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Last year I finished my master’s. I spent the whole year working on experiments for my master's thesis. Part of the results I obtained were published in my master’s thesis, which was submited via an online tool to my university; so there is proof that that work is mine, I guess.

Then I was offered to stay in that research group and do a PhD, but I refused. They went as far as to threaten me with publishing my data without crediting me. I still refused.

Now it has come to my attention that my data has been used to write a paper that will soon be sent for publishing. Besides that threat from months ago, no one has asked for my consent or permission to use my data, and I don’t even know if my name will be among the authors. Even if it does, I won’t be first author, because they will be assigning that to the person who wrote it. (I’m not sure how much they have written themselves, as I already had written nearly everything myself for when I had to hand it in for it to be graded for my master.)

My questions are: if I am actually asked for permission before they send it to a journal for publishing and they say they will include my name but not as first author, is it worth accepting or should I refuse? In the case they don’t ask me for permission, what should I do? Mail the journal once the paper is published along with my master's thesis and the raw data (all I have are excel files) to prove the data is stolen?


I understand the confusion in some answers, as my case is very chaotic. As far as I'm concerned, my thesis is not available to the public. Only my advisor and the director of the master have access to it (maybe more people at the university, but it's definitely not available to the public). I also know from a case of a person who did his master's thesis in this same research group and then left, and he was asked for permission before the paper using his data was written. He was also credited as an author. Sadly, the fact that the boss holds a grudge against me for not wanting to stay and her having a favorite (the one who will be credited as first author) also plays a major role in this. In my field, being a first (or last) author means you are who worked the most in that paper. It's usually the boss/advisor and the person who obtained most of the data by working in the lab.

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    Do you know what you signed when you first signed up for the Masters course? There may have been a bunch of legalese in that regarding ownership and rights on the completed thesis. – Simon B Jan 8 at 16:13
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    Needs further information. What country are you in? In the US, at least in my experience, a thesis is automatically "published" (even if not as a journal article) once it is accepted. Were you funded to do your research? Then as I understand US law, the results belong to your employer. – jamesqf Jan 8 at 19:02
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    If they use content from your thesis without citing you it's basically plagiarism. If it is your research group/adviser it is borderline as they might already have rights on it. It would not be good research ethic anyway. After all, citing you is not a problem. If they "only" use your gathered data, which they may have rights on, it is IMHO not yet plagiarism but you should be at least cited or acknowledged. Usually being on the authors list is common practice and not doing that might be very rude depending on the amount of your input on the paper. – Martin Scharrer Jan 8 at 20:43
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    What you can do, if you find out to which journal they sent to, is to contact this journal and tell them that this paper contains your data for which you are not credited. I know of one case where the journal pulled the already accepted paper after such a complaint in a very similar case (adviser published paper on PhD graduates data without crediting her at all). You could also complain to the science board of your university, which might be a good first step before contacting the journal. Note that both will NOT make you any new friends on your previous university! – Martin Scharrer Jan 8 at 20:49
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    The title is "My master’s thesis’ results will be published without my consent." Why is lack of your consent the issue to highlight? Isn't the problem that they're threatening to publish it without crediting you? – Ben Crowell Jan 9 at 1:43
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Part of the results I obtained were published in my master’s thesis, which was submited via an online tool to my university; so there is proof that that work is mine, I guess.

Let me first say a meta comment - once you publish a set of results, they are no longer 'yours'. They belong, in part, to the institution that funded you, to your advisor who helped you write your thesis, and to other coauthors/colleagues who helped you along the way. Research is a collaborative act.

To your specific case, I strongly doubt that you have proprietary rights to the data. You got the results as part of a Master's thesis supported by an academic institution that has rights to the data. What's more, once you published your thesis, anything in it can be used in future publications if it is properly credited (for example, if the dataset was published as an addendum to your thesis, it's fair to use it). That's basically the essence of academic progress.

