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TLDR: I am being excluded of a paper for which I worked, and I am not sure how to proceed.

Long story short, I am a theoretical physics PhD student and I was approached by experimental physicists about their experiment. They had a nice setup, didn't know what to do with it to make an interesting paper nor how to validate the data.

I worked for them for six months, writing a lot of code, doing a lot of theoretical analysis to see what was possible. A big part of it was the validation of their data.

I did the work they asked me, I was very careful and precise with my coding to be sure to avoid mistakes, and maintain reproducibility. The conclusion is that the data they gave me is inconsistent: it doesn't validate.

Before annoucing the news, the postdoc leading the project (I was mainly working with a PhD student, the postdoc being less directly involved) was already quite toxic, authoritarian, not wanting me to write the validation part of the paper or even sharing the draft, etc. It felt to me that he didn't really care much about the science, and just wanted a nice, marketable statement, to publish a paper fast, and move on.

Now that I told him about data not working, he is are pushing me out of the paper: first he ghosted me, then he told me on whatsapp bullshit emotional reasons of why we shouldn't keep on working together. After pressuring him a bit, he agreed to call, and it was basically a big mess of gaslighting, narcissistic-abuse style speech. Impossible to have a reasonable discussion.

He says that I should not be an author for various reasons, the most credible one being that they do not use my work. Well, of course, otherwise they couldn't publish it. But, even if they could, they do implicitly use all the analysis I did, as it changed their experimental choices, etc.

They will probably publish something, and this paper will be impactful because of the technical prowess of the experiment (probably Nature-level publication). Either they will not make claims/hide under the rug the validation part and just focus on the technical achievements, or maybe even fake data analysis? I don't think their experiment doesn't work, but the data they provided me clearly doesn't, and they showed very little interest for calibration runs, debugging, etc.

I have a strong feeling that they dismantled the experiment already, many hints point out in this direction.

I am not sure what to do. For me, this paper would make a significant difference on my CV. Of course, I don't want my name on something incorrect (if they do indeed make incorrect claims - I have no way to know as no access to the draft), but at the same time, it's six months of work. Above all, such behaviour should not be tolerated in science.

I might contact the professor overseeing the whole lab. Never spoke with him, don't know if he would take me seriously - I have many screenshots, and proofs of my work. He is really famous in the field, but I don't know about his character. The postdoc being the manipulative politician that he is probably made sure to be seen in a good light by the professor, so it might be hard to be taken seriously, even though I think my case stands.

I am quite afraid that if I do get in touch with the professor, then I would have some unpredictable backlash from the narcissistic postdoc - reputation destroying (made up) emails and whatnot. Even if I negotiate to get my name on the paper with the PI, the postdoc will probably feel wronged. After all, what does it cost him to do it now? There will be multiple authors already, so the effect of one extra name seems negligible to me; there is something irrational in putting my name or not.

It would feel really bad to let this go: it's my work, and it's also for all the people who might be impacted in the future by working with this postdoc who is on a good way to become a professor. I feel that it is moral duty to act against such toxic people. I unfortunately have an experience of narcissistic abuse in my romantic life, and I know how destructive such characters are.

My questions:

  • Should I contact the PI?
  • Should I rightfully be on this paper?
  • Should I ask for it?
  • How can I moderate the risk of backlash from the postdoc?

Many thanks in advance!

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  • Despite the clear pain, does that boil down to 'the postdoc… was… toxic, authoritarian, not wanting me to write the validation part of the paper or share the draft, etc' Agains despite the pain, how clearly can you demonstrate that it felt to you that he didn't really care much about the science, and just wanted a nice, marketable statement, to publish a paper fast, and move on? Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 22:19
  • If you know the paper is flawed, why would you want to add your name to it? Perhaps it is much better you write your own paper once they have published the paper. Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 9:22

2 Answers 2

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Yes, it seems that you should be on the paper and should find a way to ask for it. Yes, the PI should be informed, but possibly not directly by yourself, since you have no existing relationship with them.

But, your own advisor, who should support you, can serve as an intermediary with the PI even if they are in different groups. It would be hard to turn down a meeting with your advisor and also hard to ignore the issue.

It is impossible to say how it will turn out, as department politics can get in the way of such things. But if your advisor is willing to intervene, the postdoc has little recourse and may not in any case. Good luck.

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    Involving OPs advisor is a good idea. If OP worked on this project for 6 months, their advisor should at the very least know about this project already.
    – quarague
    Commented Feb 27, 2023 at 7:35
  • Even if the advisor doesn't already know, it's a very good idea to tell them about it now. One of the "soft skills" conferred by an advisor is exactly how to handle situations like this one. Commented Feb 28, 2023 at 19:25
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This is a challenging situation, and I empathize with your frustration. While I agree that it is essential to contact the PI, it may be helpful to involve your advisor as an intermediary to facilitate the conversation. However, it is crucial to manage your expectations, as the outcome may not be favorable. It is possible that the postdoc prioritizes marketable papers over scientific integrity because the PI likes it that way, particularly if he is well-known and influential in the field. A professor at this level is unlikely to be deceived by a manipulative postdoc. If he is, he most probably doesn't care at all. In fact, a powerful person's endorsement can be more valuable than a Nature paper for a postdoc seeking a permanent position, particularly in experimental fields. If the postdoc is gaslighting you, it is possible that he is simply part of a "gaslighting hierarchy" created by the PI himself.

While involving your advisor can be beneficial, it is important to consider that you may be in a position of limited leverage, particularly if your work is not explicitly used in the paper. This is especially true in experiment-driven fields such as condensed matter theory or quantum optics, where theorists may be hesitant to engage in conflict with famous and influential experimentalists.

I sincerely hope I am wrong, but if I am right, this could be a good lesson for you to understand how the system works in your field.

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