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I am a master student, working for X lab of Y university as a research assistant.

3 months ago, a post-doc(my direct supervisor) recruited me into a project when he wanted to submit his paper within a month, telling me "You can coauthor if you join." Since then I worked overtime to finish exactly what he told me to do, implementing all his new ideas (but none of them worked). Later he gave up previous submission, had the project updated a bit and now preparing submission to another conference in a month. Last week I asked "Am I on your author list?", only to get "Let me think about that." Project is almost finished currently, in terms of both experiments and writing.

Now I have no idea what to do, his reply sounds like a NO to me. To fight for that, I don't have any strong argument other than his vocal promise. My contribution is not direct, but a part of code he used was written by me (for another project), and I successfully implemented his new ideas.

Given such situation, should I ask him again for this authorship? Or should I explain everything to PI? If then, how to?

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    "falsified"? or "finalised"? – Gimelist Mar 1 at 3:32
  • @Gimelist I implemented his new ideas and proved they didn't work. – Rahn Mar 1 at 8:47
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    this does not necessarily mean the results are "falsified" - meaning, faked on purpose. – Gimelist Mar 1 at 9:22
  • @Gimelist Yes, you are right. I didn't explain clearly. – Rahn Mar 1 at 10:21
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Why should you be included as an author when you, by your own admission, have not made a direct contribution?

Yes, you helped him with the previous version of the paper, but that won't make it into the current version, so naturally, you are not to be listed as an author. How is this not obvious? It is also unfair of you to hold him to his past promise of including you as a co-author: obviously that promise was made under the assumption that your contributions would actually make it into the paper. Since that is not the case, you are, by definition, not an author.

However, you have contributed still, in the sense that your work was helpful and important to the authors. Therefore, you might (and should) be honorably mentioned in the acknowledgement section of the paper.

However, I stress that if you have not directly contributed to the content of a paper, you are not an author.

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This is an unfortunate situation. If your results invalidate the post-doc's idea, then most likely they will not be included in the paper, unless one can put a positive spin on it (e.g., "an obvious explanation for the observation is Z, but here we show that Z cannot be right and instead we propose that W is the true underlying mechanism"). In this case you have no claim to authorship, despite the work you've put in. In other words, the promise of authorship was implicitly contingent on the experiments yielding positive results supporting the hypotheses advanced in the paper.

If the current manuscript is based in part on the code you wrote, then there is a case to be made that you should be an author. But I'm always of the opinion that writing some code is a weak argument for being an author, unless there is some novelty or substantial effort on your part.

Note that the post-doc said that they will consider your authorship request. You interpreted that as a no, but that seems to me an unwarranted and premature conclusion. You should have a constructive conversation with them to try to resolve the issue collegially. This kind of situations will pop up in the future, and it is a good skill to learn how to address them. Even if you get nothing out of it in the end, just remember that in the grand scheme of things it's not really a big deal and you'll forget it in (hopefully) a couple of months.

  • Yes, I believe such situation would pop up in the future. But right now there isn't much I can do regarding "have a constructive conversation with them to try to resolve the issue collegially" or "address them". I guess the best timing is 2 months ago or even earlier. – Rahn Mar 1 at 8:57
  • "I'm always of the opinion that writing some code is a weak argument for being an author" - it is OK if, and only if, person writing code knows that before she touches keyboard. – Mołot Mar 1 at 22:43
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I think you have a pretty strong case to be on the author's list. First of all, this postdoc actually promised you you could be on the author's list if you helped him out and he should keep his word. Also, helping him implement his ideas, whether this leads to showing the ideas are correct or not, is something that can be credited with co-authorship.

Talk to him and if he's hesitant or negative, use the above arguments to make your case. You can also go to the PI directly and ask whether this situation, in their eyes, would warrant co-authorship.

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I think he should try to get you onto the paper. And you should push for it. First by telling him how you feel (you think you made a contribution and should be on there). Second by threatening to escalate things. Third by actually escalating things (make a stink: complaining to his boss, file a grievance with department and university, write to journal he submits to, etc.)

[Note that the third case, can reverberate against you, but there is a game theoretical aspect to this...people need to realize they can't step on a bee or they will get stung...you need to show you are not a pushover. Plus it will eat at you if you don't fight. Possibly the tangible threat is enough to avert these cars crashing and you get your satisfaction before needing to "go nuclear". But if you threaten something, do it.]

  1. First, let's be honest and admit that the VAST majority (well over 90% in my experience) of experimental science papers are carrying professor advisors who did not make a significant scientific contribution (would not have been included if this were a work supervisor situation or if the amount of work had been another student). Yes, the culture requires and expects this (even for grants and faculty bonuses). But let's not ignore them not making contributions and being on the articles.

  2. Second, there are ways the author can take care of you. Even just a few sentences on scenarios ruled out, with or without details, means that he has included your work into the paper (and you now have a contribution justifying your byline). A science report is not an organic baby being birthed with an inherent DNA/structure. There is often some reasonable choice about including or excluding different measurements or experiments into a given report. As an author who has gotten some work out of a collaborator, I would feel an obligation to try to (if at all feasible) shoehorn some of collaborator work into a general study (even if it did not end up being super important after done) in order to "take care of them", if I had asked them to help me.

P.s. We hear these sad stories a lot. You need to try to avoid these situations by nailing down expectations better (ask three times, be very direct). If you get a brushoff or a "we'll see", DON'T DO THE WORK. This becomes most important at the start of a collaboration. Of course you should also use your judgment of who to work with (and while academics are not generally snakes, they're also not generally saints either.) Penultimately, try to lead collaborations and be the first author, if possible. Finally, you should make sure to take care of your collaborators when you are the project lead.

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