Just like any other idea that appears in your thesis, the moment that you decided to publish it (as opposed to, say, patenting it and starting a company to commercialize it), others can cite it and potentially use parts of it in their work (doesn't even have to be the advisor, literally anyone can).

If the data is not published, I still argue that you could possibly be in the wrong in this case as well. From a proprietary perspective, you did not work alone. Your advisor and academic institution supported you, offered you tools (free access to software to develop your tools, access to your advisor, an office, classes you took, perhaps a laptop and computing services etc.). It is unethical (and a bit selfish) on your part to ignore all of the effort put into your thesis by others, and withhold the work from being published.

See a similar discussion here.

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    On the other hand, he may have paid a substantial fee for all that (supported you, offered you tools (free access to software to develop your tools, access to your advisor, an office, classes you took, perhaps a laptop and computing services etc.)) In the UK this is £9250 p.a. – Walter Jan 8 at 14:00
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    More concretely, he most likely signed some kind of waiver/acknowledgement of this when he got into the program – Spark Jan 8 at 14:04
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    I agree that the data is not "only" mine. As you say, I didn't work alone. However, I don't think that not crediting me as an author is correct from their part either. On another note, my thesis wasn't published and it's not available to the public. – user102823 Jan 8 at 14:23
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    Once you submitted your thesis to your institution then it is usually in the public domain. You should most certainly be credited for your work as I mention! Here's MIT's repository as an example libguides.mit.edu/diss – Spark Jan 8 at 14:29
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    @Spark Public domain != publicly available. The OP still has full copyright rights to their thesis and they probably granted a license to their university to host their work as a condition for enrolling/graduating. But I doubt that anyone can just copy&paste it and make money out of it legally without the OP permission. – Giacomo Alzetta Jan 8 at 16:56
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As I understand it, they are not republishing your results. They are publishing new results based on data you gathered.

If that's the case, the best you can do to get credit is to make a data publication of your own. This is a relatively new idea, but it exists, and it is gaining traction in recent years due to increased political pressure for data reuse. What you do is to find either a journal or a data repository in your area which supports publishing data of the type you gathered. Your data set gets a DOI, and is citable in the same way that other academic artefacts (methods papers, monographs, etc.) are.

If you don't wish to do that, you probably have no other options. Institutions generally see data generated by people working for them as their institutional property, and frequently make sure that this is reflected in e.g. work contracts. Frequently PIs think that the data belongs to them and not to their employer, but I won't go into disputes around that, since you are not the PI, you were in the lowest position of the academic food chain. Your desire to prevent your group's publication is not supported by widely accepted moral/customary rules of how this works, and certainly not by legal ones.

In the end, you can get credit or nothing, but if you try stopping them from publishing, you are likely to get nothing but a reputation for a misinformed querulant. But as this is a highly interesting area where new rules are crystalizing by the day, I can only urge you to be part of the one solution which is, in the long term, in the best interest of society and academia as a whole: do the data publication.

Update: If you don't know how go about making a data publication, the first thing you can do is to see if your institution has a core facility offering the internal service of research data management. If not, ask a librarian. If everything else fails, maybe a new question on SE is in order, "how do I find a journal that takes data publications from my discipline".

  • The OP states that the thesis is not public but only available to his advisor and a small set of selected people. This makes it sound like there is an agreement of non-disclosure (or restricted/limited access) for the results of this work between certain parties, e.g. the sponsor of this research work and the university. This agreement might likely include the primary data and would be violated if the OP publishes the data without written consent of the PI or the university. – Ghanima Jan 8 at 15:22
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    @Ghanima The question doesn't make it clear if the thesis is not available because there is an NDA, or because nobody ever bothered to make it public. If there is an NDA, then there is the question, what does it cover? If the advisor can publish a paper based on the data, then maybe the data itself is publishable too, the OP should consult somebody for such details. If the data itself is indeed not publisheable, then the OP could still ask for the advisor to cite the thesis as a proxy for the data citation. Even if it is not available, it is citeable. – rumtscho Jan 8 at 15:34
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To decide how to proceed, there are several aspects to consider here:

  1. if they use the data without crediting you, they "stole" the results. They definitely can't do that without repercussions (and they shouldn't have threatened you!); on the other hand:
  2. if they use the date and credit you, but you refuse to be an author for personal reasons (i.e. not for reasons that you do not believe in the results or publication), this gives you the power to block the publication.

