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My collaborator has a PhD student (just starting their 2nd year) who as part of their project runs computer simulations, as directed by their supervisor. These brought up a result that is (1) tangential to their project and (2) unexpected and so far they have not understood. My collaborator and I think that we understand the result, which implies that some prevailing theory is wrong/incomplete. Obviously, we are keen to explore this further and publish about it.

What we are unsure about, however, is how we involve the student in all this.

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  • You don't say who developed the "result". And, who is the "they" in the second point?
    – Buffy
    Sep 30, 2023 at 12:07
  • Just to clarify: 'they' refers to the student, 'we' to my collaborator & me. The 'result' was produced by the student from the simulation after prompting by the supervisor. The question was not whether the student should be co-author (that's obvious), but whether we should let them lead the research or whether we just take over, or something in between. The simulations are not difficult to reproduce at all (I did them in 10min), but interpreting/understanding them seems more challenging.
    – Walter
    Sep 30, 2023 at 16:09

2 Answers 2

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I'm flying a bit blind here, but if I can assume that the student "stumbled" upon something that was important, but they didn't have the expertise to exploit it themselves, then, they are, in any ethical world, co-author with the rest of you who do have that experience and knowledge. Otherwise, I think you would be committing malpractice.

Lots of things take a long time to work themselves out. The implications of a discovery may not be obvious to the one who discovers them, even when that person is experienced and prominent in the field. I can't give examples, but there are important things in math named for discoverers who didn't fully comprehend the import of the discovery.

The fact that this is tangential to their own work is immaterial. The fact that it calls accepted theory into question is important.

You honor the profession as well as the student to include them as author in any publication resulting from this work.


Edited to add. They may not have the experience to lead, and it might be a good learning experience for them if "you" do. And it might not be enough for a degree even if followed up. It might not be enough to have them redirect their research in this direction. You are a better judge of that than someone from a distance. But, yes, include them in important discussions and treat them (to some extent) as a colleague.

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  • Please see my comment to the question.
    – Walter
    Sep 30, 2023 at 16:19
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So if I understand this correctly, a PhD student working with your collaborator discovered some new result accidently. They don't quite understand the implications but you think that the results are substantial.

What exactly is the problem? Just include them in the work going forward. Perhaps explain why you think the results may be important. Then task the student with chasing it down a bit. Obviously if this is your colleague's student you don't really need to do much of this yourself - just be available and don't stand in the way of the students participation.

But it sounds like you want to cut them out. I wouldn't do this unless you have a really good reason.

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    The issue is that the student may not be expert enough to (1) recognize the implication of their simulation result and (2) bring the research and publication forward. So, we (collaborator & me) may want to lead the way, when the student will be co-author but not lead author of any publication. I don't want to cut them out, anything I do will be in collaboration with my collaborator friend.
    – Walter
    Sep 30, 2023 at 16:16
  • I think that makes perfect sense if you're worried that they aren't yet able to push the project through. I would consider giving them the opportunity to try, but what you're saying is reasonable.
    – sErISaNo
    Sep 30, 2023 at 17:00

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