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A few months ago, in our group meeting, my advisor brought up a problem in the field that might be interesting for us to think about it. Although it was not related to my PhD, since I was going for my defense, I started to think about it with another student and prepared a paper and sent it to the advisor. He saw it (one week before the deadline) and said that another student in the group (who was in that meeting) is also interested in that problem and is working on a simpler version of it with a totally different approach.

9 hours before the deadline of the paper submission, the guy who was working on the simpler version sent me a message and said that I have to add his name (and also his wife!) to our paper because he was working on the same problem and he wants his name to be on the first paper which is about that new problem. He said that in return, he will add my name and my collaborator's name to his paper (his wife is his collaborator in his paper, although her field was not related to the problem and that is why he asked for both names to be added in our paper). I didn't have any contribution in their paper and they didn't have in ours and I didn't even know what is in their paper.

I am the supervisor of our paper and adding another two PhD students to my paper (even if we could ignore the ethics!) vanishes my role in having supervision in all parts of the paper (including the code and results), and it was really hard for me. I said that I cannot do it and we will submit our papers and see what will happen. In my whole research time, this never happened to me and it is so weird to me that why I shouldn't say no and face such complaints.

I did ask my advisor about this. He said that it was our fault that we didn't communicate about our projects, but he is okay if we want to exchange the names.

Did I do something wrong? Would you please suggest the right answer for such requests? Can he annoy me in the future?

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    Reply to his message with a simple "no" Mar 3 at 22:25
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    This question should be tagged 'cheating'. Mar 4 at 13:38

3 Answers 3

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Working in parallel isn't collaboration. Unless the other people contributed directly to your paper then they have no right to authorship. Nor would you have right to authorship of theirs. It would be pure "gift" authorship, a form of misconduct in many (not all) fields.

Actually, though, your supervisor should have managed this better so that you didn't come to such a point within a single group. Parallel research and having someone else scoop you is bad enough (for individuals) in the general case, but it shouldn't happen in a single research group.

I don't know what you can manage politically in this situation, but the ethics are clear. Hopefully you all have something to contribute.

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    @NickS Please name one explicitly. Mar 3 at 2:04
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    @NickS a supervisor bringing you into a project that gives you funding, providing you a research theme, shaping the questions you answered with a publication is not being gifted a publication, such a supervisor is being recognized for the necessary steps they directly did in producing the research presented in the paper, even if they did not write one single character in the paper, they were directly involved in the results obtained (and it is very dissimilar than simply giving the code, or selling the code, or discussing the results at a conference/workshop...).
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 3 at 10:52
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    @EarlGrey Well, in my field (pure mathematics) what you describe would be considered gift authorship. My supervisor did all that, and only expected an Aknowledgement.. The papers where he was an author were papers where I did some of the proofs and he did other proofs.... I do understand that in my field we are lucky that the costs are low, we do not need large funds for experiments, and getting the funding can be essential to projects, but also I know from experience/discussions that this creates a very grey area some supervisors push/cross.
    – Nick S
    Mar 3 at 15:07
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    As a (former) physicist, every time I read comments here I am amazed and somewhat appalled at the way the authorship culture apparently works in pure mathematics. It's unthinkable to me to equate including the supervisor as an author with "gift authorship", if they contributed resources, direction, discussions, framing the research questions, interpretation of results, etc. I understand different fields work differently, but still it seems like there must be a lot of fighting for credit in that field.
    – Andrew
    Mar 3 at 17:49
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    @Andrew, actually, I never saw any such fighting for credit. It is just a convention that students in pure math are sole authors of their dissertations. Students don't usually work in teams and are usually funded as TAs, not under grants, so it is just an understanding in the field. I worked in CS after changing fields but would not have considered assuming an authorship position with my students, even though I gave direction, etc. I agree that math may err a bit in the opposite direction but it works in practice.
    – Buffy
    Mar 3 at 18:11
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Did I do something wrong? Would you please suggest the right answer for such requests? Can he annoy me in the future?

You did not do anything wrong. In your life people will often make unreasonable requests of you. Learning to say “no” is a useful skill, and one of the elements of that skill is the knowledge that “no” is a complete sentence. That is, the right answer for such requests is simply “no”. A more polite version of this will read something along the lines of:

Hi [name],

It’s nice that you also found the problem interesting and are working on a paper about it. About your question, I do not need to be a coauthor on your paper, and am not interested in adding you as a coauthor on mine. Thanks for the suggestion though. And good luck with your conference submission.

