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During the penultimate semester of my undergrad studies, I had approached a professor with a research idea, which he approved and both of us started working on it. We made substantial progress, but not enough to write a paper.

Later, I made a big mistake. I got really busy with grad school applications, job interviews and completing my graduation requirements. The later was notoriously hard because I had backlogs due to covid-related disruptions. This led to slow progress in the research arena.

The professor became really angry that I wasn't working enough with research, but I was too busy to do anything. When I communicated, he just said that I should value research more than coursework. After this, he stopped replying to my emails and told me he no longer wanted to work with me.

Once I graduated and started with grad school (in a different country), I finished the research work and wrote a paper. I want to submit this paper now. However, the professor had substantial contribution in the work so he should be an author. When I communicated with him again, he just reiterated that he didn't want to work with me.

What can be done in such a case? Would it be advisable to submit the work under my own name; or resume the project with another professor?

Edit to update: I discussed this with my current mentor (with more details) and she has said that it'd be hard to make that paper publishable in top conferences without more inputs from that professor, hence I should just put it on arxiv, drop the project and focus on future. I have adhered to that advice, put it up on arxiv and my website for record, and moved on.

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    You did not make a big mistake (unless there was more going on than you describe here.) Your professor was a big jerk. Oct 24, 2023 at 23:30
  • @GlennWillen My mistake was starting research when I didn't have time for it. The professor is not at fault here.
    – whoisit
    Oct 24, 2023 at 23:49
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    You made a minor and very common mistake. I personally started and then ghosted on research projects twice as an undergrad (once in junior year, once in senior year.) I did feel very bad about it at the time, but neither professor behaved like this about it. Your professor was extremely unprofessional in his handling of it. The behavioral standards for professors are (rightly) much higher than the standards for undergraduate students. (I ended up with an ADHD diagnosis a decade later.) Oct 24, 2023 at 23:55
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    "he just said that I should value research more than coursework." And if the prof is paying you a stipend and the school is covering your room and board, you can take a few semester to do research. But since you were an undergrad, I'm assuming you had to pay for each semester or there was a limited scholarship. Expecting you to dump courses and delay graduation in favor of doing this research is BS. Oct 27, 2023 at 20:37
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    I feel sorry for you. This post may not answer your question, but take it as a forewarning. If you end up publishing, you will have to pay a publication fee. Who's going to pay if you do not have a PI as last author? A pub fee can be several thousands of $. I had a similar situation with my PhD supervisor who suddenly moved to industry and didn't want to pay for my paper. Fortunately, the second last author agreed to pay on his behalf. If not, i would have lost the paper. Just keep it in mind. Oct 28, 2023 at 0:06

4 Answers 4

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Honestly, I am sorry you got that response. You should, as a student, absolutely prioritize your requirements to graduate over research, and I believe that professor is wrong in suggesting otherwise.

Now, to the solution: You should explicitly ask the professor about this. Something like:

Dear Prof,

As per our previous discussion, I have now completed and finished a paper with the work we started and that I finished on XXX, with the title XXX, please find it attached. I would like to submit this article for publication, and I believe you should be a coauthor due to the joint efforts that we did on it. I understand you are not interested in further collaboration, but I would like your permission to add you as a coauthor on this work, or if that is not your preference, permission to list you in the acknowledgments. Of course, I will handle reviews and the publication process in any case.

Best

whoisit

Ideally the Prof responds with either of those options. If the prof does not respond you are in a bit of a pickle, as you should not publish anything without an authors approval, but also not giving credit is very bad. Ultimately, if this happens, you may want to forget this project and do something else, depending on how important this is towards your PhD.

