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I have finished three years of work in a Ph.D. program. I've published one conference paper as sole author, and have recently sent out another paper to a prestigious conference.

I started a project last October with a professor who does not have anything to do with my dissertation. He asked me early on to do a lot of work so I asked him who is the first author, and he said he would be. I've already written the full literature review for this journal paper, and came up with the framework by myself. He has only advised me on it.

Now, I have a clear idea about my dissertation, and I have to write my proposal and defend it this fall. So, the work with this professor is rather burdensome to me right now. So far, he has not worked on it at all. I've written six or seven out of the 15 pages of the journal paper. The main thing left is data analysis. He wants me to do the data analysis and write it up as well, and recently he also asked me to write introduction of the paper. At this point, I thought, he wants me to write the whole paper, which he can edit at the last moment and become first author.

Since this paper does not have anything to do with my dissertation, I do not want to work with this paper anymore. I told him I am busy with my own research, it seems like that he will wait until I finish writing the paper.

What should I do? I do not want to cut the relationship but he is asking too much which I think is unethical. Any strategic advice will be appreciated.

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Were the data collected by this professor? –  Brian P Jun 21 at 16:00
Repeat after me: "Your turn." –  JeffE Jun 21 at 16:51
data is from the research institute he works. I do not wish to be a first author. I just want to focus on my dissertation. –  user37874 Jun 21 at 17:07
From everything you say, this professor sounds like he qualifies for last authorship - "senior author": did not do much of the heavy lifting, but directed and edited, and considers the work good enough to carry his name. You should fight to be first author - take it up with the university authorities. Trying to be first author on a paper you did not do the majority of work on is unethical. It is also morally wrong. Get it fixed, or get away from him. You deserve getting credit - if the way you tell it is an accurate reflection of what's going on. Is there an ombudsperson you can talk to? –  Floris Jun 22 at 22:33

3 Answers 3

up vote 26 down vote accepted

First of all: Good call to talk about authorship issues at the beginning, rather than only once troubles started! Now authorship issues do occasionally have to be re-negotiated depending on the course the project takes.

There do seem to be potentially two separate aspects in your question:

A. What to do if I have contributed as much as I am willing as a secondary author, yet the first author keeps asking for more? - Point out that you have done X, Y and Z, and that you are only willing to do significantly more if you are the first author (fundamental reading + commenting remain unaffected of course).

B. I started a side-project, and I no longer want to work on this AT ALL. - Make clear to your co-author that you have no intention to work on this project anymore, and that this pertains to the future, too. Either give them free rein to continue the project without you (either with you on the author list or not, depending on your preferences); OR make sure you are still available for basic reading/commenting, but simply nothing more extensive.

In both cases, if the coauthor shows a significantly stronger reaction than "medium annoyance", then maintaining a positive relationship to them is futile anyway.

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In both cases, if the coauthor shows a significantly stronger reaction than "medium annoyance" ... -- If I were the OP, I would be way beyond the level of "medium annoyance." –  Mad Jack Jun 21 at 16:52
Thank you a lot. I sent an email to him that I have limited time availability, and implied Aug is the timeline. His response was, we can discuss the feasibility of finishing the paper by the end of this year. He does not get it. –  user37874 Jun 21 at 17:56
There is a huge difference between "I'm not doing this now." and "I'm not doing this ever." –  Arno Jun 21 at 18:47
@user37874 what happens when you read your disertation? You will not longer be a PhD student, are you still employed by the institution? –  Davidmh Jun 21 at 22:35
@user37874 "Implied Aug is the timeline." I would not imply anything. You need to be very clear and direct. If you don't have the time or interest to complete this paper, then you need to say that and move on. –  Brian P Jun 22 at 12:37

Since I suppose bad language is not allied here, I'll be restrained. Suffice to say, as an academic I think that is a basic professional principle is lacking here: if you, with existing career, wage and pedagogical duties, are writing with a student, they should be first author. Always. Every time. No matter what.

Two reasons: first, you already have all the power and privileges. Students are not there to be consumed. Second, you don't want to be seen to be exploiting someone who is vulnerable to your power over them.

Short answer: this person sounds like a dick. Put them off, finish your PhD, get a job, then tell anyone following on after you to avoid writing with them.

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+1 - "this person sounds like a dick". –  Floris Jun 22 at 22:27
"allied"? You mean "allowed"? –  Faheem Mitha Jun 23 at 9:20

The professor is putting it off until you present your dissertation. What happens then? Are you still employed by your institution?

If you have an position somewhere else, congratulations! Just tell him that you have other obligations, and that you will be available for comments and discussion, but your new employer would want you to work on their projects.

If you are going to remain at your institution, and don't have anything else that will pay your bills, you could use this project to improve your CV. I don't know in your field, but only two conference publications sounds on the weaker end (in technical fields in Sweden people usually finish with four first author journal papers after four years). If you don't have anything else (yet), you can ask him to hire you. If funding is not available, you may decide to work with him anyway, but letting him know that your main priority is finding a new job, and you will leave as soon as someone offers to pay you. You may also decide not to work for free, and you could tell him that.

In the case that you decide to actually continue with the project, you should discuss authorship again. You have done most of the job so far, and you have the work he wants you to do as a leverage. You could appeal to his humanity (as if professors had any!) and say that you are in a critical point in your career and need to strengthen your CV.

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