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Some months ago, in the context of a workshop, two graduate students (from other PhD advisors) and myself found a technique to solve a certain problem that could give a nice research publication.

I am trying to push the project, mostly because this can be beneficial for both students in the last period of their PhD studies. However, the problem I encounter is the following: one of the students does not want to make the work/is not interested anymore in it. I have written her a couple of times saying that would be good that we go through the project but she never replied. So it seems to me that she does not have any interest on the project (while the second student does).

If it were the case of a PhD student of mine, in a very similar situation, I would talk with him/her seriously but due to the situation that she is not an student of mine I do not know which is the best way to act.

How should I proceed?

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    Maybe I'm missing something here, but what makes you think that your project should be what a PhD student in the end of their PhD works on? Isn't that the phase where most time goes into putting a wrap onto their core publications and getting their thesis nice and tidy? This isn't usually the best time to start working on side projects. – xLeitix Dec 30 '19 at 12:05
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    Also isn't it quite common in academia to start new side projects/collaborations that lead to nowhere? – Drecate Dec 31 '19 at 1:52
  • @xLeitix: she has already the thesis finished and a Postdoc accepted somewhere else. – Gaussian-Matter Dec 31 '19 at 14:12
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This is tricky for a couple of reasons. Adding a person as a co-author of a paper requires, at least, their agreement. Normally it also requires actual contribution to the work, but that idea is compromised in some fields, such as when a PI only contributes funds that make the research possible. Second, even giving an acknowledgement to a person normally requires their permission. This is more important in some fields than others. But if you attribute controversial statements to another you need their permission, generally.

However, there is nothing especially wrong about pushing someone a bit to elicit their permission or participation. This is especially true if you don't have a power (superior-inferior) relationship with them. Forcing subordinates is often done, though usually wrong. But that doesn't seem to be the relationship here.

I would send them each a note that you would like to pursue the topic and publish some results when done. Offer them co-authorship if they will participate effectively, but only acknowledgement of past contributions otherwise. Suggest that they talk it over with their own advisors. Then evaluate what you hear back.

I'm assuming above that all results so far are preliminary and tentative.

If there is nothing to do but the writing or minor clean-up this would be a different situation. In that case, write it up with all of you as co-authors and send it to them for approval or updating. Yes, you would be doing a large part of the work yourself, but that might be worth the effort.

The tricky thing here is that I don't know how much contribution each has made so far. Perhaps they are already due co-authorship of anything you produce. You will need to deal with that collectively.

If they have already contributed substantially, then a joint publication seems warranted (three co-authors). For that, all you need to do is get their permission. If they are unable to help work on the paper (no time, advisor objects, ...) then this might be your best option. Even a generous interpretation of substantially might be warranted.

I assume that, unless the topic is controversial, a publication is more valuable to them than to you, who already have a position.

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To add to what Buffy said;

If you come up with a good idea that someone else further develops, you're entitled to some credit. In fact, you're entitled to a sincere invitation to a collaboration.

But if you had the idea but don't want to do any work on it, you're not entitled to a work-free co-authorship. You're also not entitled to keep squatting on the idea and obstruct others from doing anything with it.


So in your case, you should make it very clear to the students that they're welcome to get involved as co-authors, or to do nothing and get a nice acknowledgement.

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How should I proceed?

  • Do not continue to implore the uniniterested Ph.D. candidate to pursue the project. Whether it's a good idea for her to drop the project or not - it is her decision to make. You've mostly exhausted the extent to which it is legitimate to pressure them (except, perhaps, when you meet her face-to-face, you could ask her about it in the context of not having received a reply to your email; but again, don't press the matter too much).
  • Do ask the uninterested Ph.D. candidate for permission to pursue the project further without her, including publishing papers, software, etc. She might not answer - in that case you're in the territory of a "contributor XYZ could not be reached" on future published work.
  • Do remember to give appropriate credit to the uninterested Ph.D. candidate if and when you do publish something, even though she gave up the work. That may mean offering her co-authorship even though she "lazied out" on some of the effort, or an acknowledgement for her initial contribution - depending on the specifics.
  • Do ask the interested Ph.D. candidate if there are unusual circumstances involving their uninterested colleague which be causing this situation (e.g. health issues); but
  • Do not pry into the uninterested Ph.D. candidate's private life to figure out what's going on with her.
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  • If they are not answering at all offering them co-authorship seems out of the question. That said, unless they have somehow provided exemplary extensive contributions in this "workshop" I have a hard time imagining that it's not possible to simply go ahead without them and simply acknowledge their contributions. – xLeitix Dec 31 '19 at 16:48
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    @xLeitix: It depends on how much the uninterested PhD candidate has contributed already. And - remember that answering a "do you want to work some more" email and a "do you want to be listed as a coauthor" email is not the same thing... she might answer the second but not the first. – einpoklum Dec 31 '19 at 17:52
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I think what you may be asking relates less to actually getting this work done and more to how far should you go in, as you put it, talking with him/her "seriously" if they are not your PhD student. In other words, you are asking if it is right to use this as a teaching moment and talk to the PhD student about what types of opportunities they should be seriously considering and what types of academic behaviour they should engage in regarding communication and correspondence. In other words, what is your role as the non-supervisor in advising this student about their career choices.

The answer is that it isn't your job to interfere if neither the student nor their supervisor has asked you to give career advice or mentorship. It sounds like this student's loss, but you do risk stepping on toes or violating what the student has already agreed to with their supervisor. If, for example, this student is easily distracted by side projects, the supervisor may have told them to focus only on their PhD right now just to get it done, and while it is rude to not respond to you with this information, you pushing the matter might challenge what their supervisor has said to them.

One possibility might be to have a chat about this opportunity with the student's supervisor if you know them...and ask if your mentorship on this matter is welcome.

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