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I have just finished a paper together with a number of colleagues and collaborators from other universities. We were about to submit it but one of the authors does not agree anymore. His explanation is that, while he thinks the paper is fine, he has a new idea and does not want to publish this as it would make his idea ‘‘less original’’ (because some parts of his idea are already in this paper).

Mind that it would be difficult to include his idea in the paper as while the methods are the same, the applications are totally different.

What would you do in this case?

I am the main contributor and another professor had the idea. He wants to cut out some other authors, including the professor who had the idea. He’s quite a powerful and famous academic though, that’s why I think he’s feeling entitled to do so.

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    Seems pretty unethical. – Buffy yesterday
  • Can you safely remove his contribution from the paper and publish without him? Then he could do his own thing separately. – Kimball 23 hours ago
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Talk to the other collaborators who probably agree with you, and then take a unified front to tell him that holding several collaborators hostage is not ok.

Additionally, if part of his new publication uses a jointly developed idea which he intends to publish alone while blocking your joint work (that should be in the references of his planned solo paper), then this strikes me as borderline plagiarism. In any case, it’s very bad form.

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    Probably not "borderline" at all. – Buffy yesterday
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    Good answer, but the "blocking the joint work" part would not affect whether it's plagiarism or not. – lighthouse keeper yesterday
  • @lighthouse: I had to read this twice. :) Yes, that is correct. It just makes the situation more unsavory. – gnometorule yesterday
  • Maybe the relevant idea was originally a contribution by the blocking author's one, in which case it's not strictly plagiarism, and it shouldn't be used as an argument if this is the case. Still, destroying a paper written with colleagues because it will damage their future work is pretty bad stuff as it goes. – Captain Emacs yesterday
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    @Wolf: I assume the issue you’re concerned about is to lose a publication. It was my understanding that the professor you’re talking about was blocking you others from publishing. If he’s not, and ok with a mere acknowledgement, that strikes me as fine. If he blocks you from publishing, then I’d still contact him after conferring with your other collaborators - or better yet, have someone more senior (I take it you’re a Ph.D. student or postdoc) talk to him - and proceed as above, having a civilized conversation with him. Also, discuss with your PI/Ph.D. advisor first. – gnometorule yesterday
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Is he the primary contributor of this paper or the idea?

If he was the sole contributor of that specific idea, he has the right to withdraw from the paper with his idea. Your work is still publishable. If he soon writes a new paper partly based on his idea, you should cite his working paper as the source of idea. If no working paper comes out before your submission, then you should acknowledge him for telling you that specific idea.

This happens too many times that once researcher A mentioned a new idea to researcher B, the latter, if being unethical, may occasionally say that he was also thinking about the same idea for a while. This way, researcher A cannot claim that he was the sole contributor of that specific idea.


If he is not the primary contributor of that idea, then this sounds a little bit unethical. Is he going to write a solo-author paper or a new joint work with you and others?

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    1) I am the main contributor and another professor had the idea. 2) he wants to cut out some other authors, including the professor who had the idea. – Wolf yesterday
  • @Wolf This case, I don't know what is he doing. Is he the PI of your group? – High GPA yesterday
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    He was the PI of my previous group (when I was a student) and we still collaborate sometimes. When we started the work I had already graduated and I was no longer in his group. – Wolf yesterday
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    @Wolf I think the info in your comments (particularly the first one) should be added to the question. – GoodDeeds yesterday
  • @Wolf If you remove that "idea", will your paper still contain enough results to be published in a good place? If so, you could send out a mass email to all your coauthors, neutrally and politely, telling them that the Big Name wants the idea to be removed; anyone having disagreements could send an email to the Big Name. If they agree, you will have no troubles. – High GPA 17 hours ago
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Many journals have a policy that all authors must approve of the paper for it to be published, and if any authorship changes (for example, adding or removing authors) occur between submission and publication, all authors must agree to it. If you had submitted the paper with his name as a co-author, he might have been able to try to use that as leverage to block the paper from getting published in that journal.

Since you haven't submitted it yet, the situation is a bit better, but still very messy:

  • (1) If it is possible to remove his contribution and publish the paper without him as a co-author, the journal is very unlikely to let him block your paper, but this might make him angry, and since he was your former PI when you were a student, this might not be a good idea. Pissing off your former supervisor can sometimes be harmful to your career (for example when you apply for things, your former supervisors can often be contacted informally, even if you haven't listed them for a letter of reference). So preferably, you won't have to do this.

  • (2) If his contribution was essential to the paper (i.e. cannot be taken out), if you submit the paper without him as a co-author he could file an academic integrity complaint at your institution (or with the journal if you don't have an institution). If his contribution was essential, he would hopefully win in this academic integrity investigation. So I highly recommend not to do this.

So what can you do that doesn't jeapordize your career?

Two options that are better for your career in the long-term (despite not looking better in the short-term) are to:

  • (3) Try to discuss the situation with the other professor, in a professional and adult-like way. Perhaps get the other co-authors on your side and get the senior-most one to do the talking (you said there was another professor involved).

  • (4) Take a sacrifice and make a compromise with yourself: your long-term career may be more important than the short-term gains this paper provides right now, so maybe you can accept the cost of having to avoid publishing this paper, in exchange for the benefits of maintain a good relationship with this professor who you said is "powerful and famous". Hopefully the "powerful and famous" professor would be able to include you on the subsequent paper. While this is not ideal, it would not be necessary if you are successful with your attempts in option (3).


So option (3) is the best option here, and if it doesn't work then I would in many cases recommend option (4). The third and fourth best options would be (1) then (2) respectively. No option is perfect for you in the short-term, unfortunately. This is academia.

  • I personally have settled with option (4) many, many, many times.
  • I can't count the number of times I did not publish something because a more powerful academic preferred to wait (even though that academic did not need to be a co-author.
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