I am a researcher in condensed-matter physics, and I recently started a research project with another professor, for which I hired a student for a six-month undergraduate internship. The student was under my supervision. During the internship she showed good motivation, but did not make any actual contribution to the progress of the project.

Finally, she started a Ph.D. with someone else. I personally took over the project, taking care of both technical and conceptual parts, which requires a lot of time and work.

I kindly invited her multiple times to double check some of my work, but she had not done anything on the project since the end of the internship.

In the past few months she started having an attitude that I find disturbing. She replies to emails once in a while, proposing new conceptual points to explore, as if I were the student and she was the supervisor. On top of that, she ignores the invitations to double check my calculations, which would require actual work on her side.

Given that she did not make any actual contribution to the project, I am inclined to not include her as an author of any eventual publication. I think that it would be definitely fair to include her in the acknowledgments, but unfair to include her as an author.

What do you think about this? How would you inform her of this decision?

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    – StrongBad
    Commented Jan 15, 2018 at 17:39

7 Answers 7


This doesn't seem like an especially unusual situation to me. You had a student for a fixed-term internship, during which time she pursued an angle that did not result in a publication. The student then moved on to other things, and so did you. You kept her informed of your work that is related to what she did as a professional courtesy, but she isn't interested in participating after the internship ends (nor does she have an obligation to). This kind of thing happens often, and nobody behaved badly here...

Do you have any indication that she expects to be a co-author on the eventual publication? (Corresponding with you about the work out of interest doesn't mean she expects to be an author.) She may not have any expectation of authorship credit.

If at some point she asks about authorship, I think you can just gently point out that her work did not lead to publication, and that you started working on the current approach (that did lead to publication) after she left.

If you do get the feeling that she expects authorship but she hasn't explicitly said so, you could say something to her like, "it has been interesting corresponding with you on this, X and I will be sure to thank you in the acknowledgement section of the eventual publication that he and I write." (If indeed you decide that you do want to do so.)

  • 1
    Good point, I have strictly no indication that she expects to author the paper, and I will clarify this with her. Also, as for the situation being or not 'unusual', please check the additional details that I added about her thesis defense, which, I think, make the situation quite unusual.
    – user69728
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 16:34

A couple of things jumped out at me about the question that I don't think have been sufficiently addressed in the other answers:

  • This is a graduate student who was early enough in the program that she had not yet chosen her Ph.D. adviser when she was active on the project.
  • I deduce from some of the O.P's phrasing in the post and comments that the student's work was the application of a method or methods that did not work; this is based on these quotes: "I gave her something to do, she came up with different approaches and questions, wasted time, and then eventually did what I asked" and "she showed good motivation, but did not make any actual contribution to the progress of the project".

In my experience in academia, there are two general rules that are relevant here:

  1. Graduate students should not be expected to have the requisite skills to be researchers yet--that's why they're here after all. But they should also not be expected to have a very good sense of where they belong in or how they should interact with academia generally. I don't mean here that they shouldn't be expected to be professional, but swing a dead cat in any major university medical center and you're likely to hit a young grad student who thinks that the best way to prove himself is to emulate Reviewer #3 at every lab meeting, talk, and defense. Most grad students grow out of this. A major, but rarely stated, part of grad school is learning how to interact with other academics, how to accept criticism, and how to be aware of the limits of your own expertise.
  2. A researcher who tries a method that fails has not contributed nothing to the project: she has eliminated a hypothesis or found a null result.

In short I can only really recommend being cautious judging her, her attitude, or her ability to understand the limits of her expertise too harshly. In being naive/presumptuous/inefficient early in her career she is being nothing that grad students aren't expected to be, and the O.P. hired her knowing she was a student. My sense in similar situations I've been in during my career is that the marginal cost of putting a student in a middle-authorship position on a paper is usually much smaller than the moral hazard that I have underestimated their contribution or been predisposed to dislike it for other reasons (such as their attitude or implicit biases I hold).

Finally, I would suggest that the O.P. make it a teachable moment if the student truly has contributed nothing, especially given that she was hired as a student. Students are in labs as much for their own growth as for the labs growth, and assisting that growth is one of the responsibilities of being in academia.

