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Since I started my postdoc, the relationship with my former PhD advisor has turned sour. I’m doing a postdoc with one of his competitors on a project I initiated in his lab. He encouraged this, said we should collaborate and that this would be the perfect decision for my career. Now, I’m being accused of trying to steal his work, and I’m at a loss as I only accepted this position because he reassured me he would be okay with me continuing the project, which was my original idea. I had other offers to do work unrelated to my former PI. I also left before publishing my PhD work, so now I have to balance a difficult situation between my former PhD advisor and current PI.

My current PI is clearly upset that my former PhD advisor changed his mind. She is even pushing for me to redo part of the unpublished work in her lab, but this will further antagonise my PhD advisor. I do not want to jeopardise the work I’ve done during my PhD as it is in the final stages of review in a very high-impact journal. I tried to reassure, even pleaded, with my former advisor that I do not want to steal his work and that by collaborating he would get full credit. Diplomacy is getting me nowhere; being nice makes him think he can play a power game with me, as he knows very well how much I care about the work I’ve done in his lab; he is pretty much delaying everything and keeping me hostage by not wanting to publish it in a timely manner. He has backed down from putting the manuscript on bioRxiv to help me with a fellowship application, even though we agreed he would do it. Overnight, I went from friend to foe, and when I asked for an explanation, he said all was good and I was imagining things. Any advice from someone who went through a similar situation?

P.S.: I have a copyright over the work in my thesis. Also, his granting body has clear instructions that prohibit him from not involving me in writing the paper with my name on it/not putting my name on it and including my data. I tried to mention this in a friendly manner, and we joked about it, but I really would like to avoid a full-on formal authorship dispute, as I hope we can salvage the relationship. I need his support to stay in academia. I feel like my hands are tied.

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    What, exactly, are the ways your former advisor is preventing you from publishing? Not just threats and accusations but actual actions? You've mentioned you have a paper under review. Is it just the biorxiv submission to go with that paper or something else too? Are there additional papers? Are those ready for submission?
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 4 at 1:47
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    (1) Finish up your PhD publications ASAP, not using work from your PD lab. (2) As a postdoc do research that is clearly not just a continuation of your PhD work.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 4 at 14:39
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    Hostage seems to me to be inappropriate here. Maybe frustrated? Jan 4 at 18:08
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    As said in the answer by @Charles, I also suspect that some relevant parts of the story are missing. What exactly led to your former advisor accusing you of "stealing his work"? I can't believe he said that out of the blue, he probably has given a more precise explanation, or at least that things have happened so that you could understand why he would say this!? Keep in mind you don't have to convince us that you have done nothing wrong, but in order to help probably more details of the story are required. Jan 5 at 14:37
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    Generally explaining what exactly has happened is probably more helpful than telling us your interpretations and speculations about the former advisor such as "keeping me hostage", "makes him think he can play a power game" etc. Jan 5 at 14:40

3 Answers 3

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You're a post doc now; you're capable of publishing on your own. You need coauthors to sign off of course, but if your advisor isn't providing feedback that's fine, not ideal but fine.

Don't be passive, don't wait years for other people: get your papers in the best shape you can and set a generous deadline for feedback with your coauthors (maybe a month). All of your coauthors, not just your advisor. Don't expect your advisor to circulate it, you can do this yourself. Ask firmly that if any authors have any reservations they share them by that time. Do all of this by email and insist on responses by email if your advisor tries to respond without email. You want documentation.

After that your next steps will depend on the response. If there are no issues and everyone is on board you can submit the paper yourself. If there are specific problems identified, do your best to address them and repeat the process - no need for as long of a feedback period. If the advisor says things like "You're stealing from me!" as a reason for not publishing then that's just childish or insane when talking about a coauthored publication. I'd consider taking a response like that to the department chair or graduate program, bringing with you documentation of your communication. Publishing is good for your advisor, the department, everyone. I doubt that if you've done all the work it will come to that.

