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Three years ago, I was an undergrad majoring in Biochemistry in a major US university, and did significant research work in preparation for my thesis.

I am currently polishing a personal statement for PhD applications. To help illustrate a point, I started looking into the publication list of my erstwhile advisor for ideas, for the first time in a year. It turns out he published an article on Nature last year, that credited several fellow undergrads in my lab as co-authors, but not myself. I was never notified of the publication, nor mentioned in the acknowledgement section. The article relied on a database that I helped to compile, and mentioned one of the conclusions I made in my senior thesis. Clearly, it's too late to ask for any revisions to that paper.

Even if these are not sufficient grounds for including me in the author list, I wonder if I am justified in asking that professor to say in his recommendation letter he "forgot" to add me as a co-author, or include me in the acknowledgement section? I had asked him to prepare a recommendation letter months in advance, but it will be at least another week before he is expected to send any.

As for my personal relationship with the professor - his recommendation for me is probably not the most emphatic, but we have generally been on good terms up to this point. Will simply raising this question damage our relationship, or even his recommendations?

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    What do you hope to gain by having the prof mention that they 'forgot' to include you?
    – Jeroen
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 7:49
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    Do you mean "emphatic" or "empathetic" in your last paragraph? Do you mean that you are not particularly close, but that you are at least on good terms? Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 14:58
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    what is "PI" acronym? to me the acronym expands to "private investigator" but "private investigator" does not really fit the sentence so i ask for clarification.
    – syn1kk
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 15:20
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    Principal Investigator. It's the grant holder, and is used more generally in academic science for the person who runs the lab (i.e. your boss). Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 16:23
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    The biggest issue to me is that he used a conclusion from your thesis without citing it! That is plagiarism if you are not a co-author. He should have cited your thesis. I don't care how obscure it would be to find. Theses are always citable. Commented Nov 19, 2020 at 7:59

4 Answers 4

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Asking them directly to acknowledge "forgetting" you is a battle that you cannot win, I am afraid. However, if you approach this strategically, you can still probably get a letter that bears the same message as being acknowledged on the paper would.

From your description it seems safe to assume that your authorship was omitted accidentally. It is a sad but not entirely unusual reality that contributions of undergraduate students who helped with a large project over time can get forgotten, not out of malice but simply because nobody keeps track of who did what. Reminding the supervisor of your contributions (be as specific as you can) that ultimately led to a high-impact publication should do no harm then. If this was an honest mistake, I can imagine they will want to make it up to you.

On the other hand, failing to acknowledge contributions of co-authors is a serious academic misconduct. Admitting it openly and in writing could possibly harm your supervisor's credibility and I don't expect that this is a risk they would be willing to take just to increase your chances to get a position. If you want them to acknowledge something specific in the letter, you need to ask for something they are likely to agree to.

Consider the impact of being properly listed as a co-author of the said Nature publication. People assessing your application have a good idea how preparing such large publications work and that the success of it depends primarily on the first author / supervisor developing the original ideas and orchestrating the work. Undergraduate students often do rather the mechanical labor. From this perspective, being listed as a co-author doesn't say more than: "I have an experience from a successful lab and I can do the mechanical labor good enough."

The first part of that message is on your CV already. You can ask your supervisor to testify the other part in the recommendation letter.

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    "authorship was omitted accidentally" Compiling data does not earn authorship. Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 11:33
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    It is up to the authors and the customs in the field to decide which contributions earn you a place in the author list, sure. However, if a person contributes, they should be acknowledged. Since neither that happened and the OP states the work relies on their contribution, such an acknowledgement was clearly omitted. Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 11:44
  • I realized today that the professor probably made contributing to that database a lab assignment for more junior students, around the time I left college. So technically, the contributor list could be swamped by students who were only marginally involved. Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 18:11
  • Does "coming from a successful lab as an undergrad but having no history of publications while there" send the wrong message to PhD admissions committees though? Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 18:21
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    I am not familiar with PhD admissions in the US and in your field. From my experience (EU, computer science), having a publication before starting a PhD is certainly an advantage but not a requirement. Moreover, publications where you are not the main author tend not to be valued too high. Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 7:36
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You should ask the professor to describe your contribution to the database and the relationship between the database and the publication.

No matter what the reason is that you are not an author on the publication, there is no benefit to including the reason in your letter of recommendation. A correction to the author list could benefit you, but only someone familiar with the details of your work could determine if that is appropriate.

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    This is the appropriate (and completely non-confrontational) way to deal with this - ask the letter writer to state what your contributions to this paper were. Everybody can then draw their own conclusions, there is no need to spell out whether or nor you should have been a co-author, or whether or not you should have been acknowledged.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 14:28
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It would of course be a tremendous feather in your cap to be a coauthor, even one of zillions, of an article in a prestigious journal. And even if not a coauthor, it is personally satisfying to be acknowledged. However, no one else pays much attention to acknowledgements.

What you now need to achieve is fair recognition of your contributions in the letter of reference. The facts, as you present them, support the hypothesis that the PI likely has forgotten the nature or extent of your contributions, was never wholly aware, or confused your contributions with someone else's. That happens. Regardless, every reasonable recommendation letter writer appreciates a "cheat sheet" from the recommendee, so I'd suggest you write something like:

Dear X, ... This is to request a letter of recommendation from you for ... Since it's been a couple of years, for convenience let me summarize that I worked on your team from ... to ... My principal contributions were .... and ...., which I described in my senior thesis and which was used in the publication [insert citation]. As you can imagine, given my hope for an eventual research career [or whatever], I think to the extent you are able to connect the dots between by work and the publication in particular would be very helpful.

Basically, swallow your injured pride (and don't expect any acknowledgement revisions!), but in a respectful fashion make sure the PI has the information to now be able to represent your contributions accurately. Present it factually but impersonally, implicitly assuming forgetfulness or lack of awareness, not trying to prove it with bullet-proof evidence.

Finally, I'm writing this all taking at face value the facts as you have presented them. Do be open to the possibility that your picture may not be fully complete either. Could your "database" have needed significant rework or updating, for instance? I'm not trying to challenge you and know nothing more about your situation, but after several decades in applied research, I've encountered various instances where valued but junior contributors accidentally overvalued their contributions as well.

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Tell the advisor you were pleased that the work was published and it reminded you of how much you learned from participating in the evaluation of data (or whatever you did). Reminding the advisor that you participated in the research, hopefully, will prompt the advisor to mention this in a letter of reference for you.

I think it not wise to force the issue of not including you as a co-author. The advisor should be prompted to provide a correction to Nature based on your correspondence above, but I would not force the issue as it may hurt the letter of recommendation.

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  • What do you expect? A correction to extend the acknowledgments?
    – usr1234567
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 13:19

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