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I am an undergraduate senior studying computer science and engineering continuing to work in deep learning and Artificial Intelligence.

I had been working on some datasets from June 2021. My supervisor could not give me time and did not reply to my calls, or texts over the medium he had instructed us to use. One day, he told us to share the research findings and materials with one of my lab mates. This meant that he'll collaborate with us on the work and he gained access to the data on what does and doesn't work well. He tweaked our work and approached our supervisor to publish it. Our supervisor also told us to implement some ideas. But that lab mate intervened saying he had implemented it. I don't know what their conversation was, but that lab mate told us that they would work separately from now on and submit after we've submitted our work somewhere. In the meanwhile, our undergraduate semester finals started, and we all took a break with the supervisor's permission. Sadly, that lab mate submitted that work to a journal without giving us any heads up and with the approval of our supervisor within the exams.

I feel betrayed and insulted because they did not give me authorship or acknowledgment that they got ideas from my experimental findings of 6+ months to quickly generate the manuscript. What do I do now? Where should I go with my work because they already have almost perfect performance on the same datasets? I am really depressed and demotivated to continue any work. Please help. Was this ethical?

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What your supervisor and lab mate did is shady enough. It is unclear from the text how much their work overlaps with yours. If you are going to war with them, you need to be prepared.

Depending on how much your lab mate took from you, you may or may not be able to argue that he stole your work. You need the records: emails, the data that can be proven to be yours, slack (or whatever) message transcripts. If your supervisor is not on your side, or at least on the side of the truth, your mission is a lot harder. If you can't prove beyond doubt it was your data and they just tweaked it, whoever you talk to won't help.

There are a few scenarios one could think of.

  1. You talk to your supervisor, ask them to add you to the author's list because it is your data and your work that got sent for publication. You setup a meeting in person, or at worse, over zoom to discuss this. You communicate clearly what you want and why. You also send an email with your argument and request. You don't need to accuse him, or your lab mate of anything at all at this stage. In fact, you should not.

  2. If the supervisor answers negatively, and you have your proof that it is your data that was used in that publication, you can go to the next step: contact someone at the university who deals with academic misconduct, and you present your story and proof. At the same time, you can contact the editor of the publication, once you have seen that publication with your data on it and tell them about the issue. Normally, editors are sensitive to academic misconduct.

The second scenario is quite dangerous for you because you are making two bitter enemies exactly in your field of research, so you better have solid proof.

  1. If your supervisor responds positively to your request, you let them handle your lab mate, and you stop collaborating with that person as soon as possible.

  2. You can't really prove anything beyond doubt, to people from outside, but your lab mate and/or supervisor really stole from you. In this scenario, as in the second, you need to vanish from that lab and search a group who has better ethics. In this case, accusing them of misconduct is going to be detrimental for you, because they have more votes and people will believe them.

When weighing your decision, you should also take into account that people from outside the group won't believe an undergraduate student over someone with seniority. Even that your supervisor seems to ignore you, it means he might not consider you, or what you're doing important. This makes it much easier for your lab mate to appropriate your work, especially if he's a graduate student or a postdoc.

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