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My BSc dissertation has recently been accepted for publication in the proceedings of a small conference. My supervisor has co-author credit as his assistance was naturally instrumental.

While I'm been working a career, my supervisor has very kindly been shopping the paper around for publication and has finally landed a hit here. He's been leading the charge all the way towards publication.

We were just discussing the presentation, and he sent me a file marked "Final". It contained my original paper, now with a third person as co-author.

I asked him who this person is; I assumed that they were perhaps another professor or lecturer, or maybe another student who'd contributed something new. The response I got was:

"He's the guy paying the conference fee. That's sadly how research works in real life."

I was never informed of this third person when the paper was submitted, and it was submitted with their name included.

My understanding is that they have contributed nothing further to the paper.

How do I stand in this situation ethically? Should I withdraw? Is this normal?

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  • 106
    This is absolutely not “how research works in real life”. However it’s typical of corrupt and cynical people to delude themselves into thinking that everyone is also corrupt and cynical like them. It’s the only way they can live with themselves.
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 24 at 23:40
  • 14
    I have been involved in my share of drama over authorship (not by choice, these kinds of things just inevitably happen), but this has to be one of the most outrageous reasons I've ever heard to add someone to a paper. Having said that I personally wouldn't take any actions against your advisor until you are safely being advised by someone else and I wouldn't take any actions that would hurt your own career, like withdrawing. I'm sorry this happened to you.
    – Andrew
    Aug 25 at 0:33
  • 4
    How much is the conference fee? Don't ask the professor first, ask the conference, then the professor. Aug 25 at 5:36
  • 8
    The title of this question is very misleading based on the content of the question. Nobody accepted money for co-authorship, he only paid the publication expenses, he didn't bribe anybody.
    – user000001
    Aug 25 at 5:44
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    @JackAidley I see... so maybe the advisor has a friend with extra funding, who is willing to foot the bill as a favor, but had to be added as an author to use the funding. That's very far from anything I've experienced in physics, but I do find it plausible since I can't see any way the third author would benefit enough to pay money to be made an author on an undergrad thesis; if this is a favor it makes more sense. While I think it's very unusual and sketchy, I still think "just go along with it and give the talk" is in the OP's interest.
    – Andrew
    Aug 25 at 12:12
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Personally, you are fine. The actions weren't yours. You are being used, I'm afraid, and your professor has an ethical problem. "Sadly" is exactly right and I hope they are wrong, even in a narrow sense, but it isn't a widespread practice.

But if your advisor is willing to do such things for a bit of money, I'd suggest you bite your tongue so that you don't bring down the wrath of the powers that be on your own head.

What is real life is that you have to occasionally deal with unethical people and sometimes have to just protect yourself to advance your career. Sorry you got stuck in this swamp.

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  • 35
    You forgot: "Run, don't walk." Aug 24 at 23:26
  • 2
    @CaptainEmacs, indeed. I wanted to add that once you break free you might consider complaining, but from a safe distance.
    – Buffy
    Aug 24 at 23:31
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I can’t advise you on what to do, since you are the person who will be living with the consequences of any action you decide to take. It is your decision to make how to deal with the situation.

I’ll just say this: if I heard a year or two from now that one of the people applying to my department’s graduate program was the person who famously exposed the money-for-authorship scandal at University of X by writing that viral blog post in late August 2021, in which they cited the immortal line “He's the guy paying the conference fee. That's sadly how research works in real life” from their adviser’s email and quoted the full unredacted email, you would be number 1 on my list of people I’d recommend to my department to accept.* And you would be number 1 on my list of people I’d want to mentor, and people I’d want to help have a successful academic career.

This is not normal. It’s corruption, pure and simple, and would not be considered remotely acceptable in any part of academia I’m familiar with.

Well, assuming you had decent potential to succeed in a mathematics graduate program, of course.

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    This answer should be improved by noting that the people that would recommend OP as number 1 (as Dan would) are an exception. Most people would recommend someone that is known for his academic achievements, not someone who wants to be known for discrediting and exposing his collaborators for personal gain.
    – user000001
    Aug 25 at 5:41
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    @user000001 that sounds like an opinion rather than a fact. I reject both your framing of the class of people I belong to as people who don’t care about academic achievement, and your characterization of that class as small.
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 25 at 6:18
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    (And I reject your framing of exposing the corruption as being “for personal gain”. It is no more appropriate to say that than to say that not exposing the corruption, as advocated in another answer, would be for personal gain.)
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 25 at 6:25
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    Middle, slightly cynical view: some employers will probably look at a non-anonymous whistleblower as a risk because "if they'll throw their former employer under the bus, maybe they'll do it here...". And it's not necessarily just the unethical employers. They might be afraid that OP might decide something that's actually within ethical bounds is whisteblowing-worthy (not saying OP would, but a potential employer might worry this). So I do think that whistleblowing publicly (vs. anonymously) is a career risk because you are now a risk to an future employer (in their mind).
    – bob
    Aug 25 at 14:17
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    @bob good point. To balance what you said, there is also risk with the route of not taking any action. If the corrupt authorship-for-conference-fee scheme is later found out (because someone else decided to blow the whistle, say), OP’s name could end up tainted by their silence, which would seen by some as complicitness. So, unfortunately life has all kinds of risks, and it’s not always possible to avoid career risk altogether.
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 25 at 14:41
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Should you withdraw? No.

