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I am working as a research engineer for my professor. He told me to write a conference paper from the master’s thesis of one of his graduate students, since I am working in the same field. After reading the thesis and analyzing the student's results, I found that most of the work is of low quality and does not justify a publication. I told my professor that there are several inconsistencies in the results and several misleading claims, but he told me to continue writing the paper to the best I can given that “I have experience with paper writing and that I can present the work in a light that could get the paper through peer review”.

Now that I am almost done with the draft, I don’t want to be an author of this paper given the facts. How can I talk to my professor asking him to not put me as an author without sounding rude?

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    What your professor wants you to do is not very ethical. Trying to avoid "sounding rude" is the least of your problems. I would go with something like "As we discussed on ... there are problems A, B, C with this study. As you instructed, I have now almost finished the draft. But, after much reflection, I cannot in good conscience endorse its content by having my name on it. So, please submit it without listing me as an author." Keep in mind that submitting without your name would also not be ethical. The ethical solution is not submitting the paper. – Roland Sep 12 '19 at 7:45
  • Thanks for your commend Roland. I will confront him about at least not wanting to become an author. If he still submits without me, hopefully the reviewers would reject the work given we are aiming for a relatively good venue. – europa1610 Sep 12 '19 at 9:05
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To elaborate on the comment by Roland.

If you wrote the paper and analyzed the results, you have a strong claim of ownership on the paper (along with the graduate student who got the initial results). Depending on the depth of your analysis you may well be the lead author so it’s your call by right.

If your professor is pushing for the result to be published then your name has to be on it. If you refuse it can’t happen. If they choose to publish without you it’s ethical misconduct and grounds for retracting the paper from wherever it’s submitted to.

The only diplomatic avenue here is that you push to correct the issues and then submit. Otherwise, politely say that you think the paper is not ready and that it is not publishable in its current state.

  • Thanks for your comment. I do not want any ownership of the work as I don't think there is any novelty to begin with, the validity of the claims and inconsistencies in the results comes last. I will confront the professor about this and ask him to publish without me. If he proceeds with the submission, I will hope that the peer review process can run its course. Unfortunately, I have to submit the work to keep myself in good graces of the professor since I've worked with him for several years and need his endorsement to progress in my career. – europa1610 Sep 12 '19 at 9:02
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    I understand your situation, if he submits without you then I question his moral compass – Spark Sep 12 '19 at 9:36
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Let me suggest something a bit different. I can't, at this distance, suggest whether it would be successful or even recommended. But, consider the following.

Suppose that you were the student's professor instead, seeing what you now see. What would you want to do ethically and properly? Suppose that you give the student a draft of a paper, but include in it (using a distinct typographic "callout") all of the problems you see in the paper and the work. For example, when you mention a result, you could include a parenthetical comment that the foundation is experimentally weak or flawed. These can be done inline or, perhaps, as a summary. Inline is probably more dramatic.

You could, then, as the professor, suggest that the student address all of the flaws in the paper and then suggest s/he write a sole-authorship final paper for publication, using whatever they like in the draft.

A professor could do this properly, of course. I don't know if you can. It is a serious matter to oppose your professor as he has a lot of control over your future and (as an employee) over the present.

This "draft" with suggestions can be sent to both the student and your professor who can then make a judgement. You might be able to make it clear to the professor that the work isn't ready for prime time.

But, you need to judge whether it is worth the effort and the level of risk it entails. The latter depends on the personality of the professor, I think.

But if the student takes your draft and does the right thing with it, all will benefit.


As to your topline question, it is only "rude" if the professor thinks it is rude, and, again, that is a matter of personality. Ideally, raising objections to the content and your association with it shouldn't be seen as rude.

  • Thanks for your suggestions. The student has little interest in publishing the paper since he has started working in the industry, so asking him to solve the issues with the paper is out of the question. This is simply my professor pushing for a publication. That being said, I am working on improving the students work from the ground-up, from approach to results. Hopefully this will be a completely different paper when I am done. I don't think its worth it for me to push the professor, risking my career over a research paper. Thanks! – europa1610 Sep 13 '19 at 5:51
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There are a few separate issues:

  • A plagiarism issue (professor cannot claim ownership of someone else's work). Thus, professor must include all coauthors.
  • Copyright issue: Professor cannot distribute the work without permission from all copyright holders.
  • Reputational Issue: Student does not want their name associated with bad work.

Assuming the student is willing to provide permission, one solution to this problem is for the paper to be co-authored by "anonymous." This addresses the plagiarism issue (professor is not taking credit for student's work), the copyright issue (student provides permission), and reputational issue (student will not be associated with this work).

Mind you, this approach is highly likely to increase the likelihood of the paper being rejected.

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