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I am currently an undergraduate student and I am applying for research Masters/PhD in the US. I joined a research group before to help out on a part of a project. My coworker in this group, a PhD student has published a paper afterwards, which is irrelevant to the work that I have done, but since I have worked in his group, I was added to the co-author in his paper. I did not ask for it, but anyway, I have the publication, and I have to mention it in my application.

My fear is that, if, during the interview, I was asked about the publication, should I just say that I did not contribute to it? I do not want to lie anyway, but would that hurt my previous research group since they have added irrelevant people to the paper?

I do not think it is uncommon to have a coauthor that is not relevant to a project in my country. However, I am a bit afraid if they would take it seriously in the US.

  • I cannot judge if this is common practice in your field or not, if it is ethical or not etc. But keep in mind most people here who will vote and answer are in maths or comp. science and will vote/answer from their perspective. – user115896 Nov 21 '19 at 21:12
  • Anyways, it seems like a good person for this question was somebody for your group (including your advisor). Have you asked them? – user115896 Nov 21 '19 at 21:13
  • You say that you are applying to a Master/PhD program, but you also mention your research group advisor as your "[My] PhD advisor". Is the person who runs the group you are helping out on the same person as who you hope will be your advisor? If so, they probably believe they have done something that helps you. If that's a bit of a typo, it's a very different, and possibly complicated, answer. It may help for you to clarify those points, as well as to add your country and discipline so that people with more direct experience can write more direct advice. – Van Nov 21 '19 at 21:43
  • Is it really irrelevant? Early in my career I was working in a lab where I was the ‘side project’. I wrote some low level data acquisition code that enabled the lab to get data off a scope faster. A side effect is the main project could get twice as much data, so I became a co-author on an early paper. Did I really contribute? Kind of? – Jon Custer Nov 22 '19 at 4:03
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Cut shortly, use it to your advantage, but be honest. If you're in the project, that means you should know the aims, tasks and problems of it. Even if you did not contribute to the article directly, experimental or literature research is still relevant and could be used by your colleagues. Try to figure out to see it clearly and be able to explain.
And of course if you include this publication to your CV, you should know as much as possible about the topic. That could be educational for you as an undergraduate.
Good luck!

  • If asked, OP can just mention that is convention in his group to put all group members as coauthors on all papers from the group. AFAIK this is reasonably common in some lab sciences. OP can then add that OP had little direct involvement with this paper but as you wrote should still have an idea what the paper is about. – quarague Nov 22 '19 at 10:17
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If you did not contribute to the paper, I would just be up-front about that. Firstly, telling the truth is the right thing to do, and will preserve your own integrity. Secondly, it is unlikely to negatively affect your application, since any loss of value in your application from disclosure of not having contributed to that paper is likely to be cancelled out (or possibly even outweighed) by showing that you are a straight shooter. Undergraduates are not generally expected to have contributed to publishable material upon entry into a postgraduate program. For a prospective graduate student, it is much more important to have someone who is honest and candid, with appropriate undergraduate education and a hunger for learning.

Now, bear in mind that you probably shouldn't have been a co-author on that paper if you did not contribute, but I certainly don't think a selection panel would ever look negatively at an undergraduate for getting into that situation. There are many researchers far more senior that yourself who have probably got themselves into a situation like that, and have never said anything.

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