An author has the right and probably duty to refuse being a coauthor if he does not believe in the integrity or quality of the paper and its results. Is this the case?

Just blocking it (by refusing to be a coauthor) for other than such objective reasons is - as badly as you may have been treated - a disservice to the scientific community, to the values of science and, ultimately, also to yourself.

These are the criteria that I would consider foremost in such a situation.

Disclaimer: I cannot judge the importance of being first author in your field, so I won't comment on that. In my field, it is not that important.

  • About first author - sometimes when looking at paper, if the first author has loads of titles, then I assume that the last two authors listed did the real work... – Solar Mike Jan 8 at 11:54
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    (2) This is not necessarily true. If the data was published as part of the thesis, it's in public domain, and can be used depending on the specific license that was used. – Spark Jan 8 at 13:43
  • If OP refuses to be a co-author the authors could still credit them in an acknowledgement ("User102823 gathered the data.") or a citation ("User102823, private communication). – The Photon Jan 8 at 16:58
  • They didn't "steal" anything. The results are owned by the institution, not the OP. The OP can refuse to publish, but he cannot control what happens to any data or results from the work he did, because that is entirely owned by the institution. (Which is the same reason he can't take those results and start his own company using them, of course.) They are also within their rights not to credit him as an author. They may credit him with gathering experimental data, but this does not necessarily make you an author of a paper. – Graham Jan 8 at 17:54
  • @Graham It depends on the intellectual contribution required to gather the data. If it is a substantial amount of work, unless it is purely a technician's job (which I do not think it should be, given that OP gets a Masters degree for it), it should warrant co-authorship. If it is minor (probably not: a year's worth of work), it might be an acknowledgement. – Captain Emacs Jan 8 at 17:58
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From what you say it's not clear whether your master thesis has been published, i.e. whether the data/results you obtained and included in the thesis are available to the general academic public. If that is the case the answer by Spark applies.

However, I suspect that your thesis is only available to academics at your old university, perhaps only your former supervisor(s). In this case (and if you continue to take academic interest in the field), you should seek to publish the publishable data/results from your master project. The natural way is to do so in collaboration with your former supervisor. If that is not possible (as it appears in your case) you should still publish your thesis data/results yourself. A simple way is to just publish the master thesis directly on arXiv (but check first whether that is legally possibly with the university).

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    Many institutions (like mine) require theses to be published. In my case this meant having a copy bound and deposited in the university library. These are "available to the general public" in the sense that anybody can walk into the library and read them there. (I believe it's are also available from an online thesis repository for a fee). – The Photon Jan 8 at 16:54
  • This type of "publication" is very limited. If there is no free (no fee) searchable online publication, this is useless. Instead you should really publish the thesis on the arXiv. – Walter Jan 9 at 18:57
  • When I did my thesis, arXiv existed, but it was still called the LANL archive, and it's usage was very limited (maybe the particle physics community only?). I never even heard of it under the arXiv name until 10 years later. – The Photon Jan 9 at 19:07
  • @ThePhoton Wikipedia has a nice entry on the history of the arXiv. – Walter Jan 17 at 9:40
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I very much doubt whether the OP has much of a claim in this matter.

The OP submitted his thesis to gain a Master's degree. It has in effect been handed over to the university and to all intents and purposes has become the possession of the university.

On the other hand, the OP, unless he has signed a non-disclosure agreement, would probably be able to make use of the knowledge gained in researching his thesis to publish further material based on that knowledge and thus pre-empt anyone else claiming credit for the OP's work.

There's no point in getting too up-tight about such matters, though. Many of us have had work we've done published by others unaltered and without any attribution or credit.

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