carries risks. Writing such notes does not, of course, mean that you have anything concrete that carries weight on your CV, it is only a mode of engaging in scientific conversation. $\endgroup$ – Charles Stewart Oct 21 '10 at 10:38
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I was originally inclined to close this question, but then felt it's worthy of an answer. In this situation, since you aren't comfortable releasing your work into the wild, the best solution is to email the questioner privately, if you really want to give the answer.

Alternatively, you could wait, write up the results, put them on the arxiv, and then point the questioner to the answer.

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    $\begingroup$ I think ArXiving your results ASAP is a good idea. Please keep in mind that an ArXiv manuscript does not need to constitute a minimum publishable unit. I think it is perfectly ok to submit a 2-page proof to ArXiv, even though it would be obviously too short as a conference or journal paper. Resolving an open problem that other people would like to solve is more than enough. $\endgroup$ – Jukka Suomela Oct 21 '10 at 10:04
  • $\begingroup$ Other arXiv-like websites are: ECCC (for complexity theory) and ePrint (for cryptography). $\endgroup$ – M.S. Dousti Oct 26 '10 at 11:54
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The way to handle this situation naturally depends on a number of factors.

  1. How confident are you of what you know? (This relates to the next factor.)
  2. How much of what you know is rigorously written down? In particular, how much time will it take to finish the full write-up?
  3. How much attention did the question receive? Is it likely that many solid researchers will begin to work on the question after it was asked publicly?
  4. Is there a natural public venue to partially announce/sketch what you know in reply, e.g. via the question-asker?

Weighing these factors depending on your own experience and judgement will lead you to different actions according to one of the other responses in this thread.

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