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I'm currently a 2nd year PhD student from a computational field. I'm going to submit my first paper about a new optimization algorithm. I've been working intensively on the problem for the last 2 years and finally managed to get the results I've been longing for so badly. Besides the professor, I'm also supervised by another postdoc whom I respect a lot. Although the two didn't contribute to the ideas I present in the paper, they helped me a lot to understand the field and prepare the paper. So, they obviously deserve to be coauthors.

However, there is one man in my lab who is really ruining my mood and indirectly prevent me from concentrating on writing my paper. He is a postdoc, 15 years my senior, and has been with the lab for ages (he has a permanent position). Just for the record, he hasn't published any first or last author paper since 7 years. We are assigned by the professor to the same subgroup meeting. We use the subgroup meeting to report our individual scientific progress.

About a year ago, he came to my desk I said that I should include his name in the work I was working on because A (the professor) said so. I was quite surprised to hear that because he had nothing to do with my project besides sitting in the same meeting. Nevertheless, I agreed because I just simply didn't care about who should be on the coauthor list. I didn't submit the paper that year because the results were still very unsatisfactory.

Since then, the postdoc constantly asked me to do many things for the project, which I thought didn't make any sense. I simply told him that he should brought up his request during the meeting when the professor is there. And every single time the response of my professor was something like "Why would you want to do that?" and his answer was "Because I'm interested in". I wish my professor whould have said "Then do it yourself".

My professor goes abroad quite often. So, most of the time the subgroup meetings took place without him. About 6 months ago I came up with an idea which I thought very promising and I presented it in the meeting, without the professor. The postdoc basically told me that I need to stop wasting time on my ideas and listen to his suggestions instead if I want to finish my PhD. I felt very offended and spent days and nights coding my idea. 2 months later, I got the best results that I could ever ask for. I presented the results in front of my professor and others. Everyone was happy except one man.

Today, when I was trying to finish the paper then he came in. He asked me to do yet another ridiculous analysis. I told him that I cannot see why this analysis could make the paper better. Besides, this is already the final stage and everything has been discussed thorougly with the "real" coauthors. He answered me "This might not go into the paper but I'm interested in knowing it. I'm the author and I'm allowed to make request". My reaction was something like a silent WTF and he immediately corrected the word "author" to coauthor. I tried my best to not ask him the question "What did you contribute to the paper?"

The professor is currently away for 3 weeks. I want to submit the paper as soon as possible but this man made me crazy. He would talk to me all day long until I do want he wants. I don't want to write to my professor to complain about him. But I'm afraid that he will use his coauthorship to keep bothering me.

What should I do? Thanks for reading the long story!

------------------- UPDATE ABOUT THE SITUATION ---------------------------------


Today, the man came to me again! After 1 hour of "discussing", I just gave up and spent the whole day explaining to him how he could do the analysis he wanted himself. It would be much faster if I do it myself because I wrote all the code but he just insisted on doing it himself to "not bother" me.

Before I gave up, I told him that the professor knew about what he wanted to do (he mentioned it during our lab meeting 4 weeks ago). My professor has read the draft version of my manuscript and made comments. And I haven't heard any word from him that I should do the analysis the postdoc suggested. We already have all the experimental results we need and the manuscript is now almost finished. I told the postdoc that if he want to do the analysis then let discuss it together when the professor is back or if he think that it is urgent he can write to the professor. He refused.

I understand that he probably wants to contribute something. He told me that I need to explain why I designed my algorithm that way, using experimental data. In the manuscript, I did explain the rationale behind it and in the result part I compared my method with others (including the current best one) using 120 real datasets of all kind. We already reach the page limit of the journal. The rationale behind the design of my algorithm is quite obvious and he totally agrees on that. But still, he said that I need to show it with the data. He told me to change the way my algorithm works and compare the modified version with the original one. I don't understand why he want to put everything in the paper, not to mention that it is so obvious and doesn't make the paper better at all.

Lesson learned for the next project!

