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Six months after my PhD graduation, I submitted a paper to an SCI journal as a sole author. Apparently, my PhD supervisor is the technical editor for this journal. He wasn't pleased that I submitted a sole-author paper without informing him. I formulated the idea and wrote everything from scratch. However, he claimed that's a generalization of what he's currently working on. After I proved to him that they aren't related he went ahead to forbid me from publishing in that area as it's likely to interfere with his. That's after he made me divulge all my on-going investigations. He said it's better we are collaborators than competitors. I didn't set out to compete with anyone. Most ideas I gave him during my PhD were suppressed only to be given to other students two years later. He made me the last author in those anyway.

Question: 1) Does he have the power to do this? 2) Being that he sits on the board of top SCI journals in my field, how do I overcome this?

  • I'm currently a lecturer in a different university and different country. – BoltzBooz Dec 7 '18 at 19:03
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    SCI stands for Science Citation Indexed. – BoltzBooz Dec 7 '18 at 19:04
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    Among other things, you explicitly request that your submissions to SCI journals are handled by another editor who does not have a conflict of interest. – JeffE Dec 7 '18 at 19:35
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    The answer to the title question is a resounding NO! but that doesn't help much with the questions in the body of the post. I'm sorry your advisor is such a jerk. – JeffE Dec 7 '18 at 19:36
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Your former supervisor's behaviour sounds entirely unethical. I'm sorry to hear that he is unnecessarily causing you distress. So, to answer the title question: No, it is not ethical to forbid anyone from publishing in a given topic.

The justification given -- that it is better to collaborate than compete -- is entirely beside the point. Yes, it is good to collaborate. However, once the work is complete, it should be published and the authors should be those who contributed.

It is understandable that your former supervisor would have liked to be informed. Everyone wants to be kept in the loop. But he has no automatic "right" to be informed of your activities after you graduate. (I'm assuming none of this work happened while you were his student.) Furthermore, there is no justification for blocking publication because it would interfere with his work.

Moving on to your real question: He has a lot of power over you both because he is senior and because he was your supervisor. Thus you should proceed with caution. Perhaps you can reason with him and seek a compromise. If that doesn't work, you can escalate -- appeal to the other editors of the journal, who presumably would not agree with this behaviour.

In the long term, you should consider slowly moving your research away from his to avoid repeating this situation. And you should work with other people. The situation would look a bit different if you had senior coauthors to fight back on your behalf.

  • "was" OP's supervisor. – mkennedy Dec 8 '18 at 1:10
  • @mkennedy fixed – Thomas Dec 8 '18 at 1:29
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While I don't believe he has the ethical right to do this, he may well have the power to affect your career. It is more of a political problem than a scientific one. You could just ignore him, but he may have the means of retaliation and you might be the one to suffer.

It may well be true that you are better off as his collaborator than his competitor, regardless of the ethics. I'd suggest thinking about it and making a strategic decision, even if it isn't the most satisfying one.

In order to fight him, you would need allies and a position of some power yourself. Your current position isn't that strong.

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His demands are obviously silly and his interpersonal skills terrible, but he may have a point under there to some degree (depending on how wide a swath of the field he is claiming). If you are going to continue in the exact same niche as your graduate lab, you should collaborate.

Generally you do not want to stay in the same area and collaborate with your former advisor on everything. As your work will continue to be seen as primarily his. Though if he will make you a co-PI on his grants, of course, (if your system works that way) then go for it. I suspect he wants a one-way street, where you give him more publications, and he gives you squat. But you should ask.

Otherwise it is preferable to move to a new niche (at least to some degree) to make your own, since you would always be second in funding in his niche. (why would a funding agency risk giving money to you, when his much more successful lab is willing to do the research?)

I'd suggest doing both, collaborate with him on manuscripts when the topic is really close to his, and push into a new area.

While your work may seem quite different already, consider that from a larger perspective it may not be so obvious. It is a difference that you need to be an expert in the niche itself to understand?

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