I'm a masters degree student trying to figure out how publications and co-authorship work. I know that the school/PI retains legal ownership of any monetary profits that may result from the work, so please don't mention this in your response as it is irrelevant to what I'm asking. I WANT TO BE PUBLISHED AND DO NOT CARE ABOUT MONEY. I just want to ensure that I get academic credit/recognition this time since some of my work was previously passed off as another student's work in a different lab. I'm concerned because the new PI and another professor working on the project seem to want me to do all the grunt work/data collection, but according to the previous student that worked on the project, they prefer to keep the analysis to themselves even though I'm willing [to try] to learn how to do this myself... What protections do student have against others taking credit for their work, not giving them even partial credit/co-author status, and/or allowing another student to take credit who didn't help? Should I mail copies of my data to myself and retain a sealed copy? How do/did (when you were a grad student) you guys protect yourselves? Please list some measures/methods you use to prove that work you did was done by you as opposed to someone else in the lab. As things stand now, it seems like my PI, in theory, could hand over my work to another student who he likes more, who's viewed as younger/more promising, or who has a rich/important Daddy. Not saying he'd do this, but hey, its happened to me before, so yeah - just looking for some solid concrete measures I can implement to protect myself. I don't feel comfortable discusses this with my PI for reasons that should be obvious to anyone with a modicum of common sense, so please don't refer me to my PI. If you can't/don't want to help, fine, but please don't down vote me as somebody else may have some insight that would help me. Thanks.

  • 5
    Trying to be bullet-proof "against" one's advisor is a hopeless cause, I'm afraid. Not that one shouldn't object to abusive advisors... but perhaps the correct analogy is to a "mugging" (in U.S. English sense: essentially armed robbery, but in any case by a tough scary person... to whom one gives their wallet...). How to "guarantee" against this? The only way is to "stay out of that neighborhood", but if the 'hood is "academe", then it's not truly possible. The point is that one needs a good advisor... then, how to find? Jul 6, 2019 at 22:31
  • Where are you located?
    – Buffy
    Jul 6, 2019 at 22:35
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    Please improve the formatting and remove the ranting from the question. Jul 7, 2019 at 0:29
  • I don't feel comfortable discusses this with my PIYou need a new PI, for reasons that... how did you put it?... should be obvious to anyone with a modicum of common sense.
    – JeffE
    Jul 7, 2019 at 5:30
  • @paulgarrett if the 'hood is "academe", then it's not truly possible. — Fortunately, the hood isn't "academe".
    – JeffE
    Jul 7, 2019 at 5:30

3 Answers 3


In my experience, the best way to ensure that you get appropriate credit for your work is to work with trustworthy people.

Now, whether somebody is trustworthy is not always easy to determine (especially for a new graduate student), and there are also both genuine mistakes and genuine differences of opinion and criteria that often occur.

Nevertheless, there's a good heuristic that can help you test the waters early. You can lay claim to your work by finding opportunities to share early results. If you're in a software-related area, you can keep your projects on GitHub, where there's a nice public record of everything. If you're in a more experimental area or if sharing on GitHub doesn't work, then there should be opportunities with student conferences, internal group meetings, etc., to present work, even in early stages. These often exist explicitly for students to get feedback on work that's not yet ready for a proper publication, so the stakes are low. And even if it's an internal presentation rather than to the general scientific public, that will still greatly expand the group of people who know what you've done and what sort of value you're contributing.

If you get encouragement and opportunities, that's a good sign; if you get ongoing evasions and push-back, that's a bad sign.

Bottom line: the best way to ensure you get credit for publishing is to start "trial publishing" as soon as you've got interesting work to share, and see if you're in a supportive culture or a controlling one.

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    And, yes, you don't need to "defend yourself" against honorable people, and, at the same time, it is nearly impossible to defend yourself against dishonorable people who are much more powerful than you. Just stay away from them. There is no (successful) strategy to defend yourself against dishonorable-but-powerful people. Jul 6, 2019 at 22:46
  • Github won't help. I recall there was a scandal recently where sexist claims of misattribution were based on poorly interpreted github records. Jul 7, 2019 at 0:28
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    @paulgarrett A key goal with my answer here is to try to give people faster means of diagnosing whether they're dealing with an honorable or dishonorable person.
    – jakebeal
    Jul 7, 2019 at 8:56

There are likely to be policies protecting trainees at your institution, and you should review those - including process for lodging complaints about scientific misconduct (which could apply to some of the behaviours you are worried about).

You should also review policies about handling of data (of the sort your work with) to be sure that taking raw data off-campus is allowed (in a medical center, for example, this could be grounds for dismissal even of a Professor); honestly, some of your ideas for self-preservation seem bizarre.

Constant worry about being scooped will not serve you well in an academic career; there are no guarantees but if you demonstrate integrity and earn the respect of others, you will be in a much better place to address unfair treatment if it occurs.


First of all I just want to note that your school very likely retains legal ownership of any monetary profits that may result from your work.

As for students plagiarizing, it happens but I wouldn't worry about unless it happens and you need to deal with it. I've never dealt with a plagiarizer who was smart enough to continue fooling people once they were investigated. The main problems arise where they are two sides to the story, i.e. not overt plagiarism, but where both of you worked on the results. Then most of your ideas for how to protect yourself won't work anyway since there will be conflicting evidence to create doubt.

As for faculty stealing the credit, this is basically hopeless. The advisor indeed has the power to do everything you fear they might do, and you have no power to stop them. You are there to be taught by them as a subordinate. They are both your supervisor and evaluator. You need them to be on your side, where they think you are an asset and want you to succeed and get credit you deserve. Research is very much a social-network-based system so you need them for a lot more than just a fair supervisor. As others said, choose carefully.

  • In my experience (in universities in the USA), students have the same rights to inventorship as do their faculty; questions of inventorship are determined by US patent law, not university policy. My impression is that most universities divide the inventors' portion of royalties equally among the inventors (with no preference given to faculty over students). For example, umsystem.edu/ums/red/oipa/studentip-faqs and invo.northwestern.edu/invention-disclosure/student-inventors/…
    – Argalatyr
    Jul 9, 2019 at 3:31
  • @Argalatyr Inventorship is different than ownership; inventors commonly give their ownership rights over to their employers (as part of their employment contract) in return for resources such as funding and lab space. Hence students may have more rights than faculty, if the students is not being paid to produce the invention and is not using university resources. However in this case, the student is asking about work done in the faculty member's lab under the faculty member's supervision. Sounds pretty likely the university would claim ownership. Your links appear to cover all this. Jul 9, 2019 at 3:56
  • What I saw in the OP seemed focused on academic credit, not so focused on ownership (which is where your answer seem to go). Therefore, I focused my comment on inventorship, i.e. credit for the discovery, but as you say the resources I pointed to also cover royalties etc.
    – Argalatyr
    Jul 10, 2019 at 10:36

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