Should you have been consulted before submission? Yes, but sadly it's common for senior academics not to properly consult undergraduates and other junior scientists about submissions for publication.

Is this ethical? In some fields, crediting the people who got the grant money to do the science as authors is common practice regardless of their further involvement. The argument is that getting the money takes time and effort and the science can't be done without it. Getting published is a necessary part of science and publication fees can be significant. I would count this as dubious rather than clearly unethical, but - and I can't emphasise this enough - it depends on field. Some fields have very narrow views of authorship, others have very broad views. Reactions from people outside your field usually throw more heat than light.

Finally, I note your framing is incorrect. Your supervisor did not accept money for authorship; they agreed to add the author in return for them paying something for the paper's publication. Your supervisor isn't getting any money from this, and will get minimal benefit from this extra paper, especially compared to how much you benefit.

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  • 3
    @Fizz It's common in parts of the Life Sciences, and probably elsewhere. In this case Acknowledgements are usually used to acknowledge the source of the funding, rather than the person who applied for the funding. Aug 25 at 8:48
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    I'm guessing it's for that reason that some publications in that field more recently require a statement of what work each author contributed...
    – Fizz
    Aug 25 at 8:51
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    @FIzz: That's part of it, yeah. Authorship is a totally outdated concept, unfit for purpose in most fields of science today, and should be dropped in favour of a better system IMO. But unless it is we'll be stuck with silly arguments over what authorship actually means. Aug 25 at 9:02
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    The more I think about it, the more I think this is the right read of the situation. As far as I can tell, the person benefitting the most here, at the end of the day, is the OP. Even though the situation seems unusual to me from the point of view of physics, I sympathize with an advisor lacking their own funds doing whatever it takes to enable their student to attend a conference.
    – Andrew
    Aug 25 at 12:24
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    @CGCampbell: It doesn't make any difference whether it was a credit card, cash, or a direct payment. The point is that the money is going to serve a purpose that is part of the supervisor's work, not their personal finances. The supervisor is no richer after the transaction than they were before. The common practice in academia of conflating the supervisor having money with the supervisor controlling money as part of their work isn't helping here. Aug 25 at 12:43
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  1. Is this normal? No, and it should not be.
  2. Should I withdraw? No. Presumably the results are still valid.
  3. How do I stand in this situation ethically? You yourself have done nothing wrong: it is your supervisor that is being unethical.

This is NOT how science is done these days, and thankfully this kind of bribery is rare. There isn’t much you can do yourself except carefully consider if you want to continue collaborating with this person.

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  • 2
    +1 for a clear and concise analysis of the situation. Probably the best answer so far.
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 26 at 4:14
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Adding a co-author purely because they paid for something is definitely inconsistent with academic standards. The policies of journals and professional societies make that clear and can be cited. What you can do is add a grant number in the acknowledgments, at the end of text. That way the sponsor can list your work as part of what has been accomplished with the funding, without being a co-author on the paper. That would be the proper solution; everyone will get credit for what they contributed, and if you insist you will prevail.

1

Well, first, selling authorships for a conference publication is like selling your soul for a hamburger. Nobody needs a conference publication that bad, though on the plus side, it's a conference so most likely nobody will ever care.

Second, yeah, it's unethical, and it's not how research works. "A friend" of mine once had a boss who had a habit of including government technical monitors as conf paper authors, which apparently did butter some of them up, but there were occasions when "the friend" could tell that the technical monitor felt pretty skeevy that this boss would even offer. My friend recalls one getting pretty irritated about it (they have some pretty severe quid pro quo policies). I should note this boss was from a country where this kind of thing is par for the course and which regularly appears in the news for corruption scandals (if I said what it was you'd go "ahaa"). His lax sense of ethics on a more serious matter eventually got him massively and expensively sued, like on a "forget about retiring" level.