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    Good answer, but you give the person too much power. I suggest you reword this sentence to be "I understand you are not interested in further collaboration, but I would like your permission to add you as a coauthor on this work, or if you are not interest, permission to list you in the acknowledgments." As worded, the former professor may hold the OP hostage. Oct 24, 2023 at 14:40
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    I also disagree with your last paragraph. As long the OP makes a reasonable effort to include the former professor, that person should not get to veto or block the publicaiton. Oct 24, 2023 at 14:40
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    Personally, I'd write it as "if I do not hear from within X I will assume you do not wish to be acknowledged for your role in this work and submit without your as co-author". The professor is an absolute douche, do not hesitate to cut him off and carry on without. Oct 24, 2023 at 22:31
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    Unfortunately I have to disagree with everybody who assumes as implicit confirmation through a non-response is sufficient. As llama says, anybody who contributed significantly to a piece of work should be listed as an author, and publication requires the consent of all authors. Even if those authors are dicks. And consent needs to be explicitly given. It is very sad that the OP is in this situation, but sadly being a dick back at the prof is not the answer. Not responding to "If you don't respond to this by date X, I will assume you consent to this" does not equal giving consent.
    – penelope
    Oct 25, 2023 at 14:43
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    @penelope yeah, I agree with you on this. Someone not replying is not agreeing to anything, which is why I worded my post as I did. I am also surprised that people suggest otherwise. Oct 25, 2023 at 14:44
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Sorry your undergrad mentor was a jerk. You're almost certainly better off not working with them anymore.

What can be done in such a case? Would it be advisable to submit the work under my own name; or resume the project with another professor?

Talk to your current graduate advisor. A lot of this is context dependent that cannot be captured online. You current professor can help you see the big picture with questions such as

  • Is this paper the best use of your time? You might be better off just working on your graduate project. I had a PhD committee member tell me that about papers from my PhD dissertation during my postdoc. It's not personal, it's just business.
  • How good is your projects and how likely is the paper to be published? I have observed that many people do not understand what it takes to write a publishable paper until they have experience.
  • What are the ethics and norms for your specific field?
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    If your current supervisor feels like trying to publish this paper is a good use of your time, you could cc them on the email above and they can help arbitrate.
    – Dawn
    Oct 24, 2023 at 21:41
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    @Dawn is right, bringing your current supervisor into the discussion with your undergrad mentor might be a good way forward. Depending on the details of the situation it might even make sense for your current supervisor to directly write to your undergrad mentor (e.g. if they have some previous contact). Oct 27, 2023 at 10:59
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Keep your contributions to the paper and remove any/all contributions from this professor. This might require some newly written and/or updated sections, but it is worth it. Once you have revised this paper to the point in which it reflects YOUR voice, submit it as a new solo-authored paper for publication consideration. Best wishes to you on this leg of your academic/professional journey!

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From a legal point of view, if he contributed to the work, he has intellectual property rights over it, therefore it is not possible to submit the article without his permission. Most journals will ask you to confirm that you obtained the permission from all authors. Is it possible to edit the paper substantially, so that it's your contribution only? You did not disclose much details on the content, so it's hard to understand and give advice. From the last part of your answer, it seems that you already tried to contact him again and he confirmed he doesn't want to collaborate with you, so if you insist it might be seen as harassment (depending on your jurisdiction). Maybe you can ask advice to someone in his department who can mediate between you and him

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    I'm not a lawyer but I think "intellectual property" covers the written form of the work (here, the paper), not the idea; and the writing here was done by the student who's asking. The question is about academic ethics, not intellectual property law. (I agree with you that there would be an intellectual property aspect as well if the professor had been involved in the writing.)
    – a3nm
    Oct 27, 2023 at 17:06
  • I am an attorney. Intellectual property covers much more than just the writing, for example, the data provided, the figures, software etc. The OP did not disclose many details about the content of the article, so why are you claiming that the writing has been done by the student only? But even then, IP is a different concept than just the copyright of the written text. I imagine that the 4 people who downvoted my answer are not lawyers.
    – AkiPhD
    Oct 28, 2023 at 9:35
  • Hi, thanks for the clarification! I agree that copyright could extend to other things like figures, code, data, etc. I guess that from the question I suspected that the "involvement" of the professor was just discussing ideas and providing guidance, with the student afterwards writing the paper and preparing the deliverables that may be copyrightable. But I agree this is just an assumption, maybe unwarranted from what the question says.
    – a3nm
    Oct 30, 2023 at 21:03
  • About the downvotes, I think the reason may be that your answer gives the impression that this is a question about intellectual property. While I agree there may potentially be copyright concerns, I think the question is mostly one about professional ethics (authorship, etc.). I guess the OP is more worried about potential damage to their career because they violated academic norms, not about getting sued for copyright infringement. This is just my interpretation however!
    – a3nm
    Oct 30, 2023 at 21:05

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