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A few years ago, some colleagues from institution A (where I also work) developed a certain technique. They tested it experimentally, it worked and gave good results. They wrote it up and got it published, but it lacked a rigorous mathematical analysis of errors, etc.

I took an interest in this, and thought of an improved technique that in theory should give excellent results, significantly better than the original one. Testing it experimentally would require a lot of effort and time, so I decided to perform some mathematical and computational analysis and simulation to make sure my hunch about improved performance was correct. The analysis techniques I used by themselves are not novel, but still, they thoroughly considered every source of error/bias in this technique, resulting in dozens of pages of algebra, CAS (Computer Algebra System) scripts and simulations in specialized software. All of this confirmed that performance should indeed improve. I loaded all these documents into a shared folder, accessible by my colleagues.

Then, my colleagues decided to proceed with building the experimental apparatus. Soon afterwards, I left temporarily for institution B, so I lost close contact with my colleagues of institution A (although we still talk from time to time, just much less than before). However, I will return to institution A in the future. I learned that they did try building the apparatus using my improved technique, but were unable to solve some problems that showed up along the way, so they don't have any results based on this technique yet.

Today I stumbled across a recently published paper by these colleagues -- to be clear, they didn't alert me to it or anything, I found out about this 100% on my own. Skimming over this paper, my understanding is that they basically took their old technique, made a few cursory improvements to some weak points, and most importantly, included a thorough analysis of this technique which, despite having only skimmed over the paper, I am fairly certain is a direct adaptation of the work I did. This was published in a high impact factor journal and I am fairly certain it wouldn't have been accepted without this thorough analysis. Moreover, all the documentation that I left for them, although specific to the improved technique, would be easily adapted to this old technique. My colleagues never asked me to coauthor the paper and didn't thank or otherwise acknowledge my work. Also, I never even learned this paper was being written or got published, even though I spoke to one of the coauthors (about unrelated subjects) a few times in the timeframe this paper was being written -- while I may be wrong, I get the feeling they were trying to hide its existence from me.

To make a long story short, I feel like this paper getting published owes a lot to the use of my analysis techniques applied to their old technique. As such, I feel they should have contacted me and offered me authorship. Am I wrong in thinking this?

For those who agree that there was at least some degree of fault here: what are some possible ways of addressing this with my colleagues? I do not intend to make a mess out of this (by e.g. contacting the editor of the journal and demanding credit), since we will remain colleagues and I don't think anything good would come of this long-term for all involved, and perhaps even our institution. On the other hand, I'd like to make it clear to them this was wrong, that it may affect my inclination to collaborate with them in the future, and that should we collaborate, I may not be so inclined to let this slip if it happens again.

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  • How many years ago? Why did not you not publish your work in the interim? Was it because the error analysis was not novel, and thus not worthy of publication? The claim that “ they don't have any results based on this technique” is contradicted by the statement that they “ included a thorough analysis of this technique which … I am fairly certain is a direct adaptation of the work I did. “ Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 22:35
  • "How many years ago?" I developed the analysis about 3 years ago. "Why did not you not publish your work in the interim?" I was hoping they would build the experimental apparatus, that it would give the expected results, and thus a paper could be published with experimental results and their analysis -- I felt the analysis alone, without experimental results to back it up, was not publishable. But, as stated, they faced problems building the apparatus, so the results didn't materialize. Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 22:39
  • @ZeroTheHero regarding the supposed contradiction: the first statement refers to the improved technique I thought of, whose experimental apparatus faced problems and didn't yield experimental results. The second statement regards their old technique amended with cursory improvements (which therefore is different from the improved technique I thought of). However, they took my analysis of the former, changed a few parameters to adapt to the latter, and published it. The analysis was IMO pivotal in getting the paper published in a high-impact journal. Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 22:45
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    I cannot see how you can be a co-author as you did not participate in data analysis or the experiment itself. I would personally have likely acknowledged your contribution as a reference to a “private contribution” or in the text somewhere, even if your work was only inspirational, but without the specifics of the situation and hearing the other side of the story it’s a not a clean call. After all, the standard way to get credit for a technical improvement in data acquisition or analysis is to publish the method… Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 22:51

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It's complicated, I think.

If I understand the situation correctly, they performed a theoretical analysis of the old technique inspired by/closely following the pattern of your theoretical analysis of the new technique. I don't quite see providing a pattern like that to be grounds for coauthorship on its own. On the other hand, it may have been the polite thing to invite you to collaborate on the theoretical analysis early on, to give you the opportunity to contribute a bit more.

However, had your analysis been published, it seems clear that they ought to have cited it for inspiration. Since they had access to the draft, I consider the obligation to cite still in place (if there is no tradition of citing personal communications, acknowledgements would have been a decent substitute).

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  • "If I understand the situation correctly, they performed a theoretical analysis of the old technique inspired by/closely following the pattern of your theoretical analysis of the new technique." Exactly. Let me stress that this analysis was IMO pivotal to getting the paper published on the chosen (high-impact) journal. Just publishing the results, without explaining how and why the technique works, would have gotten the paper rejected in any high-impact journal. Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 22:23
  • Hmm, you claim to know a lot about mechanics of publishing in every high-impact journal. Even for a fairly small amount of them, it is a very bold claim. Are you sure you are on the same page with every EiC when it comes to what is important for the acceptance of a publication and what is not? Would you care less if it was a low-impact journal? If so, why?
    – Lodinn
    Commented Jan 6, 2023 at 0:15
  • @Lodinn perhaps my claim was unfounded, and for that I apologize. Allow me to clarify. Looking at the results themselves, the improvements on this new paper are somewhat minor, and IMO the analysis itself helps pinpoint what parameters to tune to achieve these improvements. It's been my experience from previous submissions that a strong result gets you well on the way to publishing in high-impact journals, but mild/minor results require other novelties, such as the rigorous and thorough analysis that is at the core of this question. Commented Jan 6, 2023 at 0:32
  • @athrowawayaccount All I'm saying is that their perspective may be much different, and you have basically no way of knowing who's in the right. More pragmatically, I would just move on, it is fairly hard to salvage this acknowledgement now. You could treat it as a favor and leverage it accordingly or choose a retaliation path (just don't actively badmouth them, providing the opinion on your previous experiences when inquired is more in line with typical workplace politics). You should have gotten an acknowledgement I think, but where does that knowledge get you?
    – Lodinn
    Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 10:38

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