I was working with a student of mine on a paper, and we completed about %90+ of the work - implementation, experiments and paper writing. He had to graduate before his student visa was up, so after he defended I signed his thesis forms. I had asked him to share the latest version of the code and improve the paper to submit but he basically disappeared and does not answer my emails. I also noticed that he stopped sharing the earlier versions of the code (on Google Drive which I ran on Colab, it seems I did not save copies). He was a student I trusted and of good character so I never thought he would just disappear. Obviously, the way he behaves makes me skeptical, and I intend to repeat experiments and a new student agreed to take the work, even though it will be a great loss of time and effort to implement everything from scratch.

Moreover, it is basically this student's thesis work and I want to submit the paper with his name on it (first author) but I may need his approval or even a copyright declaration form to publish. How can I proceed in this case? How can I salvage the paper in a situation like this?


I am asking what people do in these situations, and how they salvage the work. I am not invalidating his contribution or authorship. This must be pretty common but it is the first time I am facing this.

I have projects where students work together, and our school mandates students to "publish" in order to graduate. Please note that this could potentially be very problematic for student co-authors as it could threaten their graduation.

Go easy with the assumptions, I had weekly meetings with the student to advise him, the idea was mine and I was very involved in paper writing and editing. I just did not do a good job with versioning/keeping copies of the code. I could potentially replicate everything but it does not technically make him less of a co-author as far as I am aware. Also, as the school requested upon graduation we signed a copyright form - legally we are both co-authors of his thesis work (which the paper is derived from).

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    that is great that you decided to replicate the experiment.
    – Neuchâtel
    Sep 30, 2022 at 22:15
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    If you are trying to contact the student on the university email address, perhaps they no longer have access to it after graduation? Oct 1, 2022 at 11:12
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    Is the student still alive? Can you reach the student's emergency contact?
    – Allure
    Oct 1, 2022 at 11:46
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    Comment- look for student on LinkedIn or similar! Ask other students if they have an alternative email for that student (gmail) or phone number.
    – Dawn
    Oct 3, 2022 at 19:03

3 Answers 3


Actually there isn't much you can do but keep trying to contact the student. You need their permission to publish and to include their name.

You can, however complete the work alone and only require their permission to publish the result as co-authors.

I wonder if it is possible that they aren't avoiding you, but aren't getting your messages. Perhaps the university has some alternate contact information for them. Or even another student.

Publishers will require permission from all authors. It isn't an option.

Even reimplementing everything isn't really a solution, if the student's ideas are still in the work. You can't escape that and avoid plagiarism. It is good to do, but you still need their permission to publish. Keep trying.

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    I wrote to him saying that a new student will take up the work but, of course, we will send the paper with his name, I asked him to share the code. He did not reply to the email, I am not sure if he will ever reply, even if for the permission only. I use other channels - his personal gmail address as well but to no avail.
    – dusa
    Sep 30, 2022 at 22:29
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    Am I to trash all the work then? The ideas are mine but he implemented, experimented, and wrote a thesis so we would be both authors and copyright holders. I know normally he should be a co-author, but if he never gets in touch, is my share of work going to waste too? I spent countless hours advising, debugging, writing the paper etc.
    – dusa
    Sep 30, 2022 at 22:31
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    I think you know what is right.
    – Buffy
    Sep 30, 2022 at 22:44
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    I am not debating what is right, I am just asking what people do in these situations to salvage a paper while not compromising integrity.
    – dusa
    Oct 1, 2022 at 10:56
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    Sadly, not everyone will behave properly. I know you aren't debating what is right and have a good ethical sense. That is why I commented as I did. Keep trying.
    – Buffy
    Oct 1, 2022 at 13:47

Although it is obviously advisable to get consent for your work from all authors, it seems that at this point one co-author is not responding, not co-operative to an extreme level, and as far as we know, theoretically at least "is not even alive". In cases where a co-author is deceased, it is still possible to publish a joint paper (this has been done. Edit: getting permission from their estate it seems). So in these cases at least, no real permission from all authors have been obtained.

