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I am a postdoc, and some time ago a professor in my department introduced me to her research assistant to work together on something related to their project I was not part of. I was interested because it had high chances to result in a paper and I wanted to work a bit on something different.

The researcher is not pursuing a degree and doesn't really need to write papers, but he was interested in writing one, mostly to build up his publication list in case he decides to apply for graduate positions in future. So we wrote a paper in which he was the lead author (he did most of the work and the writing), and we submitted it to a journal, together with his professor. The collaboration was pleasant, and there were no issues at all. After we submitted the paper I went back to my project and we didn't communicate.

Only when I contacted him after a few months to ask about the status of the paper he said that the reports arrived some time ago. Not only he did not inform me about it, he was also reluctant to forward them to me, and did so after a few reminders. The outcome was major revision, and the reviews were not bad at all. But because he was inexperienced with academia he probably misinterpreted them as terrible and seemed embarrassed (I think this may also be a cultural issue as he is from Asia and might be concerned about saving face). After I explained that this is a positive outcome, a great start for his first paper submission, and that I had worse reviews on papers that ended up being accepted after one or two undemanding revisions, he seemed fine with working on the revision.

In the meantime, the researcher moved to another department at the same university, working with another professor and on a different project.

After a few months I sent an email to him to ask about the progress and offered help. I haven't received a response.

Then I bumped into him in the campus and he said that the deadline to revise the paper has passed so he gave up from it. Now... I totally understand that his job is not writing papers, I am aware that he is not paid anymore to work on that project and I respect that he maybe lost interest in the paper. To avoid having our work unpublished, I told him that I will work on the revision, and alternatively if it does not go well take care of submitting it to another journal. I made it clear that he will still be the lead author and that his further work will be minimum if any, but I only received an indifferent reaction.

I went to talk to his former professor who agreed that we should try to get that paper published and that it would be silly to just give up from it, but that's all. She is tenured and doesn't seem to care about publishing papers, and also doesn't seem to have contact and authority over him anymore (which is expected given the end of the contract and his transfer to another professor).

Seeing that the only solution to get that paper published is that I work on the revision or submit it elsewhere, I sent another email to the research assistant making it again clear that no work is required from him, I just need him to send me the manuscript files so I can work on them, and that he will still be the lead author and he will get to check the paper before submission. I was again ignored.

This puts me in a difficult situation: I invested time in this paper that has pretty good chances to get published after minimum additional work, and I feel bad for just leaving it. I am not the lead author so I cannot make decisions about it. I am also the only co-author who seems to care, and I feel I have some rights about my work. I understand that some collaborations don't end up with anything and that sometimes we should just let it go and accept the lost time, but this is far from it: the collaboration resulted in a solid manuscript that will almost surely get accepted in a good journal after a slight revision.

Is there any way to salvage this situation?

It's not possible to take my part out and submit it somewhere as a separate paper. While all my communication has been polite and reasonable, it was futile.

I cannot think of a reason why the researcher would just give up now that there is no work required from him. In absence of a better explanation, I am also starting to think that in the meantime the paper was submitted elsewhere without my name on it.

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    Do you know who his new boss is, now that his old boss has moved onto bigger and better things? – nick012000 Jan 3 at 9:28
  • If they still work on the same campus, I'd suggest trying to reach them in person, ideally in their official office hours if they have them. Or call by phone. Firstly, it is much more difficult to ignore a request delivered personally; it is also much less likely to be forgotten under the load of other work. It's also easier to avoid misunderstanding in the emotional realm when you directly see or at least hear each other. – Ansa211 Mar 27 at 11:16
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I suggest that you try to get the professor to arrange a three way meeting to resolve the issues. I'd also suggest that you be generous about who is a co-author and even who is first. Any forward movement is probably better for you than letting it go. There will always be other papers and you might be able to use this as a basis for future work if you can get it out the door somehow. But the prof has a bit of leverage, just from position. Moral authority if nothing else. The other shouldn't be in a position to hold you back, but need not participate in the future.

I think the professor owes you this much if she got you into the project in the first place.

If you wind up doing the rest of the work on your own, but others are co-author, you still need their permission to publish it, of course. Hopefully this won't be a block. But the professor may have a role here, as well.

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Possibly not related to your case, but I have had somewhat similar experience before. One aspect you maybe haven't considered, and maybe more or less likely depending on the field, is if there was some underlying issue with the paper or results themselves.

I have had a case or two, most often when working with newer students, that a seemingly great paper and something that we can publish ended up having mistakes that were missed. It may be that some of the reviews, unless they were purely grammar issues of the paper, hit upon something the student didn't realize or had not considered important when first doing the work. For example, I recently had a student have some really interesting and unexpected results analyzing a dataset. They were writing the paper and explaining the results of why this would happen. It was a matter of happenstance that I had known the dataset very well, and eventually figured out they had duplicate data that should have been processed and removed. The student never realized this until I mentioned it. When we walked through each step together, they started finding more issues.

It may not be your collaborator losing face over the reviews, but possibly losing face over a mistake they made that they didn't originally notice.

Again, maybe this doesn't apply to your situation, but as an answer to the general question it may be something for others to consider, which is in generally a tricky situation and what requires trust with people you collaborate with.

So with that in mind, to actually use this as an answer, I would first go through the paper and any results that the first author did to make sure there are no problems with the paper. Then I would do a first draft to make any changes to the document and send to the student just asking 'do these look okay with you to submit?'.

On the other hand, I would take into account how much work you spent on the paper and how much effort it is taking to get a response. It is a little strange to me that you don't even have the manuscript. I am not clear by your post what your contribution on the paper is if the student did most of the work and writing, but you not having the manuscript sounds like they did all of the writing. With so many unknowns, it may not be worth salvaging.

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Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do if the first author does not want to submit the paper. This is the risk of being a co-author, you always rely on the first author. If the researcher does not want to continue on this paper anymore it's pointless and disrespectful to push. What I can suggest is to take only your contribution and prepare your own paper with your professor. I don't think that the paper has been submitted without your permission because the professor will lose credibility.

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