I'm not sure if I'd call them out on it or not. I guess I'd have to know more about the paper and the circumstances of the work, particularly the funding and the background. It really sounds like a strange situation, that this guy just comes out of the blue and wants an authorship. Again, for a conference paper? Most conferences, to get a paper in, all you have to do is write something vaguely related to the field and pay the registration fee. It seems to me like there's more behind the scenes that we're not aware of. If it was a journal, I'd go nuclear on it, but conferences are pretty loosey-goosey about a lot of stuff. Like, it's not at all uncommon for professors to just randomly stick new grad students on conf papers just because they're in the research group.

1

You are in an abusive relationship. Supervisor and student is an interpersonal relationship, and just like with any interpersonal relationship, there are cases of abuse. Sadly, academia is full of such abusive situations.

Don't walk, run! As with any abusive relationship, it's not going to get better no matter what you do. It will only get worse.

You are in a state of denial:

While I'm been working a career, my supervisor has very kindly been shopping the paper around for publication

It sounds like you kind of try to find something good in your abuser in order to suppress your gut feeling, but your gut feeling is right. This is not common in the academic fields that I am aware of.

If your supervisor strains your relationship with you in that manner, he or she doesn't care about you. Your supervisor knows it's unethical, your supervisor probably has a guess what opinion you have of him, so obviously he has no long-term interest in you. He won't help you and throw you under the bus whenever convenient. Don't count on him ever for your career.

Honestly, the third author could just as much have been a desperate guy looking for a publication and paying your supervisor directly. Don't believe anything that guy says.

You should not withdraw, because it's your work, and nobody will hold a grad student accountable. However, Don't walk, run and get away from that guy as quickly as you can.

As with any abusive relationship, it's not going to get better no matter what you do. It will only get worse.

-4

Contact the journal editor (confidentially)

What you describe sounds very problematic, even after you tried to discuss the situation with your advisor. It sounds like you have already tried asking your advisor to clarify the situation, but his response was evasive, in that he did not confirm what (if anything) the 3rd party contributed in the capacity of co-author. Hence, as you say:

My understanding is that they have contributed nothing further to the paper.

You should try to ascertain whether that is the case by analysing the manuscript very carefully. Read it word for word, and check whether there is anything in there that you do not recognise as coming from yourself or from your advisor.

Of course, there is a (small) possibility that the advisor did involve the 3rd party in the process of making contributions that you believed to have come solely from your advisor, but if that were the case, your advisor should have mentioned to you that he had been involving a 3rd party at the time.

Personally, my view is that a person on the author list must be able to present on and answer detailed questions about all aspects (albeit allowing for some division of labour or specialisation, provided that everyone understands what is going on) of the work encapsulated in the paper (including exploratory work, investigative stages, and methodology), and it sounds like this 3rd party cannot do that.

So, my advice would be to contact the journal editor (confidentially) and explain the situation, forwarding all relevant correspondence and drafts in your possession. The editor, who should be familiar with what constitutes authorship and who should have the authority to ask tough questions, will then be able to investigate the issue properly and come to a determination of whether your advisor acted appropriately (based on the information you have given, the answer is probably "no", but it is difficult to be sure without seeing the details and asking tough questions of all parties concerned).

Of course, once you have taken the step of going to the editor, you (and your 'co-authors') will probably have to abide by whatever decision he/she makes. Depending on the details of the case, possible outcomes include:

  • the editor retracts the article due to academic malpractice; or
  • the editor publishes the article with just two authors (you and your advisor), and asks you to mention the 3rd party to the 'Acknowledgements' section instead; or
  • the editor is satisfied with the explanations given by your advisor and publishes the article with all three parties as authors.

You should be prepared for the possibility that this will result in your "burning bridges" with your advisor. But to be honest, that might be a good thing (if it turns out that your advisor were corrupt); better to cut your losses now than to be tainted by corruption and blighted by toxic working relationships.

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    Oh wow, I think this is a really bad idea. If you were going to contact the journal editor, I would definitely make sure the email you sent to the editor had a clear request for an action. In practice, the editor's job is not to mediate conflicts between co-authors and I think this email will make the OP look unprofessional. Finally I get the sense that the OP doesn't know the full story. I would not kick the hornets nest of burning bridges with a current academic supervisor without knowing all the facts. It's not at all clear to me that the advisor is corrupt.
    – Andrew
    Aug 26 at 3:53
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    What journal editor? The question is about a conference paper
    – user000001
    Aug 26 at 5:35
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    @Andrew Granted: the student has next to 0 leverage on the supervisor, else there would not be this conflict, and the outcome of this is possibly one less presentation for a student who has done nothing wrong, but I doubt the conference organizers would allow as a policy this kind of academic dishonesty on the part of some authors and co-authors. Aug 26 at 12:06

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