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I was hoping someone can help me with an issue that has been bothering me for some time.

Last year I came up with an idea for a project for my PhD. I don't know why, but for some reason myself and my supervisor decided to work on this project in collaboration with another PhD student and his supervisor from another University in a different country.

Throughout the project both PhD supervisors had very little involvement in the project. The other PhD student had only very minor involvement. The project lasted about a year, during which time we met as a group maybe 5 times and we would simply tell the two supervisors what we had done and they would just say it looks good.

Now I worked on this project about 92-95% myself and the other PhD student contributed, about 5%. I did all the background work myself and wrote code myself, and ran experiments myself. The other PhD students contributions involved mainly helping me to debug code or helping to make my code more efficient.

One thing that annoyed me was he was in the final year of his PhD and devoted as little time as he possibly could to this project. He always had some excuse as to why he cant work on the project right now. It was always "I'm submitting my thesis in January and cant work on this project until then", followed by "I got an extension on my thesis until March so cant work on the project till then", followed by "I got an extension on my thesis till June so cant work on the project until then". Then he finally submitted his thesis and these excuses changed to "I'm doing an online course for two weeks so cant work on this project until this is finished" or "I am going on holidays for two weeks so cant do anymore until I'm back". Keep in mind throughout much of this time he was always on standby to offer minor help such as helping me debug code, but he did very little. He was also present in all our online meetings with our supervisors and he would always keep himself informed on what I have done and he would be interested in knowing my progress and he would offer suggestions on problems I encountered. But his attitude was always like "i can help but cant devote too much time into it". Before we started the project he did mention before how he tries to be involved in many projects but do only a small amount of work just to "get his name on a paper". At the time I never thought much about this but towards the end of this project I realized that's exactly what he was using me for.

Before I knew it, the project was done practically entirely myself. It then came to write the paper. I wrote the entire paper myself from start to finish. This PhD student then changed a few minor grammar details and said "I corrected a lot of mistakes and can't contribute anymore until after my thesis defense". He then had his defense and continued not to be involved in the writing of the paper, but said he was happy for it to be submitted. My supervisor also agreed.

Then the other PhD supervisor was "too busy" to read the paper until about 6 weeks have passed. He read a few paragraphs and said he doesn't want it submitted until he has read all of it. The paper is about 20 pages and he read about 10. He then made a few minor changes and said he wanted other things included and said he cant do anymore as he is going on holidays. That was about 3 weeks ago now and there is still no sign of him reading or editing it anymore. Bear in mind this supervisor had no involvement in the project until all the work was done and the first draft of the paper was written. He is now essentially holding the project hostage and putting me at risk of another group publishing a similar paper before we do and thus affecting my PhD and the countless hours i put into the project.

The other PhD student at this time is not helping implement suggestions from his supervisor and is expecting me to implement everything he had previously demanded the first time he read the paper.

My question is, do I have good enough reason to remove both of these people as co authors and stop them from holding my work hostage? The difficulty is primarily on the fact that the other PhD student made very minor contributions, but as little as he could. The other PhD supervisor is someone who could be grading my PhD down the line so I don't want us to fall out, but I'm sick of him not taking this project seriously.

One thing I never mentioned was my supervisor also did little to nothing, but because he's my supervisor I'm less annoyed at him being included as an author.

Edit: To simplify the question, I should have stated that I meant removed as an author but kept in the acknowledgements section. This is when they made very minor contributions but were "too busy" to do any real work throughout the project.

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  • Not specific to this question, but you simply need to stop feeding such people who use you. You stated "he did mention before how he tries to be involved in many projects but do only a small amount of work just to "get his name on a paper".", and that is sufficient reason to never collaborate with him.
    – user21820
    Aug 25, 2022 at 10:40

2 Answers 2

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From what you describe, I do not think you have any basis to remove these coauthors (particularly the other graduate student). They have given you intellectual and material support throughout and expect to be authors based on your earlier conversation. If you want to change the parameters of what was agreed in that initial conversation, you need a new conversation where everyone agrees with the new plan. That might include changing someone from an author role to an acknowledgement, but this is not something you can simply do unilaterally without a discussion.

It's very rare for collaborative work to be divided evenly - you should not expect a paper with 4 authors has 4 equal contributors measured in time spent. Usually one person leads things and does the majority of the work, while others may contribute particular elements or provide guidance, advice, and direction.

In my field at least, this asymmetry is captured in authorship order: the first author is expected to have given the primary effort toward the project. However, it's still expected that not all authors contribute "equally" even in fields where authorship order does not indicate level of contribution. Many journals now ask for a statement about author contributions, which will indicate which parts of the project different authors were responsible for and will generally highlight the person who did the majority of the work.

I'd also note that thesis writing time is a very stressful time for a graduate student - they're preparing a document of a form they've likely never produced before that is going to be used to judge their entire PhD. It's the ultimate final exam. I don't think this other student has been trying to lead you on or get away with doing the bare minimum - they are busy and perhaps feeling overwhelmed. Stress doesn't stop when you finish, either - they've got to figure out what things come next in their career. Your project is a side project for them, so they're putting in side project effort.

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    I think this would be just as valid in a field that cared little about author order (math, say).
    – Buffy
    Aug 24, 2022 at 13:36
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    To complement this answer, think in terms of working with your own supervisor to guarantee that you finish on time. Let the rest take its course, as it is only one paper. But get a commitment from the supervisor that it won't delay you even if it delays this paper.
    – Buffy
    Aug 24, 2022 at 16:27
  • "It's very rare for collaborative work to be divided evenly - you should not expect a paper with 4 authors has 4 equal contributors measured in time spent." I argee, as long as n of authors is small (let's say <6). Then, the contributions start to be more evenly divided the more the authors.
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 25, 2022 at 14:20
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Co-authors holding work hostage by taking too long to review/contribute is unfortunately very common. Once the parameters of authorship are decided (as they were in this case), delays would not generally be considered sufficient reason to make major changes (remove them as co-authors).

This experience will, however, make you more cautious of picking co-authors in the future, that's a long term benefit. In the worst case, you may get scooped by the other group-which also happens and is painful, but not life-altering.

The best bet is to use all persuasive means at your disposal and convince these two co-authors to move faster. I venture to suggest that your supervisor may do a good job at this, so you could try to bring them on board first. You could diplomatically hint that this would be a major contribution from them (given that they have otherwise had a minor role).

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