Recently, I read the answer by Hexal to the following question here: Not including student who contributed very little as coauthor of paper and I was scared. Much more than scared, I could not sleep the following night. In the question, a project leader asks whether or not he should include a visiting student who showed "good motivation", but did not contribute anything to a certain project as a coauthor (to one of the project's papers).

There is a downvoted answer with -40, saying that if the student writes that she wants to be a coauthor, the project leader should write her an e-mail:

[...] 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.

Now, this answer is downvoted. I am also not sure if the downvotes/comments are because this approach is not appropriate for the given situation or not appropriate in general.

This scared me a lot. I always thought that one would never have to pay back earned money (except for extreme reasons, like fraud probably?).

Now, I do not plan to not work. But I know some asshole professors who, when their students say that they do something else on their weekends than working, they tell the whole faculty that their student is not working. I've never heard of someone asking back for money, though. However, I am scared now that I will work for such a professor, we do not manage to write a paper together and then they make me to pay my salaries back after some time, which I cannot afford.

So, my questions:

  1. Are such threats something that happens sometimes / often?

  2. (I would probably be scared enough if I got such a letter since lawyers are expensive but) Did students ever go to court because of such a letter and do judges approve this?

  3. Are things like this supported by universities or their legal departments?

I would be interested in answers about the situation all over the world – if this is not possible, I would be interested in Europe and Northern America.

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    Don't let a crappy answer scare you. Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 18:19
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    @user96501 Keep in mind it is 100% downvoted ... the total number isn't so important, lots of people probably didn't even scroll down that far, or didn't want to bother losing rep on a question that was already pretty highly downvoted for this stack. Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 18:26
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    I guess you can't see it is 100% downvoted, but it is. Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 18:26
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    Note that Hexal was a troll. S/he was the account of someone else who was suspended for bad behavior, and the "Hexal" account was suspended for a year quickly after its creation. Don't listen to that user.
    – user9646
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 19:01
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    In most places it's illegal to ask someone to give their salary back even if they didn't do any work. Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 23:28

5 Answers 5


No, that answer is ridiculous.

In North America, as long as you were working honestly*, the only reason you would ever have to return money is if you were accidentally overpaid (i.e. they paid you more money than you earned).

* I assume you aren't actually trying to commit fraud

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    Well, a charge of fraud would change that, but it would be very hard to prove. I think, effectively, it needn't really be considered in a case like this.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 18:32
  • I've had that happen with travel reimbursement. For salary and an ongoing appointment I expect they would usually just pay out less next month.
    – Anyon
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 18:34
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    @Anyon I actually had it happen to me a few months ago. HR had a few options, including me cutting them a check, them taking it out of my next paycheck, or some fraction over the next up to six months. Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 18:35
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    @vadim123 This may be true, but I'm not sure it's totally relevant to the questioner's situation ... I think it's fairly obvious they aren't a professor planning out a sabbatical. Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 3:00
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    I'm not sure about the US, but if similar happened in the UK, they may net even be able to claim overpaid money back depending on (1) whether it would cause "undue hardship" and (2) whether you should have been expected to know you'd been overpaid. Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 16:52

I am afraid demanding for payment return is a last-resort practice in some places.

I feel obliged to add my recent bad experience as a postdoc in China here. Although this has not happened to me, I was informally warned by colleagues that if I displeased PIs badly enough they might find reasons to demand me to return all earned salary. The following passage is an excerpt from my contract (translated directly by Google Translate), where Party A is a university, Party B the responsible PI, and Party C was I.

Party C must transfer all personnel, salary and file records to Party A within one month after pitching, and may not boast part-time after the servant. If the relationship between personnel files is not transferred to Party A within 3 months, the salary will be suspended. Those who can not be transferred within 6 months will be treated as returned stations and the post-doctoral funds used will be refunded in full to Party A." (...)

If Party C submits his / her post due to personal reasons during the stop, he / she should apply to Party A three months in advance. After Party B and Party B agree, Party C can return his / her seat otherwise Party C will need to refund the used funds.

In reading the contract, a Chinese friend abroad wrote the following advice:

Article 2.2) It is a bit shocking, cause they ask you to put how many publications you should produce during the 2 years. Keep in mind, if you do not meet this criteria, they can do anything they want according to the contract. I suggest you to ask how strict this article is.

I in fact did as advised by my friend, ask details about the contract and salary pay. They always smiled and said "don't worry" without giving out specific info. In fact, as detailed in the other thread and further unlinked discussions online, I had a number of issues with payment, research funds, authorship, data ownership. In short research funds were not explicated from salary pay anywhere. What I did was to produce the absolutely minimum required until the end, and finally left in the best terms circumstances possible. I thought to taking the "midnight run" several times, but my home country was also in a mess at the time.

