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I developed an innovative method about which I wrote an article (not published yet) and a complete open-source library implementing it. The field is Applied Mathematics. I showed the finished work to my two PhD advisors but I was clear about the fact that it is my work alone and that the article would contain my name only (the Hardy-Littlewood rule doesn't even apply here).

One of them, which we will call A, told me it was a very good idea to do a single-author publication and that it would add more value to my PhD thesis as a whole. He was very enthusiastic and supportive about the whole thing. So that's awesome.

The other one, which we will call B, was extremely grumpy about it and didn't like the idea that he was taken out of the equation (i.e. that I worked on something alone). Yet, and this is purely my interpretation of course, he never had a problem with articles where I worked alone (just like in this case) and added his name on them, his issue is thus clearly the fact that he isn't listed as a co-author.

I am aware that co-authorship problems are a classic, and I know that I could avoid all of that by adding him as a co-author. But even though I did it with the previous articles (where he did 0% of the work), I refuse to do it this time. It doesn't sit right with me to gift someone credit he doesn't deserve, and PhD advisors expecting their students to always list them as co-authors should be ashamed of themselves.

So I pushed forward, with the encouragement of prof A, and included my work in my PhD manuscript even though prof B was actively harassing me and trying to make me have second thoughts on including a work in which prof B wasn't involved.

The dust settled after a few months, and now prof B has some academic partnership with a company called C. Long story short, he wants me to literally give him all the keys to my research (which ironically he was angry about), show him how to do every single thing I did and how to do more so that he can impress company C. He wants to do this way before my work is published, thus clearly disrespecting the fact that it's still my work.

I told him it's uncool to try to copy me in order to impress company C and that I won't help him with that, and that he should show some scientific integrity and respect the fact that my work hasn't been published yet.

Today he harassed and bullied me by phone. He kept telling me "it's not your research", thus clearly stating that he doesn't even recognize that it's my work, and when I finished talking he basically told me to go "f*** myself". His language was violent and inappropriate.

Many questions here:

  • Am I in the wrong with how I insist on ownership of my research and that someone who didn't contribute anything should not be a co-author?
  • My PhD manuscript has already been submitted, the jury selected and the defence scheduled. In theory prof B shouldn't be able to sabotage my defence out of spite. Is my assessment correct?
  • What disciplinary measures can I take against prof B for harassing me to give him something I do not owe him at all?
  • What actions can I take to protect myself without compromising on the ownership issue?
  • What do I risk?
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    Even if there were some conversations in the past, in my very humble opinion, this does not consitute authorship and i had the same problem with my advisor. I have had many discussions with collegues about their papers, i never though that i should be a co-author because we discussed a problem they had, or came up together with an idea that i didn't like to work further and they eventually did worked and published. There is not much you can do however. You may need to include them as a co-author just for being your advisor. Having good relations is important.
    – user120905
    Jun 22 at 5:34

2 Answers 2

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No, you're not wrong to insist that only people who have authored the work should be listed as authors.

I'm a bit hesitant to confidently declare that you should be sole author, because sometimes students are confused about authorship standards in their field, and discount the value of discussions that lead to and inform a work. Instead, they think that "they did it solo" because they are the person who wrote the code or collected the data or made the figures or put the numbers into an analysis program or wrote the text of the manuscript. So, indeed, if this is solely your work, you should be the only author, but do make sure it is actually solely your work. In this case it sounds like Prof A might be a good person to help provide a second opinion that indeed this should be considered solo work.

If prof B is on your thesis committee, they absolutely can sabotage your thesis defense. However, as one member of the committee, hopefully they will be overruled by others, and of course it is unethical for them to do this out of spite or as leverage for authorship. Not everyone sees ethics the same way or is equally committed to ethical behavior, though.

As far as measures you can take, that entirely depends on how things work in your department/institution. If there is a mechanism to remove someone from your committee, I would suggest that route rather than trying to punish them somehow. However, it seems like it is very very late to do this if you've already submitted, and especially if this person is considered a co-advisor. I think for now I would just document the conversations you have (and have had), and be prepared to use that as evidence if you need to appeal an unfavorable result with your thesis.

I told him it's uncool to try to copy me in order to impress company C and that I won't help him with that, and that he should show some scientific integrity and respect the fact that my work hasn't been published yet

This episode may be justifiable, but it sounds like you lost your cool a bit and behaved rudely. People don't typically take these sorts of accusations well, even if they are deserved. It'll make it harder to make your case to a neutral third party if there are further episodes like this, so I'd try to limit your reactions.

If this work is in fact your own, you don't need to do anything with prof B about it. You don't need their permission to publish it, so publish it as soon as you can. You don't need to work with company C, so don't work with company C. If you are being harassed or bullied by phone, do not answer your phone. Document when you are called and what is said so you can use it if you need to in a future hearing.

It sounds like prof A is someone that can advocate for you; if you trust them, I would calmly bring these issues to their attention and ask for their advice. They'll know the local systems better than anyone here can know. Try to avoid accusations against B beyond what you can prove without a doubt: don't speculate about their motives, only discuss their actions, and focus on the things you need. Things you need might include a) successfully defending your thesis, b) publishing your paper, c) getting your next position.

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    Thank you. When I say I am the sole author, I mean that in the literal sense, there were no prior discussions or anything that indirectly led to the article. My article is very far from his main research interests too. I discussed things with my advisor A and he told me in principle that he agrees with me that I owe B nothing, that he'll take care of it, and that at least it is formally known to him right now that B cannot be objective. He also told me that there would be no more direct communications with B and that he cannot harass me anymore. I feel much more relieved now, thanks a lot!
    – BS.
    Jun 23 at 11:35
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This is a messy, complicated, potentially emotionally charged situation. My first advice is to try to remain calm. Brace yourself for any related interaction and prepare well in advance to keep your emotional balance. Find your "happy place" and keep it in mind.

Bryan Krause gave good advice when he suggested confiding in Prof A. (If not him, then hopefully there is another faculty member you can trust.) The complexity here is such that it is unlikely to be possible to give a definitive answer with just a few paragraphs of information. Some general areas to explore are the following.

What is the relationship with Prof B? Is he your PhD supervisor (advisor, etc.)? Does Prof B (or his grant, fellowship, etc.) provide you with financial support? Are you expected to be doing some particular amount of work (per week or per month etc.) for Prof B? Or is he just one more person on your PhD panel?

The less Prof B is your supervisor, the less support and guidance he has given you, the less he should be trying to put his name on your work.

Is the paper you wrote on your own in a topic that is strongly related to Prof B's work? Does it flow out of his work? Is it something that came about because of work you did with with him? Or is it unrelated?

The less related to Prof B's work, the less he should be trying to put his name on your work.

Did you tell him you were working on this idea? How do you project he would have responded then if you had told him you were?

If you did the work without telling him, it's going to be a strain on the relationship.

When I was in my PhD I took a course on a subject I was interested in that was completely and totally unrelated to my PhD. I did a particle physics PhD. I took a course in radiometric dating because one of the faculty in the department was a well known researcher in the subject. How often do you get the chance? As part of the class I got to "fetch and carry" while they did measurements on rocks taken from above and below the layer of rock the fossil "Lucy" was found in. Lots of fun.

This class gave me an idea for a paper. So I went to my supervisor and asked him what he thought about me writing it up. He was fine with it and said he thought I should be the only author since his input was zero. I wrote it up and submitted it. Relationship with my supervisor remained strong. Sadly the paper was rejected, but it was still fun.

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