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I tried my best to not ask him the question "What did you contribute to the paper?" — Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I do this. –  JeffE May 20 at 0:53
"I said that I should include his name in the work I was working on because A (the professor) said so. I was quite surprised to hear that because he had nothing to do with my project besides sitting in the same meeting. Nevertheless, I agreed because I just simply didn't care about who should be on the coauthor list." I think the first word should be "he". This is/was a mistake. What do you mean "I just simply didn't care about who should be on the coauthor list"??! A reasonable response would be "I'm sorry, I haven't heard anything from my advisor about this". –  Faheem Mitha May 20 at 6:03
Most likely he would then drop the matter, never to be heard of again. In general, you don't want to be saying yes to requests of this nature. In any case, is this person officially listed on the co-author list? If so, removing it is probably an option, if he has not done any work. –  Faheem Mitha May 20 at 6:05
Reading the title "How to get rid of [...] co-author?" I was tempted to vote to move it to something like Criminal Minds Exchange. Turns out, there is no such site, how disappointing. –  dirkk May 21 at 7:21
“Although the two didn't contribute to the ideas I present in the paper, they helped me a lot to understand the field and prepare the paper. So, they obviously deserve to be coauthors.”—Is it the norm in your field for people who haven't contributed substantially to the intellectual content of a paper to be listed as coauthors? Perhaps it would be better for them to be listed in the acknowledgments. –  John Peyton Sep 27 at 18:14

3 Answers 3

If he has not contributed to the paper or the ideas, I would tell him very bluntly that you have decided not to include him as a co-author and explain your reasoning. You don't need to yell or be rude, just deliberate. As far as him constantly bothering you, just tell him he is interfering with your work and you can make time for him during your "office hours".

It's common for postdocs to abuse their "power". You don't owe him anything just because he is a postdoc in your lab. Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself, it's very unlikely your advisor will. He is, after-all, both of your bosses, and you are both adults.

Edit: I was under the impression the advisor was indifferent. It would be best to sit down with your advisor first and explain your case. Be adamant. Co-author inflation is real. Your advisor is likely trying to look out for the interest of everyone, but if the postdoc has not made any contribution, it would be "unethical" for him to be listed as a co-author. I wonder if the postdoc helped write the grant that you are funded by?

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It seems unwise to me to do this without first letting the advisor know what's going on.. –  ff524 May 20 at 0:49
Regarding the authorship, I don't think that I can change anything now because it has been decided so long ago. All I want is that the annoying postdoc sits still in his desk and let me do all the works the way I want and as discussed with the 2 real coauthors. It was the other postdoc, which I consider my mentor, who helped writing the grant. The reason why my advisor allowed the annoying postdoc to join the project was probably to encourage him to have motivation to do real scientific works. –  neil_mccauley May 20 at 18:37
Co-authorship isn't final until the paper has been published... –  SoilSciGuy May 20 at 18:46
You can't control what other people do :). You can only control their effect on you. –  Suresh May 20 at 21:21
@neil_mccauley a way to go about it is to take the journal's coauthorship conditions and tell him, very calmly and assertive, that he doesn't fulfil them and explain why. Another is to let your professor do it. –  Davidmh May 20 at 23:08

How to get rid of unwanted and annoying co-author?

Talking to your advisor about your problem will probably help.

Depending on how that goes, you may still feel like you need to keep this "annoying" postdoc on as a co-author. Even so, you don't need to do any more grunt work for this person. Just finish up your paper. If this postdoc keeps bothering you and impeding your progress, you may need to go into stealth mode for a week or so (work from home while your advisor is out of town, etc.). Finishing your paper quickly (but correctly) will at least (hopefully!) prevent this annoying person from delaying your progress further.

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Another way to handle the situation is to brief your advisor, and then, whenever you get such a request, parry with something like, "I'm really trying to prioritize getting the paper ready for submission. Since this won't go into the paper, maybe you can start working on it, and we can see what kind of results you come up with".

If he still tries to push back, then (and only if you've already briefed your advisor) tell him "Our advisor has asked me to prioritize certain tasks: if you want me to change the priority you'll have to talk to him".

I think it's definitely the advisor's job to play umpire/referee in these situations.

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This seems like the best advice offered till now to the presented situation.... However, you didn't actually answer the title question about co-authorship. Would you... mind expanding your answer a bit to include that as well? –  penelope May 20 at 12:17
I'm not sure if anything can be done. The original mistake was letting the person glom onto the paper without a fight. At this point all the OP can do is talk to the advisor and ask him/her if they can remove the unwanted person. But this is unlikely to happen. –  Suresh May 20 at 14:09
Today, I basically told him the same thing you suggested (see the UPDATE in my posting). I explained to him nicely that I need time to finalize the writing and if I now switch to the technical stuff I would lose my writing flow. Then he asked me to show him how to do the analysis so that he can do it himself. I refused because it also takes time. Then he told me "Why didn't you want to show me? Or did you fake the results?". When I heard this, I really couldn't stand it anymore and ended up doing what he wants. –  neil_mccauley May 20 at 23:15
I'm afraid that you're enabling continuing bad behaviour by allowing yourself to get baited. :(. Maybe something like "I'll write it in the paper and you can read it there" –  Suresh May 20 at 23:35

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