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So long story short is that, while I was doing my masters I have worked with a PhD candidate on a paper. I basically developed half of the system and did all the experiments while I was doing my masters. During my masters they tried to publish the results at different venues, but did not get selected. After one year, the PhD candidate got accepted into a venue and did not give me any authorship, they are just mentioning me in the acknowledgement section.

It is frustrating to see that I am not getting the well earned credit that I deserve.

What are some actions that I can take?

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  • 21
    sure. but then what? I hope you don’t expect your supervisor to write letters of reference for you… Feb 12, 2022 at 1:58
  • 7
    @FranckDernoncourt if only you were right. Most likely some confidentiality clause will prevent the public at large to learn the story, especially if this went to court. Feb 12, 2022 at 15:06
  • 4
    How long did your master's last, given that during that, you (1) developed a system, (2) did all the experiments, (3) wrote up the results, and (4) submitted the results to several venues? This doesn't seem to add up.
    – user151413
    Feb 12, 2022 at 19:05
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    It's not fair for a supervisor to blackmail someone with reference letters and then use that to get away with behaviour which is immoral. Other people can be used as a reference if necessary.
    – Tom
    Feb 12, 2022 at 20:24
  • 4
    Did you try talking to them about it?
    – Stef
    Feb 13, 2022 at 13:39

7 Answers 7

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You can sue anyone for any reason. But being able to sue is not the same as being able to win.

You are probably better off talking to your advisor and making your case for why you should be included as an author. You'll need to demonstrate you had sufficient involvement to warrant authorship. If you did "[develop] half of the system and did all the experiment", and can prove it, then this shouldn't be a problem.

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    @vsz if that’s the question, it’s off topic (here and anywhere really: they need to talk to a lawyer). If the question is really “the situation is X, I’m considering option A, are there any other options?”, that’s allowed here (and what this answer is targeted at)
    – Tim
    Feb 12, 2022 at 21:53
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    @Tim The question "is it technically possible to sue?" is even more offtopic, so that would just make this answer worse. Plus, I think Franck Dernoncourt gives a perfectly reasonable answer that 'yes, it's sometimes successful, but it's probably not a good idea' Feb 13, 2022 at 14:29
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Can I sue my advisor due to not giving me authorship?

Yes, but uncommon. Such lawsuits are sometimes successful from a legal standpoint, e.g. see the quote below. However I'd recommend to first try to mediate with your co-authors' university and the journal where the article was published. Bridges may be burned in the process but if one was unfairly treated, defending oneself is a respectable option and not all bridges in life deserved to be taken.

From {1}:

Using courts to resolve on authorship credit on scientific papers is rare [5479]. The law is often neutral on questions of authorship, which is exacerbated by the lack of clarity about professional practices and ambiguous damages from denied authorship credit. Lawsuits are costly and lengthy [54]. In one case where an authorship dispute did go to court [79], the ruling favored the plaintiff who claimed first authorship, but the manuscript was apparently never published. No paper matching the description can be found in databases of scientific publications. Like the old joke, “The surgery was a success, but the patient died,” the plaintiff won the case, but science lost.


References:

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    "not all bridges in life deserved to be taken" - well said; +1 for this.
    – Outsider
    Feb 14, 2022 at 15:14
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I don't know where you are located at, but let me give you a German perspective:

I would raise this to the professor of the phd student. In case this doesn't work the next step is the universities ombudsman for conflicts with university supervisors or the ombudsman for scientific integrity.

You should also check your legal options by taking advantage of the free legal counseling provided from the student union. Be careful not to make any false accusations about anybody involved, they might sue you for defamation.

As always: Some professors feel like their little research group is their kingdom. But there are actually a lot more checks and balances in place nowadays than many realize: An investigation of the universities ombudsman into this can get very embarrassing and even the threat that you consider involving the committee can make wonders.

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Starting with legal action is almost always the wrong thing to do in a civil dispute. In many countries the mere fact that you didn't try to resolve the issue amicably will make your case fall apart in court, and even if there's no such requirement in your country, suing without a honest attempt to resolve the issue will work against you. In the worst case, the professor might counter-sue you for legal bullying.

You don't mention anywhere in your question that you have raised the point with the professor and/or your colleague PhD candidate. This is where you should start, and this first step ideally should not involve any third party, it should be a discussion between the co-authors.

If the professor refuses to put your name on the paper (hopefully explaining their reasoning to you), you might decide that you still disagree with them and get an independent third party involved.