  • Sorry, this is an undergraduate, not a graduate student, I clarified this in my post. In the academic system that I refer to, the internship is done before the beginning of the PhD. Also, please check the additional details that I added about her thesis defense.
    – user69728
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 16:32
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    Even given the additional information, I wouldn't be comfortable blessing her exclusion. The general advise I can give is that I hire undergraduates with the expectation that they may require more of my time than they save over their tenure. I don't expected to excel, though they occasionally do. I'm also not convinced that her behavior regarding her thesis defense is terribly relevant unless you think that it is okay to punish someone for not behaving well in one arena by refusing them credit for their work in another. I personally find that to be a morally hazardous policy as well.
    – nben
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 17:37
  • 8
    @user16054 Agree 100%. Intellectual theft remains theft regardless of whether a thesis manuscript was sent late. OP sounds somewhat spiteful and approval-seeking, especially after the latest edits... I am so disappointed (but at the same time, not surprised).
    – Evariste
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 20:25

You should have been clearer about the problem earlier on. Several months ago you could have said that she needs to contribute to the calculations or else she can’t be a coauthor. Removing someone from a paper this late in the process without making expectations clear is a bad situation for everyone. Especially since she’s continued to engage conceptually with the project and hasn’t just disappeared. I don’t trust myself to accurately gauge how important collaborators suggestions were, and wouldn’t feel comfortable removing a coauthor without their agreement outside of unusual circumstances. If it were me I’d keep her on the paper, but not continue collaborating after that. And in the future I’d be more clear in communicating expectations throughout the process.


This answer assumes that the student did perform her job duties.

In this case, be clear about the contributions to the paper. Roughly stated, "do this and that, and you'll get a coauthorship. If you do something else, it doesn't count". Of course, you have to package the message in a polite way. (It's not easy, I know.) You could start with "I made a mistake. Earlier, I was not clear about the separation of our work for the continuation of project after your intership terminated. Let me make it clear now." After that, you might say that her "participation as a coauthor requires, as of now, doing verifiable calculations X, Y, and Z. Later more steps might get necessary from every contributing party; as the main author I will determine the nature of these steps.", for example. "Without such a contribution, I would have an utmost difficulty to include you in the paper." Moreover, motivate according to @aparente001. It's a bit late to write a clear statement now, but better late than never: postponing makes the matter worse.

  • @James My first line is an assumption. Earlier, I was under the impression that she did not perform her job duties. Then, you said "on a purely formal level, she has done what she was asked to." Now, I guess she was not paid for doing her dissertation properly, but for her project. The who diss matters seem unrelated to me. However, since you still have doubts, I'll restore my previous answer with the negated assumption.
    – ExAll
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 23:52

I support in broad terms the short answer contributed by @Hexal, but there is a less abrasive, more positive way of accomplishing the same thing... even if you are acting alone.

But you needn't act alone. You can talk to her advisor! Her advisor can help her understand your conundrum, and what she would need to do in order to be a co-author. Her advisor is in a sense her ombudsman. Give him or her a chance to function in that capacity.

The more positive approach, which you might not need to carry out, on your own:

  • emphasize the positive, e.g. her emails show that she is actively thinking about the project. Before reading her the riot act, acknowledge her unexpected continued interest. I realize it's presumptuous of her, but at this stage, that's not a criticism that needs to be aired with her.
  • Start out by dangling a carrot -- a possible co-authorship. Explain that a co-authorship might be possible, IF she is willing and able to make a significant contribution to the project.
  • Now you have her attention. Drive the thing through to the end now, by describing enthusiastically a task (or set of tasks) that are needed in this new phase, and pick out some characteristics of hers that lead you to think that task would be right up her alley. This is a strength-based invitation to collaborate.
  • Acknowledge her interest and enthusiasm. Then explain that in experimental work, creativity is hugely swamped by willingness to do grunt work.
  • 1
    Thanks. I would be happy to be proven wrong, but, frankly, her new advisor typically wishes her to do work only for that new advisor, not for the old one!!! Exceptions do happen (and I know them), but, IMHO, they remain exceptions. So, you would speak to the new adivsor probably only if you wish her to stop being part of the project.
    – ExAll
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 6:17
  • 1
    @Hexal - Are you talking about the OP's former intern, based on the question, and OP's comments? Or are you talking about academia in general? Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 13:48
  • Since there is almost no information regarding her new advisor, I assume the typical general case.
    – ExAll
    Commented Jan 14, 2018 at 0:21
  • 2
    In addition to being her ombudsman, her advisor is also her -- well, advisor. That is, her advisor can help her make these decisions, and also guide her to grow into a more effective collaborator. I would not assume that her advisor would reject OP's proposal without thinking about it. Most importantly, OP's former intern should not make decisions about the project without consulting her advisor. Commented Jan 14, 2018 at 1:32
  • @Hexal - I don't understand "directions of the decision." Also, why are you talking about them being detrimental to the new advisor? I didn't say that in my answer or in a comment. Commented Jan 14, 2018 at 17:32

