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I have come to a rather startling discovery in regards to a question that has been posed to me a number of times through my now almost 1 year of CS studies.

Solving this problem is of great interest to many people, and if I have indeed done so... What do I do?

I see a few options, but none seem to ensure that my work gets recognized as my own: I could stash away the notes till the time comes for my masters thesis. This would force me to share both work and credit with my supervisor, though. I could attempt to publish it... But who would want to take work from a 9 months old computer scientist?

I am at a loss - in attempting to solve a difficult problem I have only given rise to an even more difficult one!

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    $\begingroup$ I'm confused. Why would exposing the work to your MS advisor necessarily force you to share credit with them? Students publish work without of their advisors all the time! $\endgroup$ – Jeffε Apr 14 '11 at 3:59
  • $\begingroup$ @JɛffE: My guess is that the asker is an undergraduate student and does not have an advisor yet. $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Apr 14 '11 at 11:23
  • $\begingroup$ And I realized that actually he writes he is an undergrad. $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Apr 15 '11 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ Sure, but he also writes: “I could stash away the notes till the time comes for my masters thesis. This would force me to share both work and credit with my supervisor, though.” I'm wondering why he thinks that. $\endgroup$ – Jeffε Apr 17 '11 at 7:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Kris So are you going to tell us what problem you've solved? $\endgroup$ – Tyson Williams Jun 21 '11 at 23:27
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Worrying about someone taking credit for your work is very common among amateurs and people just starting out, but in my experience is far less common with more experienced researchers. I'm not really sure exactly what the reason for this is, but I have encountered this phenomenon numerous times. I would venture that it is perhaps because those with more experience in the field know how uncommon it is for one person to essentially steal another's results. Most people are relatively good, or at worst benign, and wouldn't dream of taking credit for work they haven't contributed to. Couple that with the fact that being caught plagiarizing someone else's work would be career suicide, and you can be pretty confident that no one you talk to is likely to write up your idea and pass it off as their own.

As Suresh says, you could always upload it to the arxiv, but I would be inclined not to do this, as if it turns out that the work is not novel or there is a major error, then you cannot actually delete the paper, but rather will have to post a retraction, and the original will still be there for all to see. Even now, I still ask colleagues to check any paper I consider relatively important before uploading a manuscript.

If I were you, I would be inclined to talk to one of my lecturers in the first instance, as they can probably give you a feel for whether your solution is novel (and correct), and if it meets both of these criteria, they should be able to give you an idea of how best to proceed. Alternatively, you could just post it as a question here, asking if the result was previously known, or if anybody could point you to a good survey paper on the problem. You'd have a time stamp from the post time, so you wouldn't have to worry about that. If you got an encouraging response here (i.e. that it was not currently known), then you could consider how to proceed from there. If on the other hand, it was already known, or there was a flaw, then it wouldn't really matter.

Technically, you could also simply write it up and submit it to a journal. As Dave says, no one involved in the process will actually know your level (the first time, it's kind of a kick when you get the correspondence addressed to you as either Dr. or Professor), unless one of the reviewers happens to know you personally. However, I would not suggest doing so. You need to search the literature to make sure your idea is actually novel, and as Dave mentions, the writing of papers is an art in and of itself. You would probably need to read a lot of journal articles to even get the style right.

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    $\begingroup$ I think the reason amateurs are often more worried about ownership is because of (a) a misperception of the true novelty of an idea and (b) not enough experience generating new ideas to realize what is really valuable. $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Apr 14 '11 at 3:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Suresh: I agree with your comment, but because of that, I cannot understand why you suggest to post the work on the arXiv in your answer. $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Apr 14 '11 at 11:21
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    $\begingroup$ To all: an arxiv upload might assuage the fears about trusting a manuscript to another researcher. You're right that if trust exists to begin with, then an arxiv posting is unnecessary. But trust can't be built by an "because I say so" $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Apr 14 '11 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Suresh: An alternate solution for the more paranoid would be to sign a hash of the paper and then upload that all over the place! $\endgroup$ – Joe Fitzsimons Apr 14 '11 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Suresh: I set up a simple website for anyone who might actually want to do that: priorart.jfitzsimons.org $\endgroup$ – Joe Fitzsimons Apr 14 '11 at 19:26
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It will be impossible to assess the quality of your work without sharing it with anyone. Chances are that your discovery may not be so startling after all. If you were able to provide some hints regarding the problem you have solved, this community may be able to say whether or not it has been solved (or whether it is even interesting).