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  • I agree with the steps, but it seems that the former supervisor is trying to gaslight OP, so major battles can be expected, so I would remove the very optimistic last sentence. I agree with everything else. Jan 4 at 12:49
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    @CaptainEmacs Perhaps, but OP has not provided any description of behaviors to actually prevent publication besides being slow to provide feedback. Until that escalated, OP can continue to protect themselves by documenting communication but other than that I think they're better off proceeding as if things are relatively "normal" until they're not.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 4 at 13:01
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    I got that and I actually upvoted your response. I think it's better to be upfront that the position of the situation of "everything being normal" is an attitude you suggest to adopt rather than hoping that things will be fine. A subtle, but important difference. In any case, your response is good enough as it is, it is only a minor nitpick. Jan 4 at 14:36
  • @CaptainEmacs It's not only an attitude I'm suggesting, it's also my opinion that if they follow these steps, they're putting the PI in a position to either A) Act unreasonably and unprofessionally, or B) Let things proceed. It's a lot easier to be unreasonable in an abstract, ranty way, than to say "Because I feel this way, you cannot submit this manuscript that is otherwise fine and includes me as an author." It's possible OP's advisor is that person; I'm not seeing anything in this story that suggests they will be. OP seems frustrated with timing and some offhand, now-disavowed comments.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 4 at 16:29
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    I read it as a more concrete antagonism, but won't argue with you, as you may have a better guess of what's going on. I based my view on OP's statement "I’m being accused of trying to steal his work" - OP's presentation is vague, true, but, if indeed uttered, this is a grave accusation in academia, and not at all harmless. Anyway, I might be completely off with my guess and you may be spot on. Your advice is valid either way. Jan 5 at 2:57
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Oh boy. I joined today to learn about physics and I’m seeing a lot of the same kind of things I deal with at work (I’m in HR). “Now I’m being accused of stealing his work.” I feel like there is more here. What exactly does he allege? You say you pleaded with him and told him you don’t want to steal his work. That is an odd way to put it. You should be able to clearly explain why you haven’t. I’m going to be honest— based on what you describe here something is clearly going on. Either something happened that changed his mind, you misunderstood hm originally, or there is something missing in the story. “Competitor” doesn’t mean enemy. Could the three of you have a conversation to try and clear the air? If not, have you actually sat down and spoken directly with your advisor yourself (I mean with an actual agenda)? Challenge yourself—— could your enthusiasm have led you to misread his initial level of support? There is a piece missing here my friend and the odds are good that you really know or at least suspect what is really going on. Good luck

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    I feel like this is more a comment than an answer, but I'm upvoting anyway to help you get the right to comment here.
    – The Doctor
    Jan 4 at 13:15
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    @CaptainEmacs - the description is far from clear (and we only have one side out of 3 or more). What work, exactly, is the OP doing in their new position? How similar is that work to what they were doing in the previous lab? And so forth. Clearly the OP thinks they are without sin, but frankly that is unlikely.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 4 at 14:38
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    Thanks for the upvote. Brand new to this.
    – Charles
    Jan 4 at 15:23
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Sounds like you had a discussion with your advisor and he reassured you there was no issue. Is there a reason you don't want to take that for what it's worth?

I have no insight into your arrangement or relationship, but I can only speculate on some items you mentioned and assume that there has been some miscommunication on the nature of your transition to postdoc and how the continuation of the line of work would go.

Perhaps your former advisor assumed you would wrap up your work from his group, then go on to the postdoc to continue this line of work and have it spawn into potential collaboration. What it sounds like is that you are literally continuing your actual unfinished PhD work - you even mentioned running/repeating more experiments for your PhD work in your new lab. This, to me, as an experimentalist sounds very unusual, and I can see how your PI may feel that the work originating from his group has now been overtaken and diluted; there a lot of egos in science, and in experimental work this is unusual enough that it may have triggered him?

Either way, the collaboration is clearly not working out. Perhaps on his end he sees no problems and he's just very slow (as he stated to you, whether that was right or wrong), but you are obviously unhappy.

If it were up to me, I would wrap up my PhD work independently of the new postdoc position then pursue work with your new advisor, whether related or unrelated, without your former advisor.

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