Regards, user137927

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    I think it would be better to explain why you are saying no - as Buffy said, the reason is that the other person didn't contribute - rather than just saying "no" on its own or "I am not interested in adding you."
    – gib
    Mar 2 at 16:58
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    @gib when the request is very unreasonable (as this one clearly is) it is often better not to explain the reason for the “no”. That is a key point of the “no is a complete sentence” principle.
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 2 at 17:05
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    But the person making the request is a student and probably doesn't understand that it is unreasonable
    – gib
    Mar 2 at 18:18
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    The best way to help the person in this case would be to tell them the reason, which would only take a few seconds. If people only helped others when they had a professional responsibility to do so, the world would be a much worse place.
    – gib
    Mar 2 at 22:02
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    @Neinstein there is a type of person who won’t take no for an answer, and offer objections to any explanation you offer them, requiring you to clarify your explanation, which they will then refute again, and so on ad infinitum. Arguing with them is exhausting and pointless. After you go through this a few times you learn that in some situations just saying “no” without giving any opening for debate is the best way forward, for both sides. This is one of those situations IMO. But if OP wants to give an explanation and see where that takes them, then sure, they’re not risking very much.
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 3 at 16:02
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Well, this is a mess. Normally, people in the same research group are supposed to collaborate and keep each other informed of what they're doing. Clearly, that failed pretty badly here, and I'd say the fault is shared by you and your advisor:

  • You say that the initial meeting where your advisor brought up the problem was a few months ago. It's not clear how long after the meeting you started working on the problem, but presumably it was at least several weeks ago. At that point, you should've told your advisor what you were working on, and preferably also informed other group members directly e.g. in a group meeting.

  • Even though your advisor apparently only found out about your project when you sent them your finished paper a week before the submission deadline, they should still have arranged an immediate meeting between you and the other student(s) working on the same problem, instead of waiting for the deadline to pass.

  • That said, given that your advisor didn't arrange such an emergency meeting, you should've taken it upon yourself to immediately contact the other student and discuss the issue.

  • More generally, the fact that this whole chain of events came to pass makes it seem like communication and collaboration within your research group is pretty dysfunctional. While good teamwork is part of everyone's job, ultimately the team leader — i.e. your advisor — is responsible for ensuring that it happens.


As for the issue of "exchanging authorship" at hand, I agree with the other answers that you technically did the right thing here by refusing it, since the other student (and his wife) hadn't actually contributed anything to your paper.

That said, I would say that you also did the wrong thing in letting events get to that point in the first place. Ideally, you would've informed your advisor when you started working on the problem, and they would've arranged for you and the other student to work together, so that the resulting paper(s) would indeed have enough contribution from both of you to justify coauthorship.

Also, by refusing the offer, there's a risk that you may have made an enemy — possibly a life-long one.

The other student almost certainly didn't see their offer of "exchanged authorship" as inappropriate under the circumstances, or they wouldn't have made it in the first place. As such, they're not likely to take your "no" reply as "no, that would be inappropriate", but rather as "no, we don't want to work together with you, we'd rather just scoop you and take all the credit, f*** you very much".

That said, there may not be much you can do about that now. An honest face-to-face talk with the other student might help, especially if you start by admitting that you screwed up by not involving them in your work earlier, and that you do genuinely want to collaborate with them in the future. Or not, but at least you can say that you tried.

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    Thank you for your answer. I agree with you. I didn't know what they are working on. When they asked me to exchange the names, I immediately said that in the future I will provide all of our codes and results to help them, but can't add their name because I spent so much time on it. But he said it is the first work with this problem and it is important to him to be their name in it. I even asked if they have published something before, we can cite it, but he said that he had planned to submit it to conferences but for some reason missed it. The only choice he left was adding the names.
    – user137927
    Mar 3 at 13:39
  • I absolutely didn't know what to do at 3 AM, 9 hours before the deadline. I cannot even say that our work is better than theirs. None of us knows what is in the other paper. But it seems that my advisor said to them that our work is good and it makes them angry. Although my advisor several times said that they are not interested in our approach at all and their approach in PhD is totally different. The only problem they had was being the first one who propose a method for the problem.
    – user137927
    Mar 3 at 13:41
  • You could have added the alternate approach to your paper as an addendum of sorts, and then you guys could happily be co-authors on the resulting paper. But 9 hours before the deadline makes that genuinely impossible. Maybe alluding to an alternate approach being worked on by another member of your group and mentioning them as (x. xx, unpublished observations) would have worked, and left the other approach as something much less likely to get scooped by others in the future. Mar 3 at 15:18
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    This. There would have been one more potential "rescue point": whereever that deadline came from, deciding to let that deadline go would have gained the group time to resolve the mess, sleep over the trouble and then calmly sit together and decide on a strategy for the paper(s). Be it one big paper with all authors, two papers with actual contributions from all authors, two papers with the original crews respectively submitted at the same time to the same journal with a cover letter explaining that there are two independent papers, or even something else. Mar 3 at 22:38
  • @user137927 Both approaches Tamoghna suggested would've been the ideal solutions. But as he said, these simply weren't plausible 9 hours before the deadline. This is not your fault: the other student should've contacted you in time, or the supervisor should've told him about your work in time. It's unreasonable to expect the author to make such changes within such a short timeframe.
    – Neinstein
    Mar 4 at 8:55

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