My advice would be then:

  • Send a clear message to the student that you are about to publish the work soon with his/her name as co-author.
  • Wait a while (e.g., one month), and send another reminder.
  • Wait another week, and send an urgent reminder about this to the student.

If the student does not want to publish, or has other plans and he is deliberately avoiding you, he/she will probably reply.

Otherwise, if the student does not reply, go ahead and submit the paper. Explaining that one author has disappeared in your cover letter to the editor-in-chief.

Comment: my assumption here and everywhere is that deliberately ignoring legitimate e-mails of colleagues is an ethical breach in any professional setting. If the student does not want to publish the paper they must let their co-authors know that.

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    Actually, for a deceased author, you need to contact their estate. You still can't assume permission to publish.
    – Buffy
    Oct 1, 2022 at 13:42
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    My estimation is that OP would not get to that point: the student will reply, and if not OP should try contact "estate", or anything like that.
    – Dilworth
    Oct 1, 2022 at 13:46
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    I am sorry, English is not my native language, what is the "estate" here? Like any legal person that might represent him?
    – dusa
    Oct 2, 2022 at 11:24
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    When a person dies, all their properties, real and virtual, go to their heirs subject to the conditions of a last will and testament. The recipients of those properties are collectively "their estate" which is normally managed by one person who can speak for the estate. (informal description, not a legal definition and maybe just US terminology). That person is the "executor of the estate". But this only applies to a deceased person.
    – Buffy
    Oct 2, 2022 at 15:31
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    "Explaining that one author has disappeared in your cover letter to the editor-in-chief." This is a good suggestion: you can find out if the editor is a competent person, therefore refusing to accept your submission because you do not have explicit confirmation from all the co-authors. Please note the student is a co-author of the study and the student is not explicitly giving consent to publication of the work. It is a pity, but it is what it is.
    – EarlGrey
    Oct 3, 2022 at 10:08

Once shared, ideas are worth nothing. On their own, ideas can't be patented or protected. What matters is your ability to implement your own idea towards a recognised form of an output (paper, patent, etc). When you take more senior roles and no longer have time to implement ideas yourself, what matters is your ability to manage your team towards the development of your ideas in a supportive way while still ensuring the results.

In the described scenario, you have not involved yourself in development and testing of the code to the degree that you did not even have a copy of the code stored on your own device. I have to assume that you also do not have a documentation for the code beyond of what's described in the PhD thesis. If you have never tested the code yourself, how are you sure the results in the PhD are reliable and are actually produced by the code and are not simply faked?

You will likely want to reevaluate your approach to managing your academic team and the details of your supervision process based on this experience. Good luck.

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    I had weekly meetings, sometimes more often as needed. He shared an earlier version which I was able to run on Colab but I have noticed that he removed the files so I can't access them anymore. I was involved, I just did not do a good job versioning / storing the code. You are assuming a lot here, just know that it is not the case. Running the code doe snot equal to running ALL tests, which I doubt any advisor does.
    – dusa
    Oct 2, 2022 at 11:20
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    Also, the school literally makes both students and advisors sign a copyright form, so my involvement is protected.
    – dusa
    Oct 2, 2022 at 11:21
  • This answer is brutal, syntethic and (unfortunately for OP) sharp to the point. OP may feel there are a lot of assumptions, but if any the things were addressed by OP before this situation arose, OP would not brood in thinking "I spent countless hours advising, debugging, writing the paper etc." (see comment academia.stackexchange.com/questions/189224/… )
    – EarlGrey
    Oct 3, 2022 at 10:03
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    I am not sure what is so inviting about my message that invites some people to make baseless assumptions but this is a very emotional comment, and does not really attempt to answer my question.
    – dusa
    Oct 7, 2022 at 10:31
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    My two cents: even if OP does as this answer suggests (e.g., having version control and running the code themselves), it's still possible that OP's student could say "I've graduated, I don't want my name on this paper and do not consent to being an author." In this case, OP would be in the same situation they are now, and asking the same question. In this case, your suggestion (now moved to chat) that OP could cite unpublished work seems very useful; you might consider expanding this and editing this into your answer.
    – cag51
    Oct 7, 2022 at 21:44

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