You could write a paper about your discovery and submit the paper to a journal. But there are standards of writing and other matters of presentation that need to be attained, a level which typical undergraduates do not have, irrespective of how startling the discovery is.

In any case, if you were to submit it to a journal, the journal would not know that you were an undergraduate. But you would first need to make the presentation of your discovery convincing, and typically that requires quite some training and interaction with a supervisor.

Related question: What would you advise someone who wants to do research as a hobby?

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If solving this problem is indeed of great interest to many people, ask one of them ! If you're afraid of your work being scooped, time stamp it on the arxiv.

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I wouldn't worry about some one stealing your work, or sharing your credit. If they're sharing your credit then it can be clearly indicated their role.

As to stealing your work: In the Old traditions of accadimia, claiming something as your intellectual property (copy right, patent etc) was considered "Ungentlemanly".
The first example of a patented accademic result that comes to mind is RSA, and they were aggressive when it came to defending it. (I would suggest reading into it's history). Though I'm sure there are plenty of counter examples, JɛffE suggests one such: Newton v. Leibniz?

Most Australian universities still uphold the tradition that an academic's work is performed for the greater public good, and that it is therefore necessary to donate back at least the copyright in the academic's scholarly work to the academic, so that the work may be freely disseminated." Source

Source refereed to Australian Universities, but it is referencing to older international academic traditions.

I suggest talking over your work with a professor your on good terms with. If your work is novel or interesting then they'll be able to tell you, and will help you get on the way to having it published. You'll most likely have to credit them as checking your result, but honestly a paper getting published without having credited anyone with checking their result, quiet likely has mistakes. (If I were a Journal editor, I wouldn't waste the time of the people I employ checking your work, if no one has checked it already. (would ask for resubmission once someone has validated it))

If you really must be paranoid, then my suggestion (and this is without any experience as to it's effectiveness) is to attach a footer/appendix your paper, making it a statutory declaration, declaring that it is your own work, as prepared by you alone by this date. And then sign and date it in front of a valid witness under your countries law. (The witness for stat dec normally include University Professors, doctors, post office workers, and about a dozen others, most of whom wouldn't be able to understand you paper.) The purpose of the witness is not to validate the truth of your declaration, its to validate the date you declare it. This can be done even if your work is incomplete or wrong, to prove the date of you having a partial solution.

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    $\begingroup$ As to stealing your work: In the Old traditions of accadimia, claiming something as your intellectual property (copyright, patent etc) was considered "Ungentlemanly". Really? Remember the fight Newton picked with Leibniz? $\endgroup$ – Jeffε Jun 20 '11 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ @JeffE: Not to mention the fight between Cardano and Tartaglia over the solution to the cubic equation. $\endgroup$ – Peter Shor Oct 1 '14 at 10:18
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If there is a corresponding integer sequence post it to OEIS. You get credit for the discovery if it is indeed novel, and if not you still get thanked for posting something interesting.