Finally I I heard that in Argentina, Brazil, and some other countries, a failing PhD student may be requested to return all received scholarship funds. I think China has a similar rule, but also nobody would answer me directly.

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    I have seen similar things in Latin America with respect to P.I.s of research projects who do not meet minimum publication requirements; the funding bodies will sometimes seek to get some or all of the money back, including salary. In fact, some funding bodies require P.I.'s to sign an unconditional I-O-U as part of agreeing to execute the project.
    – badroit
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 20:12
  • @badroit Interesting fact about PIs, though I'd think they earn a base salary plus some extras related to specific projects & quotas. However a student or even visiting scholar abroad under no other salary may be quite limited in capacity of returning earned funds. Demanding funds back from a student out of spite or dispute is a possibility which needs more open exposure & discussion.
    – Scientist
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 20:17
  • @badroit: Do you know how many PIs do not.meet these minimum requirements?
    – user96501
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 20:18
  • @badroit As a sidenote on PIs, I was friends with a local assistant professor. He told me he had earned a certain grant, and the university kept the funds. So that he started spending funds before actually getting the money, which he says is a normal local practice. Finally he got very upset because the university was implying he "might" not get the funds for no clear reason. This is akin to returning funds, i.e. you get no refund because of whatever reason which might be political.
    – Scientist
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 20:20
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    Cadets who fail out or who otherwise leave one of Uncle Sam's fine military academies "dishonorably" must pay tuition.
    – emory
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 21:10

I think that the answer suggesting asking for payback was actually intended as a joke. Or if not a joke, as such, then an outrageous response to an outrageous request. Tit for tat.

In the US and some other places there is a card game called Poker that is normally played in "rounds of betting". If a person bets X then the next person has to bet X or higher. If higher it is called "raising" ("raising the bet", "raising the ante"). Often you raise the bet quite a lot to force other players out. They aren't willing to equal the bet ("call the bet"). I think that the answer you pointed to took the request for authorship as a "bet" (or an "opening") and the response was just "raising the bet" to force the first person to retreat. The suggestion was so ridiculously high that the other person would "fold" (leave the game).

That should ease your fears, I hope. On the other hand, reacting by referring to "asshole professors" won't make you popular with your faculty. Rage seldom wins in Poker, either.

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    Sorry, I have to ask for clarification: Do you mean to say thewhole answer was a joke or that "write that e-mail" was meant seriously to bluff (but to not follow up on that threat)?
    – user96501
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 19:29
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    @user96501, mostly the concept of "exercising a bit of pressure...". But maybe all of it. The answer was outrageous, hence the down voting. Or maybe, rather than characterizing it as a joke, I might have said it would represent an outrageous abuse of power. I can't see into the mind of the poster, of course.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 19:40
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    "In the US and some other places there is a card game called Poker" This made me smile. Yes, other places like elsewhere in North America and also South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 18:13
  • @PeteL.Clark What do they call it in Antarctica? Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 23:29
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    @AzorAhai. Cold
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 23:51

tl;dr- Repaying earned salary is called a clawback. Usually clawback provisions have to be specified in an employment contract, and they seem pretty uncommon in academia.

This would be a clawback:

A clawback or clawback provision is a special contractual clause typically included in employment contracts by financial firms, by which money already paid must be paid back under certain conditions. The term also is in use in bankruptcy matters where insiders may have raided assets prior to a filing, and in Medicaid, when a state recovers costs of long-term care or covered medical expenses from the estates of deceased Medicaid patients. The aim of the clause is to secure an option for an employer or trustee to limit bonuses, compensation or other remuneration in case of catastrophic shifts in business, bankruptcy, and national crisis as the financial crisis of 2007–2008, and for states to recoup the cost of administering Medicaid services.

The term clawbacks or claw backs can also be used to refer to any money or benefits that have been given out but need to be returned due to special circumstances or events, which are mentioned in a contract.

"Clawback", Wikipedia [links and references omitted]

As noted in the above, clawback provisions typically need to be specified in an employment contract and are generally associated with particular professions, e.g. financial firms. I can't recall having seen a clawback provision noted in an academic contract before, though @Scientist's answer describes one such case.

So, unless your contract specifies a clawback provision or your country has clawing back somewhere in the legal code, it seems unlikely that there'd be a legal basis for an employer to demand for legitimately received salary to be returned.

  • Great, thanks for giving out a specific terminology! Still I think if such clauses are widespread in the 3rd world as my experience suggests, clawback terms are not uncommon but just not often discussed
    – Scientist
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 12:32

I (partially) did an undergraduate research project which involved a summer course to be followed by a year of research, and which included a stipend (a couple of thousand dollars per quarter). And I failed out horribly, spectacularly--didn't even pass the five week course. Quit basically at the beginning. Not a high point for me.

When I asked the university if I should pay back the first stipend check, the answer was a definitive "no".

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