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Someone under my pastoral care asked me the following, wishing to remain anonymous: I had published several papers with my so-called supervisors before, during my PhD, both of whom never actually contributed a single word/idea/method/anything of value or even read or edited those papers; nor would they have been capable of contributing a single word in the first place. As a PhD student I was implicitly coerced to include their names as gifts as honorary co-authors or else I would not have received any institutional support (namely residence permit and contracts).

Now I have come of age and emancipated myself from that abusive relationship and become an academic myself. I badly want to remove these unreal authors' names from my publications to end this history of abuse and set an example for fighting against academic bullying and harassment!

How would you suggest someone do this!? I am aware of similar questions such as this one but none of them exactly cover the case of the unfortunately very common 'extorted gift authorship' phenomenon.

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    What field does this refer to? Standards vary. Math is very different from big science fields.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 13:23
  • @Buffy: This is an interdisciplinary domain involving math, computer science, and a domain-specific area of work generally called the "built environment"; so yes, it is not medicine or pharmacology so this type of fraud is just a supposedly innocent type of fraud that is not supposed to harm anyone and so it is very common in this field. Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 15:22
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    Frame challenge: if your goal is to correct an abusive history and to lobby against this sort of academic arrangement, you can accomplish that by describing these past circumstances publicly and possibly repeatedly. Literally removing their names from the publications is a different goal (and an understandable one), but given how taxing and unlikely it will be (as Wolfgang Bangerth describes in their answer), you might consider this alternate route to your stated goals. Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 21:43
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    I upvoted, because it seems a relevant question to me. But I advice to follow Wolfgang's and Buffy's answers.
    – usr1234567
    Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 7:53
  • Don't seek vengeance, or try to change history. It's totally sufficient to help make sure it doesn't repeat itself.
    – Karl
    Commented Jan 18, 2023 at 18:41

4 Answers 4

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This will be an unsatisfactory answer, but my suggestion is to focus on the future rather than the past.

To do what you want to do is going to be an endless task where people will be reluctant to do what you suggest from beginning to end, with no guarantee that it will actually happen, and generating ill will all around. Fundamentally, publishers will not want to do what you want because they have published a paper as is under the assumption that authorship was legitimate. To change that after the fact will require proof that authorship was fraudulent. I can only imagine that your co-authors will not be willing to sign corresponding legal affidavits so the question becomes: How will you provide this kind of proof? The point being that publishers will want you to prove that these other people shouldn't have been authors, rather than them to prove that they deserve authorship.

It is probably easy to see that this will not be an easy process, will require millions of emails to be written and read, possibly lawyers, and a process at the end of which everyone is aggravated by the amount of time and money lost. Whether you can actually succeed with the quest remains questionable, but for sure everyone (editors, your illegitimate co-authors, the legitimate co-authors that will be dragged into the process, university administrators who might have to deal with this) is going to be unhappy and you will have a dozen or two well-meaning colleagues and friends less than you had before.

So I get why you want to do it, but my advice is to not do it anyway because the costs in terms of money, time, and friendships are going to be too high. Rather, my suggestion is to focus on what you can achieve: Be a role model, and set ethical standards for those around, going forward in your interaction with your colleagues and students. That is a worthwhile use of time and energy, and it will win you friends.

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    This might be the right action for any individual actor, but hurt 'the academic world' as a whole. Apologies for the comparison, but this reminds me very strongly of rape allegations, where I know someone personally who didn't speak out because she was afraid of it being a 'her word vs his word' scenario. The thing though is that without speaking out you never discover that N other people likely had the same encounter with the person in question. Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 10:39
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    @DavidMulder I don't read this as "don't speak out". Absolutely you can speak out about those people; but whether you take legal action unfortunately does (in all cases) depend on your chances of success. If it's as intensely damaging as rape, many people will pursue this anyway (and I applaud them for it). The OP simply is not in that situation though - any rational person can clearly see that the imagined slight against them is trivial. If the OP thinks it's that serious, then frankly the OP needs to get out more.
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 11:35
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    @Graham Just for your idea, only around 30% of sexual assaults get reported (I think I heard that's the lowest rate of any serious crime). Regardless, I absolutely read this answer as suggesting "Don't speak out, (let them do it to future victims) and just be a better role model for your own students" Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 12:07
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    I wished the association with rape had not been made above -- it's hard to get out of that connection again in continuing the debate in these comments. Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 18:27
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    @DavidMulder ... You can argue whether the supervisor's contribution is enough to warrant co-authorship, of course, but this does not make it fraud or plagiarism. It is very common for students to underestimate their supervisor's input - it's possibly the top theme on this board. Which is where I come back to "asking whether the OP's assessment of their supervisor is correct".
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 18, 2023 at 14:33
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If, as you say in a comment, this is very "common in this field", then you are probably stuck with it. It is difficult to overcome common practice in a field, even if it makes little sense. It is probably impossible for an individual to overcome on their own due to the likely and possibly severe blowback.

If you have enough standing in the field to absorb that blowback then you might make a stab at it, but an early career individual could be damaged I fear.

So, my suggestion is to let it go as a matter of self preservation.

One thing you can do, however, is refuse to accept gift authorship in any form when offered.

I'm surprised, honestly, to see that this happens in a math or CS related field. Like you I don't like the practice.