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several other answers have mentioned submitting to arxiv which is indeed a sometimes prestigious and elite site occasionally containing some work/papers submitted by undergraduates. you appear to be affiliated with a university. fyi this is a semiofficial requirement of arxiv submissions, sometimes [apparently] judged by your ".edu" on your email address.

if you are not "university affiliated", arxiv can be harder to submit to. it requires the support of one of the [unlisted] moderators.

generally it seems [speaking from experience] their acceptance policy is rather opaque and occasionally verging on arbitrary for borderline cases. if you submit a paper and you're in, great, but if its not accepted based on the sometimes sketchy criteria [which seems not to be published or clearly articulated anywhere on the site], you wont necessarily have a clear path to fix that. in other words the structure is not at all set up to encourage/help/coax borderline cases to make it in [it is somewhat similar to stackexchange in this way, but also maybe scientific journal submissions].

so fyi, a relatively new alternative that was recently created specifically/partially in protest of arxiv's opaque and not-fully-open submission policies is vixra which seems to be stable and attracting a healthy dose of submissions. more details on their policy and contrast to arxiv can be found on the page "why vixra". quoting from that:

Vixra is also an experiment to see what kind of scientific work is being excluded by the arXiv. But most of all it is a serious and permanent e-print archive for scientific work. Unlike arXiv.org it is truly open to scientists from all walks of life. You can support this project by submitting your articles.

as to another reasonable suggestion by JF in the other answer:

Alternatively, you could just post it as a question here, asking if the result was previously known, or if anybody could point you to a good survey paper on the problem. You'd have a time stamp from the post time, so you wouldn't have to worry about that. If you got an encouraging response here (i.e. that it was not currently known), then you could consider how to proceed from there. If on the other hand, it was already known, or there was a flaw, then it wouldn't really matter.

again, personal experience, I tried this to some degree here with some of my own ideas & had some degree of success, but it was highly variable and unpredictable. however, dont really recommend the above in this forum (TCS.se) for several reasons. if your question is upvoted beyond a certain threshold, it is likely to stay here forever unmolested.

however in a borderline case (which frankly is the likely case here for an undergraduate attempting to accomplish a genuine research advance), the question could easily be closed and deleted, and on stackexchange, these questions are totally vaporized without trace (all comments, all answers, etc, everything is completely wiped out as if the question had never appeared in the 1st place) see why and how are some posts are deleted. surely not what you intended, so much for "a time stamp from the post time, so you dont have to worry about that"...

another less severe but still problematic case here [from the POV of the originator] are questions that end up getting heavily edited via the collaborative editing, and get pushed away/drift significantly from your original intentions/meaning. see why can people edit my posts, how does editing work.

you may have better luck starting out in cs.stackexchange. occasionally very advanced questions there get migrated to this forum.

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    $\begingroup$ Huh? arXiv is neither "prestigious" nor "elite." From what I understand, its filters are minimal, and there are plenty of incorrect or bogus papers on it. $\endgroup$ – Lev Reyzin Jul 8 '13 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ The ArXiv moderators for computer science are listed here; I'm listed twice. Lev is correct. The ArXiv carries absolutely no prestige, because the barrier for submission is very low. You need (1) a university affiliation or the endorsement of another ArXiv user, and (2) a well-formed paper with an abstract, references, and reasonable English that actually fits one of the subject categories. The few papers that I've rejected from ArXiv have been either out of scope or literal nonsense. $\endgroup$ – Jeffε Jul 8 '13 at 18:35
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    $\begingroup$ Also, the rant about stackexchange culture/policy is out of place here. $\endgroup$ – Jeffε Jul 8 '13 at 18:39
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    $\begingroup$ Jeff may be speaking for his own cases but the policy he describes (off-topic papers get reclassified; on-topic but obviously-wrong papers are allowed; papers only get rejected for copyright violations or failure to be well-formed) covers all of the cs categories in arXiv. My understanding is that the math and physics parts of arXiv have a slightly more selective process in which papers that are on-topic but incorrect or cranky may be banished to catch-all categories like math.GM and gen-ph, and that Vixra is aimed at the authors who get offended by even that much filtering. $\endgroup$ – David Eppstein Jul 9 '13 at 0:00
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    $\begingroup$ Please take this off-topic extended discussion to chat. $\endgroup$ – Jeffε Jul 9 '13 at 23:50

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