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The title says it all: my supervisor pressures me to co-author one of his papers. The paper is based on a study which was performed by a student in our department. In the very first weeks of the project, I was supposed to support the project and the study. The student had her own ideas of the study, and although seeking my advice on a frequent basis she would never follow it. At a later stage, numerous problems occurred (which I anticipated). The problems were the consequences of the student doing whatever she pleased to do. My supervisor gave her the freedom to behave like this. I informed him that I could not support a project like this. He was fine with it. In the meantime, I informed the student about it. She ghosted me for one year and then came back seeking my help. I refused to support her after she always neglected my advise and made a lot of predictable errors. Still, my supervisor was fine with it. Now the student under discussion produced a paper based on the study. The paper is of low quality and will not get accepted in a reputable journal. In fact, the paper is poorly written and the methods (statistical analysis) lacks rigor. I am sure my supervisor knows about this and this is exactly where he wants me to polish the paper. This cannot be done in a few days but requires several weeks because everything has to be done from scratch.

How could I escape that situation?

Background: my supervisor is my boss. He pays 50% of my loan (I pay the other 50%). I have my own projects and publish on a regular basis and work independently from him these days. I work as a clinician scientist, seeking tenure this year.

Any help would be appreciated. I feel that said paper would look bad on my CV.

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    What sort of position do you hold?
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 9 at 15:36
  • @ Buffy, Thank you for your inquiry. I am a clinician scientist. I will update / edit the question.
    – Dr.M
    Commented Jan 9 at 15:43
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    Any chance to drag it out? Some papers take years to polish to publication level (even good ones). This one just needs time. A lot of it. It is surprising how long things can take when one does not work on them. Commented Jan 9 at 19:21
  • Dear Captain Emacs, Thank you for your hint! I thought about that but the issue is that the student under discussion ghosted me about 1 year and so nobody really worked on the paper. Now my boss realized this and "prioritized" it but pressuring me to work on it (although I do not want to co-author). I may apply your strategy!
    – Dr.M
    Commented Jan 9 at 19:29
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    How are you being pressured? Have you already tried politely declining?
    – Kimball
    Commented Jan 10 at 1:52

2 Answers 2

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You'll have to judge whether this would be safe, but to me, the best solution is to explain to the supervisor and the student if necessary that a poor paper will benefit no-one and that you'll take on the task if (only if) you are given enough time to do a proper job.

Even if you do a lot of the work but end up not as first author it would be preferable to producing cruft and having your name associated.

That said, it is risky to oppose supervisors as I know you are aware.

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    @ Buffy, Thank you so much for your insights. I regret that the paper can only be improved to a certain extent. The paper itself contains a fundamental flaw that makes it to some extent invalid. I would spend months for a non-important mid authorship...
    – Dr.M
    Commented Jan 9 at 18:39
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In theory, every author vouches for the quality of the papers published. In practice, just the reviewer vouches for its quality.

If the paper won't get accepted, let it be. A proper review process should hide the names of authors during review so if the paper never gets published, you get the chance of saying "I've tried" or "I've told you so" without anyone outside your department ever knowing you had a part in it.

That being said, life is not fair and doing what people in power positions want often provides better outcomes than antagonizing them (in this I mean your advisor). Regarding your colleague, treating people fairly is not always what produces the best short-term outcomes. I'd advise you to provide a review of her paper, as if providing her with a fresh start as a person. See how she reacts, try to get responses in written, not in personal talks. Give her some space to redo her work herself. You can them just tell your advisor you are waiting on her.

Don't just say a hard no to your advisor, also don't commit at once to do the hero saving the day role: Aling (small) step by (small) step with your advisor. First just a reading, then changing insights on the fundamental flaw, proposing a new introduction and so on.

If all goes well, you'd get tenure before this paper is finished. If all goes bad, you've stalled working on this as much as you could without antagonizing your advisor.

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    Whether authors are anonymous or not during the review process is very field dependent.
    – Anyon
    Commented Jan 10 at 1:21
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    @Anyon ... and journal dependent. The reviewer can be a gatekeeper, but the reviewer does not vouch for the quality. It is the responsibility of the authors to ensure the quality of the paper. The reviewers are just a second line of defense. Commented Jan 10 at 3:40

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