There are so many posts regarding authorship disputes on this site. How can my friend, A, avoid such a drama in the following situation?

  1. A and another graduate student, B, are in the same PhD program in the US.
  2. Even though B has just started the program, he completed a MSc program in Europe with research experiences, and he has a de-facto advisor C, who also supervises A.
  3. A while ago, C wrote to A suggesting that A work on a project P, adding that B would work on another project Q. P and Q are of the same nature but on different objects. Q builds on B's MSc thesis.
  4. A wished that C assigned him Q instead because Q was about the same object about which A's other project R was. After working on P, A found that P has a rather trivial answer.
  5. A realized that Q, if solved, gives some progress on R. Upon telling this to C, A gets a recommendation from C that A talk about Q with B.
  6. After being told about the idea, B told A that he had not completed Q and that he was happy to talk about Q with A.
  7. A realized that his previous idea about the relationship between Q and R was wrong, but instead he came up with an another idea, which would solve Q. A sent C an email explaining this idea.
  8. While waiting an answer from C, A gets bored and wants to work on his idea.

Obviously, A does not want to be in the center of an authorship disputes. How should he proceed?

  • 3
    I'm confused and couldn't follow in detail, but authorship and what it is, is very well definied. As far as your story goes, there is no authorship or controvery about authorship of a publication involved so far. There is not even a publication at all. So why is your question about authorship? It's unclear what you're asking. Feb 17, 2019 at 8:50
  • Has A considered the possibility of working with B to write a joint first-author paper (based on A's idea for solving B's problem) that benefits both of them, thus gaining both a first-author publication and a friend? If A was feeling generous, a project with an intended author list of the form B*, A*, C might ultimately make sense; failing which, I suspect that A*, B*, C would cause far fewer interpersonal problems than A, C (which could look like A sticking it to B for personal gain). YMMV. Feb 17, 2019 at 16:24
  • 1
    As a separate question - if A had an idea that would solve Q, whilst working with B on Q (after B had offered to do that), why didn't A initially talk to B about it rather than emailing C without involving B? Feb 17, 2019 at 16:25
  • Voting to close just because this is a mess. The suggested edit seems like a much better way to present the question (if that is indeed what's being asked -- I don't understand this post well enough to guarantee that it matches).
    – cag51
    Feb 17, 2019 at 23:18

2 Answers 2


The explanation is quite convoluted but this looks like a rather common situation: A and B work on closely related topics, both supervised by C.

First an observation:

While waiting an answer from C, A gets bored and wants to work on his idea.

If the waiting is a couple of days that's completely fine to start exploring the idea. But if it's more like a couple of months there's a communication problem that needs to be solved.

As long as there's no conflict between these three persons, there's no reason why this should lead to authorship dispute. The key is to maintain clear and regular communication, and apparently the three persons involved are aware of that. A is right to seek their supervisor's advice, ultimately the supervisor decides who works on what. But in general there's absolutely no problem for A and B to work on the same idea and write papers together, as long as roles are clearly defined beforehand. In particular the question of who is first author for a particular paper should be clarified from the start. If relevant, the authors could target two distinct papers, one focusing on A's part and the other on B's part.

Note: this might depend on the domain, but I think most academics would agree that an idea by itself doesn't belong to anybody. What matters is the effort put into developing the idea into a proper scientific contribution, usually in the form of a paper: that's authorship. Of course, the person who had the idea should normally be the one developing it, but it's more a matter of common courtesy than of intellectual property.


My best suggestion is that the three of them have a sit down and work out the best research focus of both students, leading to successful completion for both of them. I'm assuming, of course, that you are one of the three.

As students, I suggest that every student's primary goal should be to earn their degree, not necessarily, at this point, to seek primacy in any way over another student. There may be plenty of room for results of value for both of them and the advisor may be able to suggest that each of them work on a primary focus. When their interests touch, they could try to work cooperatively, giving hints/advice, rather than to try to overcome the other person.

Some departments in which I was a student had continuing advanced seminars in which people working on very similar topics would share ideas that would be further developed by one of the members, under the guidance of one of the (member) faculty members. It was something of a free for all in which even the faculty members of the seminar got advice on their own research from other members. This can work, but only if everyone agrees that the goal is to (a) produce good science (mathematics in my case) and (b) get all the students well situated.

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