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A master's student did research under an advisor. As part of the research, the student had collected and processed a lot of data and finally published the thesis as well. After a few years, the advisor took a small portion of said data from the master's thesis and published a paper. The student is not a co-author nor was prior consent sought to use that data. However, the advisor added the student's name in the acknowledgment section. Is there anything wrong on the advisor's side? After all, the advisor had also actively guided the research and collection of data and may feel they have a right to use that data without the consent of the student.

The student played no role in publishing the paper except for the fact that a part of the student's published master's thesis data was used for this journal publication. The student was hence not added as a co-author but was acknowledged.

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    PG = post grad? Did you collect this for your advisor's project, or on your own? i.e. were you funded to do this work? – Azor Ahai -him- Feb 22 at 16:18
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    Could you explain what you mean by "processing data"? What kind of processing? I read that as meaning "analyzed the data to extract useful information". If that's not what you mean, please edit and clarify. – terdon Feb 22 at 17:05
  • @AzorAhai-him-, yes PG=Post Grad, or for Masters Thesis. – codingsplash Feb 23 at 6:39
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    You should explicitly says what " master thesis published as well" means. Did it went public via a journal? If so, the advisor is likely correct. He behave as if he would critically use my published data, or those of another user, citing our work. In this case you are not only cited, but acknowledged, too. There are too many variables to answer your question. We can't know what is substantial and what is not. – Alchimista Feb 23 at 12:08
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The title of the question seems to contradict the text of the question: it's not the "student's data" once it's been published. But there is nuance.

Very broadly speaking, a person gets to be an author on a particular publication when they have done work for that particular publication. If work was done but already published elsewhere, then it is considered work for a different publication. Conversely, if this new publication relies on data that has not been (and is not about to be) published elsewhere, then the data is essentially work for the new publication. Basically, if the student considers the data published, then the student can no longer claim any ownership of the data. And if the student hasn't contributed anything new to this new publication, there is no ethical demand on the professor to share authorship with the student — in fact, there would be more of an ethical demand not to gift authorship to the student.

Now, having said that, it's also true that there are different levels of publication. When the thesis was "published", where and how did that happen? Just in the university library's archive of theses? On the arXiv? Some kind of data repository (zenodo, figshare, dryad)? Or a journal? One of the driving factors behind ethical decisions is the fact that, "in the scholarly arena, [authorship] also forms the basis for rewards and career advancement." (COPE, 2019) So — specifically in their role as a supervisor — the advisor has some moral responsibility to ensure that such rewards can be conferred on the student. At least in fields I've worked in, that basis entirely ignores university library thesis archives, but gives nearly full credit to arXiv publication, and full credit to data repositories and journals. I suspect that every academic field would give full credit to a journal publication, some might not with arXiv or data repos, and most would not credit a library archive.

So here, I'll just give my judgment based on fields I've worked in. If it were me, and the thesis had only been published in the university library's archive, I would not consider the data published, and thus offer authorship to the student. Otherwise, I would consider the data published, and feel ethically bound not to offer authorship to the student, unless they contribute something specifically to the new publication (which could be as minor as helping to write a section).

But there is some gray area here, so I'll also point out that it could be just a dumb move on the advisor's part to push toward the greedy end of the gray. Sole authorship is usually more of a boost to the ego than to the career. On the other hand, the advisor's institution and funding agencies want to see evidence of training the next generation — and joint publications constitute great evidence. Also, future students and collaborators want to know they won't be squeezed out of credit they might deserve. When there's ethical wiggle room, the smart move is to err on the side of generosity.


Edit: I should also emphasize that there's a difference between being an author and being offered authorship. Given the comment below that the thesis was published in the university library, the advisor should have made a good-faith effort to bring the student aboard as an author on the paper. However, it's also true that students who have moved on with their lives will often be unable or unwilling to take on the responsibility of authorship, even with a reasonable amount of flexibility from the other authors. I'm not saying that's what happened here, but it can happen. And if it does, the advisor can't let the research be held hostage, but must accept that they made an honest effort, and the research has technically been published, so the new publication can go forward without the student.


Further reading

Within academia, COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) is generally regarded as providing a sort of broad framework for all fields. (For example, Springer's, Cambridge's, and Wiley's discussions of authorship ethics link to COPE.) And COPE has put out a document with lots of discussion and links to more discussion on the issue of authorship.

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    Thanks for your detailed answer. This was published and available only in the university library – codingsplash Feb 24 at 16:57
  • Thanks for the clarification. Given that, I think it was not ideal behavior on the part of the advisor, but not "actionable" in the sense that no official action would likely be taken if the student complains — either to the school or the journal. – Mike Feb 24 at 20:04
  • More or less what I have been thinking. Plus 1. With no paper out the boss could have been more friendly to OP. – Alchimista Feb 25 at 17:03
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A paper should not be published without the consent of all the authors.

Collecting and processing data may or may not make someone an author; it depends on the details and the discipline. We cannot evaluate this for you.