I have definitely worked with undergraduates who enthusiastically tried my ideas which have failed, and then with my own hands and brain I have been able to get the same project "working". In this case if I think the student did the negative experiments correctly and diligently the negative results they have obtained have still been crucial to project development and I have offered coauthorship to the student when the manuscript is in its final form.

In this case it seems like you have personal problems with the student and you feel their work quality while contributing to the project was of poor quality. I do not think you should be required to offer coauthorship to the student. However, by asking this question on stackexchange I pick up on a worry that the student does consider themselves a coauthor. You may want to protect yourself by sending a written copy of the manuscript to the student that specifically describe their contributions in the acknowledgements section. That way you would have a written record of manuscript approval. If you go through the submission process without resolving some grey areas you run a risk of going through an authorship dispute after the manuscript is in review or is published, which is something you deeply want to avoid.

Of course you are not PI, just first author. While you have some power and discretion in this situation, you do not have final authority. Hopefully you can also communicate openly about these issues with your boss.


This answer assumes that the student did not perform her job duties.

she did not make any actual contribution to the project - forget her. I am extremely surprised that you even ask about it.

The fact that she showed motivation does not count. What counts is what she did. If (and only if) she does her job, she gets the money. If (and only if) she does a good publishable job, she gets scientific credit in addition. That's how it should be. None if these seems to be the case.

So, if she ever writes an e-mail, this would mean that she still wants some of the credit. In this case, fight back, exercising a bit of pressure, getting an o.k. from the colleague first. One approach could go in the following tone:

Thank you for your e-mail. Please notice that you did not fulfil your job duties, but you were paid. There have been no real contributions to the project from your side. As for high-level ideas, these are outside of your scope. Necessary calculations have not been done, despite my several written requests to you, namely on ... , ... , and ..., which was still before your project ended. This lack of contribution is not how it is supposed to be. Therefore, we would appreciate it if you return the salary you received for the internship. Please transfer USD ... to the account ... until ... . If we don't see a reverse payment, we feel necessitated to undertake legal steps. Thank you for your cooperation.

Of course, adapt the text accordingly: you will get the exact wording better than me since you know the details. If your institution has a legal department, you might even delegate the exact wording right away to them. Make sure that the letter goes via snail mail and has an institution stamp. Use the account number for that project. Now, guess, would she ever think of claiming any academic credit after a letter in such a tone?

  • 13
    Sorry. Is non sense legal bases or not. Beside I personally totally dislike such a potential behaviour, it practically means to forget enrolling students for a good while.
    – Alchimista
    Commented Jan 12, 2018 at 14:46
  • 28
    I'm confused. Where does the OP say that the student didn't fulfill job requirements during the internship? It's not unusual for a student on a short term internship to try out an approach that doesn't work out, that doesn't mean they didn't do their job. The student is also under no obligation to keep participating in the project (e.g. checking the OP's calculations) after the internship has ended.
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 12, 2018 at 14:57
  • 29
    You want to ask her to pay you back ???? In what world is this appropriate ? In absolutely no situation is it relvant to ask anyone to pay back a salary. OP also states that it is "definitely fair to include her in the acknowledgments". Why would you send such a hateful message ? Such a practise is also totally illegal in several countries.
    – everyone
    Commented Jan 12, 2018 at 15:08
  • 24
    @Hexal If a student under my supervision doesn't fulfil what I perceive to be their duties, I as the supervisor am to blame, not they as the supervisee. If they were neglecting their duties to the point where it is breach of contract, I would certainly have to inform them about that during their internship. The way I read the OP, the student did what she could, and did what she was asked to, but made no relevant contribution to the project itself.
    – sgf
    Commented Jan 12, 2018 at 15:15
  • 6
    One thing I agree with in this post: Please do defer to your university's legal department before considering to mail off one of these letters... Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 14:34

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