Note that in some fields, supervisors and PIs are so "honored" because they provide the environment, such as a lab and the funding, that makes the research possible. Though they may contribute little to an individual paper, they set the overall framework in which it becomes possible to do the research leading to that paper. I still don't care for the practice, but understand that it is common and accepted in some fields.

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    I suppose if one wanted to construct an ethical justification for the "common practice in the field" thing, it would be that, if everyone in the field knows that's what authorship means, no-one is misled by it, and there's no foul. Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 22:04
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    I agree with the general tone of your answer, I would like to stress that the "because they provide the environment, such as a lab and the funding, that makes the research possible. " is usually (and ethcially) taken care with the fact that if you work in a lab, you are probably working on some continuation of past experiment/ideas, so you provide citations to the lab's publications. In fact, to have always the Lab PI in the authors'lists can even be counterproductive (if one really really wants to do an objective evaluation based on citations, and one filters out the self-citations...)
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 8:18
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I will not repeat the points made in the excellent answers by Wolfgang Bangerth (it is too legally complex to deal with; just focus on the future) and Buffy (let it go and resolve never to do unto others as they have done unto you), both of whose perspectives with which I wholeheartedly agree. I do want to add a complementary point, though.

I, too, have a couple of coauthorships from my PhD days that do not merit it (though not as bad as your case). Thankfully, my supervisor was a genuine and very active coauthor, but there were a few other professors in my program that got their names on some of my and my colleagues' papers whose names should not be there.

I hope that I am not reading too much into your question, but if your feeling is something like what mine has been, there might be a sense of dishonesty when you look at your list of papers and you see a name that you know ought not to be there. If that is your case, then I will address how I address the unease of conscience. In my case, my CV is my CV and so I list the publications to which I know that I honestly contributed. If ever a particular paper comes up in discussion, then I will be honest and admit that some coauthors did not do much and that their names are only there because of PhD student pressure. So, with that, my conscience is clear.

Remarkably, such a scenario has never come up--not even once--concerning any of these papers. That is, no one has actually asked me about these specific papers such that I have needed to explain their background. One reason that it has never come up is that I do not have any vengeful sentiment that I need to "expose" these professors. So, I do not look for opportunities to bring it up. And none has ever come up.

So, echoing the advice of some other respondents, I recommend that you leave the past in the past and look forward to a future career where you can be an example of how to properly respect your junior colleagues. Beyond that, I strongly urge you that when you learn of junior colleagues being abused in such ways, you do your best to intervene to prevent such abuse from being done to others. That way, the past negative experiences that you have suffered can have a productive outcome in you being an advocate to prevent such behaviours from being repeated by others.

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@FatherGepetto, I will address the anonymous person under your pastoral care in the second person, as though they had asked the question.

Proof?

I had published several papers with my so-called supervisors ...

Are you claiming they weren't your supervisors? Likely not. So let's call them your supervisors. If you are claiming you weren't supervised, that would be a different question.

... during my PhD, both of whom never actually contributed a single word ... or even ... edited those papers;

Maybe that's true, but - can you prove it?

never actually contributed a single ... idea/method ... or even read ... those papers;

Even if this were true, this is effectively impossible to prove about your supervisors.

anything of value

Perhaps that's what you believe, but - they supervised you. Naturally I don't know any of the details, but a case could well be made that they contributed through you, their supervised junior.

Should that be enough to entitle them to authorship of your papers during your Ph.D.? Perhaps not. But - that's debatable. And many would argue the answer is that it does.

nor would they have been capable of contributing a single word in the first place.

Not only is this effectively impossible to prove, but is also rather slanderous of a claim. People could sue you for saying that - at least in principle.


Bottom line: As far as any adjudicative entity can tell, you might just be lying because you had some sort of a personal quibble with these people; and even if you were to present evidence for the more provable parts of your claim, it would probably not be enough to merit a finding that their authorships should be stricken from those papers.

I'm sorry for the harsh tone, and it's quite possible that you were used for aggrandizement by your supervisors and that they shouldn't have accepted their names being added to those papers, but - this harsh tone is what you'll probably hear when you make your demands.

Motivation

With respect - I question your motivation here. You write that

I have ... emancipated myself from that abusive relationship

but it seems that you have not quite done so. You are still hung up on relationship with these advisors, not focused on moving forward in your academic career - nor even on improving supervisor-supervised power relations in academia in general - but rather on what could be described as personal vindication.

Even if you were to achieve your goal and remove your advisors/supervisors as co-authors, very little would have been gained except possibly emotionally. You will likely not even have affected a change in these people's future treatment of supervised graduate students.

So have you really

Now ... come of age

? I doubt it. This endeavor seems like the misjudgement of someone who has not come of age. You seem to want to expend extensive effort and place yourself at all kinds of risk and adversity - to right a wrong, perhaps, but in a way which will have very little effect other than personal emotional benefit.

You also use rhetoric like "so-called-supervisors" and "unreal authors", which suggests you're rather distraught about this still.

What can you do instead?

You write that:

As a PhD student I was implicitly coerced to include their names as gifts as honorary co-authors or else I would not have received any institutional support (namely residence permit and contracts).

If you can establish this coercion indeed occurs, that is a matter which is much more likely to be effectively actionable.

Consider discussing this with other (current or former) Ph.D. students; faculty members who disapprove of this practice, if you know any; the junior researchers' labor union (if your university has one); the university ombudsman, comptroller or self-inspection body if one exists; and finally, perhaps the press. But - don't focus on your individual supervisors. Instead, make this about the general problem of coercion.

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