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I am a PhD student currently needing advice on a paper submission issue with a previous supervisor (or advisor/mentor in some countries).

Last year, I discovered that my supervisor had not gotten ethics approval for part of my project, but she had been instructing me to collect the data anyway (sensitive personal info from cancer patients). The two other PhD students both had similar ethical and professional issues with this supervisor, so we decided to talk to our faculty about what to do. The university investigated and the supervisor got fired. The three of us had to start our PhD's again but we are all with much better labs now.

I wrote a systematic review last year with my old supervisor and a bunch of other co-authors. I was first author and my supervisor was senior and corresponding. We got knocked back from the first journal in October last year, shortly before all of the conflict happened. It's now been 6 months and I really want to submit the paper to a new journal (reviews go out of date quickly!). I have been instructed by my university to have no contact with the old supervisor, so I selected a new journal and decided to make myself the corresponding author, still leaving her as senior.

Here's where the problem is, I got advice from a few executives at my university and they supported me submitting the paper to a new journal but told me that we need to get consent from all authors including my old supervisor. The dean corresponded with the old supervisor on my behalf and (I was told) the supervisor responded saying something to the effect of 'I'm the senior author AND corresponding author and I need to submit this myself, no one else is to do it on my behalf'. The supervisor also said that it was 'on her list of things to do' but that was over 3 weeks ago and I haven't been notified of any submissions yet.

**Edit: This paper is a review and features none of the improper data. That data has been handed over to the university and will not be published.

I don't care who submits it, I just want it to get done. It seems as though she is intentionally being difficult and delaying things. My university have told me that unfortunately there isn't much I can do but wait for her to take care of it.

Are there any other options? I would hate to have worked so hard and have a great paper just sit there doing nothing.

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    This sucks. It sounds as though you may be out of luck on this paper. You have my sympathies; best wishes for the rest of your PhD. Apr 17, 2023 at 8:08
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    What is the problem with you communicating with her directly? Apr 18, 2023 at 14:55
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    You're not being reasonable. Three weeks is a short period and it was just over holidays. People have different priorities, be patient.
    – The Doctor
    Jan 13 at 18:37
  • @ChristianHennig OP was expressly instructed not to contact the old supervisor. Jan 13 at 21:10

4 Answers 4

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Three weeks do not sound at all like being difficult. I’m in best terms with my ex supervisor but reference letters can take a month. In academic publishing, everything takes months. You are perhaps being too impatient.

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  • Under normal circumstances, I would agree, but the OP's situation is/was obviously not normal. I think they are right to be concerned. But unfortunately there is nothing they can do other than wait.
    – sErISaNo
    May 18, 2023 at 5:13
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    Three weeks ago was Christmas and New year's Eve...
    – The Doctor
    Jan 13 at 18:40
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Your old supervisor clearly has a lot to consider currently, three weeks is a very short time in academia. Since she has been notified that you wish it to be published, and she said she will do it, it is in her hands now. It could reflect badly on you if you do anything contradicting what they have told you to do.

Hopefully she will get around to it, but in your current situation it does not seem to be anyway you could effect whether it gets published.

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I don't know what I would do since I've never been in this position, but, one person who for all intents and purposes is no longer on the project (and was let go for ethics violations!!!!!!) can't simply delay the publication.

If I were you, what I would do is write to whoever the managing editor is and simply explain the situation, and ask the journal what their opinion is. At the end of the day, they have say over what you can and can't submit to them and the details surrounding it.

So, reach out to the editor. Explain the relevant details, and just ask them how this might be sorted out in terms of a submission.

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    Ethical violations on another project do not cause all of someone's rights to other work they've (co)authored to be forfeited. A coauthor can simply delay the publication. A reputable journal will not accept an argument like "this was cowritten by A, B, C, but C is a jerk, can we just leave them off?"
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 17, 2023 at 14:25
  • The argument is not "they're a jerk, leave them off the publication". Apr 17, 2023 at 14:48
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    What is the argument?
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 17, 2023 at 14:50
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    @BryanKrause The question to the editor is: can a co-author maliciously delay the paper? Unfortunately, probably, the answer is yes. I assume that there are cases where this can be countervened, it does not look like that, here, though. I guess some diplomacy by the head of department might soften the stance of the old supervisor, not much time has passed yet. Jan 13 at 21:12
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TLDR You absolutely can not publish this data without a human subjects board review, but maybe you can rescue it.

The longer story: No journal will touch an article if the authors can't attest that proper ethical guidelines were adhered to.

The best you can probably do is to find someone willing to go to bat for you with the Human Subjects committee at your school. If it turns out that informed consent was not required, for whatever reason, that committee may see fit to retroactively approve your study. This might be the case if there were no risks, or no concerns of privacy.

Otherwise, you might be completely out of luck. A best case for you is that the committee might say something along the lines of "we'll allow you to contact the subjects to seek retroactive permission through a consent process". I would imagine that might involve an explanation to the subjects concerning what went wrong, along with a promise to permanently delete the data if consent is not given.

Note that even approaching the Human Subjects people is not without risk, and there are probably people in your environs probably want this whole situation to go away with zero extra attention. Human Subjects panels have reporting responsibilities for certain kinds of violations, and your case may fall into one of those situations.

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    I think there are two papers/projects in the OP: one is a project with novel data that was conducted improperly, which lead to the supervisor being fired. The other is a systematic review of the literature, with OP coauthored with, among others, that dismissed supervisor. OP is wanting to submit the latter systematic review.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 17, 2023 at 14:22
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    I was under the impression that the projects were the same (or, only one project). If there's a second project (unrelated to the SR), then yes, unfortunately, they can delay the publication. But, the bigger area of concern in my mind is the IRB confirmations. If proper ethics standards weren't followed, then authorship is the least of the issues OP mentions. @BryanKrause Apr 17, 2023 at 14:54
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    @JaredGreathouse Generally a review does not require ethics approval; as a review, it's summarizing from the literature, not collecting data from patients. The connections here are just that this explains the current bad blood with the dismissed supervisor and OP/their institution, and also because OP likely currently sees this review paper as more important than they would otherwise, because their project based on new data is dead due to the ethical lapses.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 17, 2023 at 14:58
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    @JaredGreathouse as suggested by other commenters, this paper doesn't feature any of the data that was obtained unethically. I would just like to have my review published and was hoping someone might have a suggestion. It is an unusual situation, but I am optimistic that I will be able to gain credit for work I have completed. Apr 18, 2023 at 9:14

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