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I'm an undergraduate and was fortunate to be selected for a 12 week summer placement in a professors lab at my university. I worked way over and above the funded hours and made some very interesting and exciting findings. I have been asked to present a talk to the university body in a few months. I agreed with the lab professor during my placement that this was a good opportunity.

Recently I pulled together my presentation and a summary. I copied the professor on it, who replied very angrily saying I had let him down; I wasn't following lab etiquette and I had no right to publish my findings without his agreement as he was funding it and it was part of larger research work etc. The findings hadn't been published, I just wrote the summary and presentation and only he has seen it.

I've never done lab work before and just prepared the presentation in advance before the term starts to be as organised as possible. I'm worried I've ruined my future lab prospects - I wasn't trying to breach any confidences and was just keen and excited to do the work.

What is your advise on how to further handle this, as well as future lab findings/discoveries and hierarchy discussing anything, lab work etc. I am not sure how to repair the relationship as I was shocked about it and am now quite nervous following his reaction.

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    Not really an answer, but you certainly shouldn’t feel bad about this - academia is full of norms and etiquette that there’s mo way of undergrads knowing. I once got an earful from a collaborator at a conference when I asked them about unpublished results at a conference - it’s an unfortunate part of the learning process.
    – user438383
    Sep 21, 2023 at 8:02
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    But can you clarify - it seems like you confirmed with the professor that it was a good idea and then they said you were breaking etiquette - is it the same person?
    – user438383
    Sep 21, 2023 at 8:03
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    Can you please give some more details. Who was it that asked you to present a talk to the university body?
    – Ben
    Sep 21, 2023 at 10:49
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    How did you "publish" something? Is the professor just wrong to assume that you did or did you submit it somewhere?
    – Buffy
    Sep 21, 2023 at 11:36

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Assuming you simply emailed the presentation to the professor before using it: A reasonable professor would not be angry. They might give you advice on how to better prepare the presentation.

Ask the professor for input on how to fix the presentation. If the professor is still angry after you followed their advice, that is their problem.

I think it's likely that you have misunderstood the situation.

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  • I don't think OP sent it to just his professor or within the group. It says he "copied" his professor. I think the OP sent it to the undergrad symposium organizers.
    – user71659
    Sep 21, 2023 at 22:14
  • @user71659 The question is unclear. Sep 22, 2023 at 1:38
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Yes, it is the role/right of the principal researcher to allow publication of results.

Maybe he though that you are going to present this somewhere, and you just sent it to him for feedback. Just clarify that with him that this was just an internal thing and you don't plan submitting, and thank him for clarifying the situation.

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  • Actually, it's the role/right of all the participants in a research study to allow publication of results. Even a junior researcher can stop a publication going ahead if they have contributed to the research and don't agree with publishing it for any reason. Mind you, blocking a publication like that out of spite probably won't put you in anybody's good graces, but if is every researcher's role/right to allow whether the results of their research will get published.
    – penelope
    Sep 22, 2023 at 10:56
  • @penelope: Even if the principal researcher was not involved in the (co)author sense, he can still stop it, if funds they were responsible for were used - this has nothing to do with the scientific responsibility about which you are talking. I.e. it if the principals responsibility to determine how the results to publish are split in a way that it suits the people in the project and the project. If e.g. student published something it may affect another publication being prepared (since you declare that you did not publish previously). Not saying that this is good, but that is as it is.
    – Sascha
    Sep 23, 2023 at 11:12
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It seems like the professor may have been blindsided by this presentation/report.

The professor's response was strange - so perhaps they were responding to what they believe you have done rather than what you actually did. The response you describe makes it sound as if they assume you have already disseminated the findings (rather than simply giving them first-look at a draft for an upcoming presentation).

Was the professor aware of this upcoming presentation/report? Was it a requirement of the summer placement, or some new opportunity offered to you by the university? If it had been mentioned earlier, it is still quite possible that they forgot, or that they were expecting some heads up to have a discussion on which details should be shared rather than getting some sort of "I'm done. Here's what I'm saying!" dropped on their lap.

Etiquette dictates that the lab you work in (that funds the very work you are doing) decides when/where/how to publish the results. Nobody wants to get "scooped"... especially not by the very labmates they are supposed to be able to trust. It seems like your professor fears you had just "scooped" the results from your summer placement in such a way that may jeopardize their current publication plans for this body of work.

Ultimately it seems like there was a miscommunication issue somewhere. The fix is to figure out where signals got crossed and uncross them. Presumably the professor should be relieved when it becomes clear that (1) you sent them an internal draft rather than just cc'ing them on an external publication submission, (2) there is plenty of time left to make changes to the presentation if they prefer to save certain results for other venues.

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Are there politics at play?

Was there anything of a controversial nature in your findings? Anything that would cause a big industry to lose money, or anything like that? Is it possible your professor has ties to interests that would frown on the publication of the findings in question?

If you believe this to be the case, disseminate the information very publicly through other channels. Don't play that game, at all.

It's sad that such conflicts of interest sometimes stand in the way of scientific advancement and the larger interests of humankind, but that's the politics of humans. And as such, the possibility should be at least considered.

In any case, don't be intimidated. Stand your ground and get people to back you up. Be vocal about it.

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