If you live in a jurisdiction where data is not protected by copyright law, then technically anybody who gets a copy of your data can publish that data wherever they please.

https://law.stackexchange.com/questions/11359/can-you-copyright-data

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    "A paper cannot be published without the consent of all the authors.". As an Editor-in-chief of a math journal I can say that this is not a true statement. – user135405 Feb 22 at 12:55
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    @dodd do you mean that sometimes the system breaks down and papers can and have been published without the required consent or are you saying that, at least for your journal, author consent is optional? – terdon Feb 22 at 16:22
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    @terdon: One of my papers was published without my consent. Also I understand the procedure in my journal. There is no step of this procedure when the consent of all authors is requested. Same for all journals where I published my papers (more than 120). – user135405 Feb 22 at 19:00
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    @dodd I have had quite a few journals automatically check if I consent to publication. Do you have any exceptions to the ethical requirement other than "author dead" or "author permanently disabled?" – Anonymous Physicist Feb 22 at 21:18
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    @dodd perhaps the more pertinent question is: if an author were to write to you about a paper under consideration, saying that it was submitted without their consent - would you do anything or would you review & publish as normal? – Allure Feb 22 at 23:16
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The ethics of what your advisor did can't be answered well without knowing the exact specifics of what you did and your field.

If the data you collected was part of a project led by your advisor (collecting data is a valuable learning experience as part of a postgraduate degree), who "gave" you an analysis to do, their behavior trends toward acceptable/expected, the data is "theirs."

But, if this was a project you proposed and executed, it trends toward unethical, although some would argue that data collected in a lab ultimately belongs to the PI (I don't), which makes using it without contacting you only slight rude.

This, of course, depends on how expensive/difficult the data is to collect. If they gave you funding to collect six MRI scans, that would give them a little bit more leeway than if you scraped data from Reddit.

Finally, with regards to "processing," in my field at least, that would give you priority over the first paper published with it (which you said you did), as well as the next few you are directly involved in. After that -- especially a few years later -- citing you and acknowledging the use of your data is the correct way to go.

In short, I think it's more likely than not your advisor behaved appropriately, but the details matter.

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Note: the answer below makes an assumption about what you meant by "processing" data. I am assuming you mean that the student collected the data and then analyzed them to extract useful information and this is the information that was then put in context by the advisor and published. If by "processing" you just mean filling out a spreadsheet or otherwise making the data available for analysis as opposed to actually performing the analysis, then that's different and my answer does not apply.


What you are describing sounds to me like a clear case of academic malpractice where the advisor is stealing someone else's work. I may be misunderstanding the situation, but you wrote: "the student had collected and processed a lot of data". This means the student did all the work of data collection and analysis. I realize this may depend on your field, but I struggle to imagine a situation where the person who did all the data collection and analysis doesn't merit authorship of a paper that is based on said data and analysis.

So yes, from what I can understand and the details you gave, the advisor is absolutely in the wrong. The student should not only have been consulted, but more importantly, the student should have been an author. The fact that the advisor had actively guided the research and collection of data is irrelevant. That's what advisors are supposed to do and that's why, at least in many fields, papers are published under both the advisor's and the student's name. In my field, biology, this would typically have the student as first author and the advisor as last and corresponding author.

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    You seem to be confusing "participation" in a study with the creative work that makes you an author. Not every participant "deserves" authorship. In fact, in some fields, "courtesy authorship" is common and viewed by others as a violation of ethical standards. The professor, here, seems to have appropriately acknowledged the work of the student. – Buffy Feb 22 at 16:34
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    @Buffy I guess it comes down to what the OP means by "analysis". I read that as collecting the data and the processing said data to extract relevant information. That, to me, is an integral part of the work and is more than enough to merit authorship in my field. It is, in fact, often the most hard and important part of the work. So this seems like the person who actually did all the work is being given an acknowledgement while the supervisor gets all the credit for their student's work. – terdon Feb 22 at 16:43
  • Also, @Buffy, what's your field? I assume if this is how you feel, then that's the norm in your field, and that is so different to what I am used to I am very curious. What field is this where the person who did all of the legwork of collecting and analyzing data doesn't merit authorship? Some sort of very theoretical subject, I guess? – terdon Feb 22 at 16:53
  • @Buffy In my world, "participation" would suggest someone is a subject of the research, rather than the person collecting the data. Overall I don't think it's clear either way; I think this answer assumes the person described in OP had a lot more contribution than even the OP implies (though the added note qualifies this), and I think it's hard to make judgment without knowing what "collected and processed" means, but I also think there is not enough here to assume a mere acknowledgement was the appropriate action. – Bryan Krause Feb 22 at 18:00
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I don't think the behaviour of the PI would be regarded as 'wrong' by most academics; the fact that a problem exists in apportioning ownership to the paper is testament to the fact that many people contributed to the paper, either through writing or analysis or data generation or ideas. Therefore my personal view is that everyone ought to be included as authors.

The decision of the PI in this case is not unusual, however, I think it sucks. Who wants to be way at the bottom of the page, separate from all of the other authors, like a black sheep?

An acknowledgement is more of an insult than anything.

This is why I avoid academia. I am not going to be the labour-slave of a PI who gets to take all the credit, make all the important decisions and receive the fat salary.

I'm_not_doing_it: become an independent researcher.

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