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I understand that according the ethical rules, obtaining the funding does not automatically entitle the principal investigator (PI) for authorship. But I don't understand the unwritten rules.

I was on a postdoc. During the postdoc, I was paid from a grant obtained by the PI. At the beginning, he told me to find a good research topic and write a paper ("this will be your child"). I spent some time on literature search and very preliminary computations. I presented my idea to the PI but he told he doesn't want me to continue this topic. He even repeated this several times, on different occasions. He said my idea was too losely connected to what his group was doing. So I gave up that topic and did not do it any longer. Finally, I published a paper on quite different topic, together with the group members, and the PI was also a co-author.

One day I talked to a colleague from that group and I mentioned my old research idea. I said I would like to develop it anyway, when I finish the current postdoc. He told me that the PI should still be a co-author because I spent some time working on this idea in his group and I was paid by his money.

Now, it's been a couple of years since I finished that postdoc. I have independence and I can publish myself as the corresponding author. I would like to publish a paper on the idea I once had. Should I somehow credit the old PI? (And his grant? It's over already.)

The whole idea of the research is mine. The PI did not contribute whatsoever to it. I feel that crediting someone just for his funding is not ethical. The more so that he rejected my idea. But I understand the words of that colleague as a sort of a warning because he has been working with the PI for a long time and probably he knows his attitide. And that guy (the old PI) is quite well-known person in the community. Do you think I should somehow negotiate with him? Or stick at nothing and just publish the paper as entirely mine?

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You can never run out of space in the acknowledgements section. –  BenK Aug 14 at 13:04

4 Answers 4

I cannot see why the former PI should have co-authorship on a paper they did not support or had any interest in. You are not a slave (or at least should not be) when on a post-doc (or any other position) and should retain the freedom to take own initiatives. As long as you fulfil any obligations within the position you are holding, no-one can prevent you from developing your own ideas. I can see an issue if you use materials that involve costs that you are not covering, for example, lab equipment or chemicals, electronic resources that removes capacity or resources otherwise used by the project. I do not count, for example, using a computer and printouts as such resources.

So, for me there is no question you can use the research as your own and you should add only authors that fulfil reasonable contributorship criteria, that is have contributed to the science of your work (see posts under the tag for such criteria).

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In (pure) mathematics, if you began working on this project while supported by the PI's grant, but without or even against his advice, then your publication about it would ordinarily include a footnote on the first page, saying something like "Partially supported by grant 314159 from the Munificent Funding Agency, John Doe principal investigator." I actually often see such footnotes without the name of the PI, but I see nothing wrong with including the name if it helps to placate him. CAUTION: Conventions may be different in other fields.

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PI's grant ... 314159 ... I see what you did there! –  mhwombat Aug 14 at 22:47

Most disciplines have either a "Funding", "Financial Support", or a general "Acknowledgements" section that people use to note the source of funding for the research in question. Since the initial research that led to this paper was supported by your previous PI, you should note that in the paper and thank the funding agency and your former advisor for their assistance and support as you developed the idea.

Since the PI in question repeatedly decided to not support or become involved in the work when they had the chance, I don't see how there could be any reasonable expectation of co-authorship and it's very unlikely that they will be upset.

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In my time, I've known one or two academics who could be highly unreasonable about "credit". But in general you are correct. I don't think your PI would have reasonable grounds to be upset with not being offered secondary authorship. –  Stephen C Aug 15 at 8:02
    
@StephenC, I've edited the answer to include the term "reasonable" and to hedge a little bit in the direction you are pointing. –  Benjamin Mako Hill Aug 16 at 0:34

I believe the PI does not qualify for authorship. However, there is nothing to be lost by a little civility. You could send him a note - something like this (fill in the blanks)

Dear Professor <name>
I hope you are well. It has been <some time> since I moved from <old institution> to <your current institution>, and I am settling in well. <some personal details about your life>.
You may recall that we once discussed <the idea>, but since it did not align with the research direction of <old group>, we dropped it and instead I focused on <what you did in postdoc>. Now that I am at <new institution> I have dusted off the old idea, and actually was able to turn it into a paper that shows <some salient details>. I intend to publish it in <journal, timeframe>. Now since the idea had originally been formed while I worked in <old group>, I thought it would be appropriate to make a mention of this in the acknowledgements; I hope that you agree that this is the correct way to indicate the link to <old group>, given that we did no research on this topic while I was there.
I hope everyone is well. Please send my particular regards to <friends> - I miss <whatever you enjoyed>. Best wishes,

If he thinks he ought to be included in the authorship list, such a note leaves the door open. It is usually not worth ending up in a fight with someone who is well established in your field - and it's their transgression, not yours, if they insist on being named a co-author.

That said - I stand by my first sentence: what you describe does not qualify the former PI for co-authorship in this instance.

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So far, there is only a vague hearsay (through the postdoc colleague) hint of a claim to authorship. If in fact the PI himself would make such a claim in response to this message, I believe one should stand one's ground and at the very least let the PI substantiate the claim. E.g. by referring to the journal's authorship policy, or to the intellectual ownership clause in the old postdoc contract. The PI's reputation would also be at stake if he tried to force the issue, especially if your new PI is already a real co-author. –  TemplateRex Aug 15 at 9:44
    
@TemplateRex - you make very valid points. If a new PI is involved, then if things do get to a head, letting the two of them fight it out (especially if the new one is a real co-author) might be a good approach. –  Floris Aug 15 at 10:57

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