If the paper is already published, it will be much more difficult to get your name on it now. It would have been much easier to do when the paper was prepared for submission. You say you worked on this paper, so you should have been aware when it was submitted.

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You can sue anyone for any reason. Whether you win or not, that's another issue/problem.

You would have to prove that you have some legally-enforceable agreement (or a reasonable expectation according to the law) that you would get authorship in general, and on this research in particular.

Chances are, you do not have that.

When we work as assistants in grad school, one of our jobs is to labor and provide support for work done by PhD students and researchers.

You might have developed half of the system and carried out all the experiments, but there's a very good chance that the original line of research was not yours.

I did similar kind of work under the supervision of PhD candidates and researchers. A lot of leg work done in setting up systems and even conducting all the experiments.

Nevertheless, the original lines of research were not mine, nor I was capable (at that time) to even think on how to formulate or express the problems that lead to the research.

If we don't have direct influence over the topic under investigation, we do not get authorship (and we shouldn't.)

I never got (nor asked) for authorship on things I did not initiate, regardless of how much support I gave. I only got authorship on research or topics that I had a job of leading.

The way I see it is that you are looking at your experience the wrong way (and in a very horrible way.)

What I did not get in authorship, I got in experience, hands-on experience under people more experienced than me. And that has served me through life far more than my name in some papers (which are not obsolete because of the inevitability of technical advances.)

This is truly a glass-half-full vs glass-half-empty situation, and you need to decide what kind of professional you are or want to be. How you approach this will determine that (and your future job prospects.)

After all, sue your superiors, but don't expect job references over that burned bridge.

Please think and choose wisely.

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Best bet would be to raise your case and ask advice with the necessary people at your university, present the case explaining as to why you merit co-authorship and write some letters if necessary.

Talk to your advisor and calmly explain why your contribution is that of a co-author, and that to relegate your contribution to the acknowledgments is very unfair. Maybe write this up as a formal letter in writing if you feel you are likely to get emotional or confrontational when you speak to the advisor in person.

After that, you could message the editor and see if an erratum can be published for the article which is to state that you were mistakenly omitted as a co-author from the first version of the article.

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  • I don't object this advice. Please consider, that trying to get or actually getting published an erratum might be poorly perceived by the supervisor and his team. This might lead to creating serious enemies in your field!
    – usr1234567
    Feb 12, 2022 at 19:25
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    I don't follow. Errata are issued on articles all the time. The person was mistakenly not included and believe that their contribution absolutely merits contribution. You can't just pussyfoot around and meekly be dropped from author lists of articles because you don't want ''to make enemies''.
    – Tom
    Feb 12, 2022 at 19:54
  • Yes obviously, the erratum would be approved by all of the authors!
    – Tom
    Feb 12, 2022 at 20:25
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While it is frustrating, if you really want to build an academic career and a record of publications, concentrate on creating new results. Let this one go and learn from it for future collaborations. If you are involved in trouble, this will resonate in the community and might stick negatively to you. You should work towards being perceived as positive, productive, and trying to get things done. Suing or arguing over authorship after publication is the opposite.

As you are named in the acknowledges, you still might put it into your CV and list it as minor contributions to the paper. Once you have enough (co-)authored articles collected, you can drop the paper from your CV.

Most master students are not interested in publishing and are gone after they hand in their thesis. That does not make the actions from your supervisor right, it is just to give you some background.

If you are in a similar position to decide authorship, handle it better!

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    The advisor plagiarizing the student's work was the one "starting trouble."
    – Alexis
    Feb 12, 2022 at 17:01
  • @Alexis I don't want to belittle the advisor's wrong-doing. I adjusted my answer to "being involved in trouble" to make it more neutral.
    – usr1234567
    Feb 12, 2022 at 18:47
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    The advisor has already "involved the student in trouble." Your advice seems to be: "accept being exploited." Would you mind if I were to plagiarize your most recent paper?
    – Alexis
    Feb 12, 2022 at 18:50
  • That is not plagiarized. Without doubt, it remains scientific misconduct. But I think with the work on a master thesis level, OP would do himself no favor fighting to be co-author of the paper. That ship has sailed. He is acknowledged, that might be enough to put it on OP's resume the upcoming years. Once he is (co-)author of five+ papers, this early hit loses its effect. A fight might not go away in the relevant community.
    – usr1234567
    Feb 12, 2022 at 19:20
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    You can't just let people get away with immoral behaviour because you don't want ''to make enemies''. They need to learn how to behave. Acknowledgments are mostly meaningless and just indicate good will.
    – Tom
    Feb 12, 2022 at 19:56

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