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I am working on a coauthored paper which I would like to step away from. How can I do so very tactfully and gracefully?

I want to step away because I don't quite agree with the direction the paper is taking in terms of analysis; the publication prospects are not terrific; and, frankly, I am not sure if I fully believe the results (our setting is not very "clean," meaning that there are several alternative explanations). I don't necessarily want to say all of these things to them.

Another detail is that the coauthors are two people at my current institution. I am going to be transitioning to another institution (in another state) in the next few months. Note this is not one of my main reasons to walk away, but being away will make it somewhat harder to collaborate. It will also be nice to get this off my plate so I can focus more on other projects.

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    be honest, be prompt, be polite, leave the door open to future collaboration – Anonymous Physicist Apr 7 at 23:39
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This is more a warning of the consequences than a real answer. There may not, in fact, be a way to do this gracefully.

You need to decide what the paper will become without you. Technically, they can't publish it without your permission. If you aren't a co-author, will you want acknowledgement? Will you want your name listed at all?

If you don't want your name listed and you have contributed to it, then publishing it could open the others to a plagiarism charge.

So, the situation is a bit sticky. If the paper can't be published without you, then there could be hard feelings and sometimes such things are a bit "sticky".

I suggest that you need to work out the details with them, to just withdraw. You may have some leverage to improve the paper and stay on the list of authors. But you might need to take some responsibility for the project to accomplish this.

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  • Excellent response with good spotlight on the difficulties. This is a very ticklish situation. One more thing to consider: co-authors may be offended that you do not deem the paper worth being a co-author of. They shouldn't be, but this is quite a possibility. – Captain Emacs Apr 8 at 1:31
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As Buffy mentioned, there may be no way to do this without ruffling feathers. Any "normal" excuse (I'm moving institutions, etc.) indicate that you don't have enough time to devote to polishing the paper, therefore your authorship should be adjusted down (i.e. from second to third author, or something), rather than removed entirely. Asking to be removed from a paper will always be interpreted as you saying very clearly that the paper doesn't meet your standards.

Thus, if your goal is to ruffle the fewest feathers, rather than trying to extricate yourself from the paper, determine what would elevate the paper to meet your minimum bar for co-authorship. Then, try and (respectfully, but straightforwardly) bring these points up with the coauthors.

Because think about what "leaving" the paper says: I don't have confidence in this work, and, furthermore, I don't believe you are careful/conscientious/ethical enough to listen to or address my concerns. If you respected these people enough to get involved with them in this project in the first place, respect them enough to at least air your concerns with them first. Then, their response can dictate your next steps. Then you will be on firmer footing if later you decide you really have to get off the article. You can say something like:

"Sorry that I really feel that the alternative explanations need to be explored prior to publication, but I can understand that you feel the additional experiments required don't match our current funding/timeline/whatever. In that case, especially because I'm moving and can't contribute to the future work, I'd ask you to remove me from the author list, but wish you the best in publishing and hope we can work together again in the future."

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Depending on how much work you put have put into the paper, you could suggest you haven't done enough to be a co-author. I've had co-authors ask to be removed because they felt they didn't do enough work to justify being an author, without it leaving bad feelings between people. But in this case they hadn't contributed much to the paper.

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