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My co-authors and I are preparing to submit a manuscript and have a problem regarding authorship.

Several months ago, a grad student on the project became upset and quit. We just discovered that, after quitting, the student apparently decided to publish results from the project under their own name, without including or informing any of the other co-authors, without listing the funder, etc. What the student published is incorrect (decent journal, but peer review failed to catch the issues) and bears little relation to the final work, and obviously that journal is being informed about the need to withdraw that paper.

We now have a dilemma regarding the student's authorship on the intended publication. The student is listed as a co-author because they did make contributions before quitting the project. Since they are a co-author, we had planned to send a copy of the draft to the student before submission. Now we do not want to do this, because we fear the student might decide to again inappropriately publish the work under their own name or otherwise foul the publication. The journal we are planning to submit to, however, requires that you indicate that all co-authors have given consent for a submission.

What is an ethical way to navigate this dilemma?

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    Have you had any contact with the student regarding these issues?
    – Jeroen
    Dec 10 '21 at 9:17
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    The student's former advisor had contact with the student about the inappropriate publication when the student first posted a draft on a preprint server. The student's submission for peer review came after that discussion, when the student had already been informed plainly that publishing these results solo was scientific misconduct. Dec 10 '21 at 9:39
  • I wonder about an acknowledgement section that says that John Doe was part of the initial research but disavowed the final manuscript... (assuming that actually happens) Dec 11 '21 at 20:05
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    How did the student contribute to the paper? Did they collect data, analyze it, prepare figures, write part of the text or come up with a key idea? The reason I'm asking is because if you want to minimize your future involvement with the student, it's probably best if you can reject and redo any work they did. (Not to mention that you probably should double-check it anyway just to make sure it's correct.) But the nature of their contributions makes a difference in how easy this is, if it's even possible at all. Dec 12 '21 at 19:48
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    @IlmariKaronen As it happens, that process has already occurred. The student's work had significant flaws, which is why what the student published is incorrect and why the final results that we produced are so different. Dec 12 '21 at 23:22
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I don't think the answer is as obvious as the other posters make it sound—I can't find any guidelines indicating an explicitly malicious coauthor should be enabled to tank a research study that they are no longer a part of. Imagine a scenario where six authors collaborate on a study that concludes guacamole causes oral cancer. A coauthor, who works for a guacamole company, refuses to participate in the publication process, in an attempt to suppress the results. They are breaking the agreement between authors, so your obligations to them change.

The coauthor has already committed scientific misconduct, with public evidence of their fraud, and has given you no reason to think they wouldn't do it again. Personally, I would absolutely not send the new manuscript to this person without getting a third party involved first. It's not necessary to allow yourself to be repeatedly defrauded by a bad actor while you hope—again, for no reason—that they suddenly begin to behave ethically.

Authorship disputes are common, though this one does seem exceptionally tricky. Is it possible to get your institution involved to settle this? If the coauthor quit the project but is still in school, I would hope there was an official mediation process for situations like this—I know of at least one person who was recommended for expulsion from undergraduate studies for more benign fraud than this. For what it's worth, Wiley, one of the largest academic publishers in the world, recommends "Authorship disputes will often need to be referred to institutions if the authors cannot resolve the dispute themselves," as does the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). I imagine this is usually regarding authors who want to be added to a publication, but it's still an authorship dispute.

One potential approach, particularly if your institution doesn't seem particularly interested in intervening, is to communicate (in writing!) with the coauthor about the situation and your desire to keep them as a coauthor. If they respond, great! Hopefully it will be a productive conversation, and they can offer you some reassurance that they won't steal your work. If they do not respond, and you're for some reason unable to contact them some other way, then your problem may actually become a little less tricky: Removing a coauthor who refuses to respond is a more common issue that journal editors may be more willing to deal with once the manuscript gets to them. If you submit the manuscript without them as a coauthor, the journal can then use this correspondence, and the retracted stolen results, to make a decision about the final author list.

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    But have you seen any guidelines that indicate that misconduct, however malicious, has any effect on authorship right? If not, then it is simple: a consent of a co-author is required, ergo they can tank the publication by refusing to consent.
    – Kostya_I
    Dec 11 '21 at 14:26
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    Not indicating all authors, and not obtaining consent to publish from all authors, may lead to much more problems down the road than not confronting the problem now. Dec 11 '21 at 15:59
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    @Kostya_I You're right that I can't find any guidelines that indicate misconduct has an effect on authorship, but a lack of guidance for one solution doesn't necessarily support an argument for the opposite solution. I imagine exceptions are carved out all the time, it just happens without others finding out about it. More consistent, publicly available policy—in either direction—would be helpful.
    – rabdill
    Dec 13 '21 at 15:01
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Two things should be clear:

  • it is not ethical to publish without them on the list, and
  • it is not ethical to publish without obtaining all authors' positive consent.

