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I am employed as a student in a theoretical computer science research group and part of my job was to assist my supervisor with a scientific paper he has been working on. Concretely, my job was to implement the software that was used to conduct the experimental part of the research paper and also to gather and put together a dataset in order to empirically test the theoretical framework developed by my supervisor using real-world data.

Before the first submission attempt, I was mentioned in the list of the co-authors. However, the paper was not accepted on the grounds that the empirical results only weakly reflected the theoretical claims.

My supervisor thought that the rejection was due to a bug in the code I've developed and afterwards he removed me both from the list of co-authors and from the project. I am very sure that the code didn't contain any bugs.

Afterwards, my supervisor contacted a fellow student who was already working on a different topic, and asked for his permission to use the data from this different topic in order to test the theory.

The second submission attempt of the research paper was successful and the paper was accepted. My fellow student appeared in the list of co-authors but I didn't.

The version of the paper that finally got accepted differed from the first one that got rejected, in that it contained only an extra experiment, using the data from my fellow student. However, the initial empirical experiments that I put together were still there. They have not been removed, nor modified.

Regarding this situation I have a series of questions:

  • Is it normal to feel that I have been treated unfairly? I feel that the only reason why I have been removed from the list of co-authors is because the dataset I have compiled simply didn't confirm the expected theoretical results and me getting fired was simply a way for my supervisor to vent his frustration about being rejected.

  • Is it legal to publish a paper that uses data and software that some other person developed and not mention this person as a co-author (or at least as a reference)? Are there any laws or rules of conduct regarding such situations?

I'm aware that a variation of this question may have already been answered before:

What to do when principal investigator publishes your work without putting you down as a coauthor?

My research work stolen and published as his own by the co-author without my consent

My work was published and my name was nowhere to be found: how should I handle this?

Most of the answers suggested that I should try to approach and discuss this problem in private with my supervisor or with some other member of the research group. I have tried doing exactly this and both my supervisor and 2 other senior members simply refused to discuss this issue with me. The only response I've got was: "what's done is done, let us focus on the future now".

What can I do, or what would be ethical to do in this situation?

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    I would like to comment on code didn't contain any bugs. During my over 30 years software development career, I have never seen any code without bugs, no matter what the project size is, small(5k lines), mid (100k lines) or large(1 million lines). – scaaahu Oct 13 '13 at 9:02
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    @scaaahu Of course, you are right. There is no such thing as bug-free code. But in this particular case, the fact that the published version of the paper includes the "buggy" code, sort of proves the opposite. – Alex Bakonvsky Oct 13 '13 at 13:16
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To answer your questions:

Based on what you say, it does sound like you were treated unfairly.

Leaving you out from the paper given the circumstances is at least unethical. I don't know about legal.

Your collaborators don't sound like nice people. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon in academia, where abuse of junior people is certainly not uncommon, though for obvious reasons statistics are hard to come by.

An obvious option is to write to the journal's editor explaining the situation. If you have contributed significantly to the paper, you certainly have a claim to be considered a co-author. Obviously, make sure you have documentation backing up your claim. If you don't, it is just your word against theirs, and you will quite likely get nowhere. If you have good documentation, it will be more difficult for the journal to ignore your claims, though it is obviously hard to predict what people will do. Given that you were on the first submission attempt, I think that first submission should count as part of the documentation, and should really help your case if you appeal to the journal. It would be easy enough to compare the two versions of the paper. In the first submission, is your contribution described? Also, were the two submissions to different journals?

It is not completely clear from your posting whether the paper has been officially published. If it has, it may be too late to add your name to the list of authors.

Bear in mind that your collaborators will quite possibly try to find a way to get back at you, for any number of reasons. People who behave in the way you described can get extremely petty and unpleasant when they perceive you as "going against them". They also have a remarkable capacity for not taking responsibility for their own actions, and in their own minds will find a way to blame you for the situation. This is not meant to discourage you from standing up for your rights, but just pointing out the reality of the situation.

Personally, I think people should stand up for their rights, but at the end of the day it is your decision.

  • "If it has, it may be too late to add your name to the list of authors." Isn't this kind of breach of ethics grounds for retraction or at least a correction? – Max Mar 12 '14 at 18:46
  • @Max No idea. I think retraction is considered pretty drastic - generally used when there are major problems with the paper contents. Correction - possibly, but how does one add to the name of authors when the paper has been published, the meta-information disseminated, and the paper possibly cited? – Faheem Mitha Mar 12 '14 at 19:30
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Assuming that you are giving a totally impartial and accurate account of the facts:

To your first question: Your Supervisor has a "right-to-manage" in this project since it was his project and you functioned as his assistant. "Right-to-manage" is an euphemism for "authority to fire". Namely, he has the (moral, even) right to "fire" you from the paper, if he believes (rightly or wrongly) that it was your fault that the paper was rejected the first time. Naturally, he wouldn't want faulty work to continue to be present in his paper, now would he? So he went on and scrapped your contribution on which you have labored so hard... but wait: he didn't scrap your work from the paper, but he kept it in, without your name. This leads us to your second question: what he did can be legally characterized as "grand theft", I believe, at least in the US legal system.

What to do? The "cosmic-joke" scenario (but I am not joking here) would be to actually find a bug in your code and send a letter to the paper that published the paper, challenging the empirical results (and you will be in an excellent position to challenge them since you know all the details).

The sensible thing to do, given that you have already futilely tried to discuss the issue with the defendant (which was the civilized thing to do), is to indeed "focus on the future" -your future this time. With all that such a vague phrase may silently imply.

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