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Finished my MRes recently. My supervisor has told me that their ex-PhD student (graduated a year and a half ago) had some results in their thesis that they hadn't published. He asked me to complete some additional lab work and tweak a draft paper the student had put together, then I could be looking at getting a lead author position.

It sounded great initially, but I was a bit curious about the situation with the old PhD student and asked one of the post-docs (who is connected to this work). They explained the ex-PhD student was working on the paper after they graduated, but after some personal situation (unsure what but sounded serious) they basically vanished and were uncontactable.

I was a bit uneasy about this. I asked my supervisor and whilst they said the PhD didn't confirm they were happy to have someone else write their paper they didn't respond to emails saying that the supervisor was planning this. So from my supervisor's perspective this is all above board.

For extra info I looked up the university's policy and it says that the copyright for the thesis, and all of the data described, is owned by the PhD student.

Could writing this paper potentially get me in major trouble? Wanting a career in research and a paper would be good but this feels like this could easily go bad given the universities position on IP ownership and it using the work carried out by the PhD student.

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    Not responding to an email should never be construed as positive consent. – Buffy May 15 at 17:02
  • So can I check, what if the student is completely not responding? Does the data just not get to be published because nobody can confirm they are happy for it to be published? – Drafahr May 15 at 17:06
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    Sadly yes, it might mean that. If you publish it without them it is plagiarism and a reputable publisher won't touch it without positive consent from all authors. If they are actively working on it, however, and publish it themself, then you can publish an extension as usual. – Buffy May 15 at 17:11
  • Sorry never published before so inexperienced on this front. Do journals usually ask for all authors to confirm that they agreed with the submission? Could the fact that the student wrote a draft for the paper and was planning to submit previously be used as consent? – Drafahr May 15 at 17:17
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    Doesn't anybody else find the supervisor a bit dodgy? Seems sneaky to put a student in this position. – AppliedAcademic May 16 at 3:12
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Let summarize formally. Publishing requires the positive active consent of all authors. Publishing something done by another without having them as author is plagiarism. So you are a bit stuck. But you have some options - I hope they don't put you at odds with your advisor, but some things are more important.

First, you can contact the original student/author and ask them what they intend to do and whether they would be open to having a co-author. They might not reply, in which case you are stuck. They might reply that they are completing it themself, and a non reply might actually imply something like this.

If they do publish it alone then you are free to publish extensions, citing their work as usual. You could even offer to help them get it done without co-authorship, but just an acknowledgement to hurry it along and open the work for extension.

No reputable publisher will publish under conditions lacking consent. Self publishing without consent (arXiv...) would put you in an untenable position, just as it would put a formal publisher.

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  • As you know, the usual way of enforcing the requirement for "active, positive consent" from all authors is not that the publisher collects the consents from all of them; instead, the publisher requires the corresponding author to make a declaration that they're received active, positive consent from all their co-authors. I fear OP might be about to come under some pressure to lie in that declaration. Do you have any advice on how to resist such pressure? – Daniel Hatton May 16 at 15:32
  • @DanielHatton, It is hard to give advice with incomplete information. But it is difficult to resist an unethical person (we don't know that they are) who has power/authority over you. In that case, speaking privately with a department head or dean might be good (or might be very bad). – Buffy May 16 at 15:53
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I think in this case, the easiest solution would be to publish your paper with a reference to that other student's thesis (or unpublished work).

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  • I think the problem I'm having with it is the paper we're putting together would contain data and figures produced by the PhD student. Would that not be us taking and using their IP without their consent? – Drafahr May 15 at 17:19
  • While it is possible to extend unpublished work, it seems very disrespectful to do it under these conditions. Yes, you can cite the thesis. But you can't "responsibly" tweak the draft of another. They have a valid claim of authorship. – Buffy May 15 at 17:25
  • @Drafahr It would if you used the exact same data and figures. To do it properly, you'd need to reproduce all the data yourself, using the methodology developed in \cite[the other student's work] – Iiro Ullin May 15 at 17:26
  • @Buffy -- agree! – Iiro Ullin May 15 at 17:28
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    @Drafahr Strictly speaking, yes: if you can't get consent to publish results of other person's labor, you have to reproduce these results yourself, however tedious/annoying that may be. There is another important moment: suppose these results are wrong, and that other person knew that they were wrong, and that's why they never published them. Then you'd be claiming on behalf of that person that their results were correct -- nothing good can come out of this – Iiro Ullin May 15 at 18:20
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This could be research misconduct to include that person I think. Typically all journals require consent from all authors – some by signature. If you can not obtain consent, that individual cannot be put on the paper.

If I was your advisor, I would tell you to repeat the work, expand on the work, and advance knowledge base on the topic. The topic does not belong to the PhD student, and even the data belongs to the university, not the student. You should rewrite the paper as well. Then you are first author – and the missing ex-student is put in the acknowledgement.

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  • If you just reproduce some work that you know and don’t do it completely differently, it’s likely still plagiarism. The creative work has already been done and you are just repeating the legwork. This becomes most evident in theoretical fields, where figuring out how to do things is the entire work. The missing PhD has probably solved a lot of problems that the asker does not need to solve again. – Wrzlprmft May 17 at 11:36
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Assuming that the original PhD student is kept as an author, and the paper states clearly who did what, I'd say you are in the clear.

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    No NO NOOOO, you are not in the clear unless they consent. Yes, they need to be co-author, but positive consent is essential. – Buffy May 15 at 16:58
  • And given their position, they may need to participate. The OP might not actually wind up as first author unless it is a valid extension. – Buffy May 15 at 17:00
  • Consent is necessary. – paul garrett May 16 at 3:09
  • Forced/non-negotiated authorship is an entire new set of problems. Not recommended. – AppliedAcademic May 16 at 3:10

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