So, the only possible course of action if you want to publish the results is to show them a draft and obtain such a consent.

I don't think there's real risk of the student trying to steal the draft. It's one thing what they did so far: the student can maintain plausible deniability that they honestly judged they were the only one who really merited co-authorship. Stealing someone else's draft is a different level of misconduct completely.

On top of that, the student knows that it will not work: you already started a process of retracting their paper, hopefully successfully, and with the new draft, your case would be bulletproof. If you wish, you can also make it harder for them by only providing the final PDF without Latex sources, pictures etc.

So, from rational point of view, the student has two option, either write "I agree", click "send", and have a publication out of that, or engage in a risky activity with unlikely benefit. Of course, not all people are rational, but if it has come to the point that they will obstruct publication even at a cost of self-harm, nothing can be done.

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    There's a third option: the student could refuse to reply to the request.
    – Schmuddi
    Dec 11 '21 at 8:00
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    Expecting rational behaviour from someone who has already stormed off and unethically published the work without attribution seems unwise. Dec 11 '21 at 10:19
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    And a fourth option: "No, I do not agree". Dec 11 '21 at 17:29
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    Extracting pictures and text from a PDF is not a big challenge. I wouldn't consider it a safety measure when sending a document to someone you don't trust. Dec 11 '21 at 23:43
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    @Kostya_I: What I'm saying is: The other authors need to prepare themselves for a situation so messed up that they can't publish their work at all without a breach of ethics.
    – Schmuddi
    Dec 12 '21 at 10:40
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Other people behaving unethically never justifies you behaving unethically. It's very clear from an ethics perspective what you need to do: You need agreement with all coauthors before you can submit. If they contributed in a meaningful way, they are a coauthor.

We actually often see the dilemma from the other side: Students wonder how to proceed if their estranged advisor does not agree with the publication. Obviously, your former student decided to do the wrong thing. Don't follow their example because consequences could be the same.

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  • Of course we want to behave ethically (hence the question), but what specifically would you advise regarding how to interact with the student regarding approvals? We don't want to risk the student deciding to take our names off and publish on their own again! Dec 10 '21 at 10:07
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    They can't publish it on their own. You need to have a constructive discussion with them. I know that's easier said than done because obviously something went seriously wrong in your relationship.
    – Roland
    Dec 10 '21 at 10:09
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    You say they can't publish on their own, and yet there is already a DOI and request for a journal to withdraw a paper that resulted from the last time that the student decided to publish on their own after what was believed to be just such a discussion. Dec 10 '21 at 10:12
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    Yes, I understand. You cannot prevent misconduct by others. You can only control your own conduct. Since the paper will be withdrawn (let's hope it's not a predatory journal, because then you would have a very serious problem), you can only hope that the student has learned how futile their approach is and becomes more willing to work with you.
    – Roland
    Dec 10 '21 at 10:20
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+100

This is not a full answer, but here's what I suggest you start by doing:

Try reaching out to that graduate student and asking them about the prospect of publication. That is, tell them that you plan on publishing the group's work, , and see how they react. If they don't burst out shouting, ask whether they are ok with it. If they don't specifically demand being listed as an author, propose a "The authors would like to thank" note; if they do demand authorship, or do get into a shouting match, then you might want to either offer authorship or say you need to confer with the others about it.

It's best to let the author with the least history of animosity vis-a-vis the student make the call. Perhaps even sacrifice familiarity for non-animosity, since the grad student is less likely to feel the right to make demands and get angry at someone they don't really know (and who may be their senior academically).

PS - Try to have a voice conversation, not on-the-record exchange of letters or formal-sounding emails.

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  • That's the only viable solution. Thanks for this non-confrontational approach!
    – usr1234567
    Dec 13 '21 at 9:31
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    @usr1234567: It is partly rooted in the fact that authorship is not a zero-sum game. Except perhaps in the case of single author vs 2 authors,, it usually does not detract from your "magical glory" benefit to recognize another author. So at worst OP will be repaying injury with kindness - but that will give OP the best chance of getting the groups' work published, which is really the important goal here.
    – einpoklum
    Dec 13 '21 at 10:38

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