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My PhD adviser and I decided to publish in Physical Review Letters. After nearly finishing the manuscript, he realized the publication cost was $800 and now instead wants to publish in a significantly worse journal that also is not appropriate for the work (Journal of Lightwave Technology) because the publication cost is free. In response, I informed him (for the first time, coincidentally) that I need to TA (as a degree requirement) in January, which will bring in about $25k for us. It seems absurd to me to publish in a worse and inappropriate journal to save money and it seems unethical to be unwilling to kick back $800 of this $25k I’ll be getting. I think he knows that he has the power to take the $25k and save the $800 regardless, though so he doesn’t care. Is he being unethical here?

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    he might no want to enable payed submission model. It might not be a money issue. It might be an issue of principle. In recent years, many journal reviewers quit their jobs to create free dijital journals which are analogues of their previous journals. – Boaty Mcboatface Oct 25 '19 at 7:31
  • What do you think is unethical? – user2768 Oct 25 '19 at 8:17
  • Would you be willing to pay the $800? Half of it? The normal assumption of the publisher (quality journals) is that such "page fees" come out of grants. And grants should have an entry for such things. – Buffy Oct 25 '19 at 9:47
  • Not unethical, but not checking the author information for page charges seems an oversight. – Jon Custer Oct 25 '19 at 14:27
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    Paying PRL is not required to publish there; see academia.stackexchange.com/questions/100887/… – Matt Reece Oct 26 '19 at 3:21
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Is your supervisor breaking any sort of accepted ethical code within academia? No, they are not. They are not engaging in academic dishonesty, plagiarism, bullying, or abuse of any kind. While "what is ethical" is often a matter of opinion, I would guess there are few people who could find any sort of violation of ethics in your supervisor's behaviour.

Indeed, your supervisor is acting like a perfectly normal co-author and is communicating to you their requirements for a publication venue for their work. Perhaps, as you suspect, your supervisor simply does not want to spend the money. Perhaps, as a commenter has suggested, your supervisor is taking their own small 'ethical' stand against the absurd and insulting fee required for publishing in your preferred journal (in my field only sham predatory journals charge for publication). It doesn't matter, really, what their reason is, your co-author will not agree to publish in the journal you want to publish in, which is well within their rights, so you need to publish it elsewhere or dissolve the writing partnership. If you don't like the suggested replacement journal, find another journal and suggest it.

Admittedly I am not in the USA, but I am unclear on how $25k comes to your supervisor for your teaching. Is this because the Uni has to, essentially, "buy out" the time spent in the lab? If that is the case, the $25k is meant to offset the work you would be doing and may be earmarked specifically and only for salary costs. I'm having trouble coming up with a scenario where you being a TA somehow results in $25k for your supervisor to do whatever they want with. Maybe I am misunderstanding something.

All told, saying that your supervisor is behaving unethically is a serious allegation indeed. It is not one to be made lightly, certainly not about minor disagreements with no clear ethical violation. Doing so risks totally souring your relationship with the person who you depend on for co-authorship, support, and recommendations.

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  • Wow, thank you so much for the prompt and thoughtful reply! I am a little surprised though because PRL is somewhat standard in my field and all other groups in our building frequently publish in it. Other profs have even told me the standard in their group is publish 3 PRLs to graduate. What you said of course supersedes the methods of other groups, though. I guess it was easy to fall into "groupthink". Also, yes it is $25k of grant money that does not need to be spent. If we TA, they pay our salary ($10k per quarter) and then waive our tuition, which is ~$15k. It's quite the deal! – SecretName Oct 25 '19 at 19:10
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My PhD adviser...realized the publication cost was $800 [for Physical Review Letters] and now instead wants to publish in a significantly worse journal...because the publication cost is free.

"Physical Review Letters is perfectly OK with publishing their papers for free," source: https://academia.stackexchange.com/a/139304/22768.

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