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I am a postdoc leading a project X. I have two PhD students directly supervised by me working on this project. They are 'officially' supervised by my professor.

Both these PhD students went to my supervisor (the professor) to have a meeting. I was not asked to join, which felt strange. It turned out that the professor approved both of them to write a paper. They then added another author. When the first draft came out, I was not listed as an author. I talked to one of them to explicitly to ask who are the authors, and she did not name me, even though I had helped her at every stage to set up things in the project.

I complained to the professor and he agreed that this is not acceptable, confirmed that it is my project and I should definitely be an author.

How do I 'reprimand' these two PhD students for not taking appropriate care of authorship and contributions? (a) Having added another author whose contribution is not known to me, (b) Not adding me as an author, (c) not taking me into the loop when considering a publication.

The draft is also in very bad shape, no references, AI-generated text, and missing background research. I am going to stop/delay this publication for now. How do I effectively communicate that without discouraging them entirely?

They plan to submit in a few days.

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    Is reprimand the best term here? Unless you wish to explicily punish them for doing wrong, it seems like odd phrasing. Either way, trying to stop a publication in its tracks isn't what I think you should do as a supervisor, you should be focusing on communicating the issues and helping them fix these mistakes.
    – young_man
    Mar 15 at 5:37
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    "The draft is also in very bad shape, no references, AI generated text, and missing background research" - why do you want to be an author of this?
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 15 at 15:15
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    @BryanKrause in their defence, the text written by the student may be of bad quality, but it does not change that they spent time supervising them and may want to have an output from the project. We don't have indication of the quality of the research, but a bad draft is salvageable. Also it could be a good opportunity for the student to "learn" good and bad practice, as they clearly don't
    – JackRed
    Mar 15 at 15:27
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    @JackRed My surprise is that OP seems more hurt by being left off this disaster of a paper attempt rather than concerned that their mentees are so lost. They're asking "how do I reprimand them?" when they should be asking something else.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 15 at 15:30
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    By reprimand do you mean have a constructive conversation? Mar 15 at 23:50

10 Answers 10

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Don't reprimand. Teach.

These are new researchers, which means that in addition to learning how to conduct research itself, they are also learning professional ethics and coauthorship conventions. They definitely made a mistake (an impactful mistake), but it's not surprising that total beginners to professional ethics can make mistakes.

As in so many things, the key phrase is clearly communicated expectations. The scientific community has expectations regarding coauthorship and credit; help the PhD students understand those expectations. You have expectations for the outcome of the project you're supervising them on; communicate those expectations (and use this incident as a learning moment to explain how not meeting those expectations impacted you negatively, professionally and personally). You've also mentioned expectations about the quality and source of the writing itself.

I believe that you can help teach them the above things without ever saying a single hurtful, shaming, or judgmental word. If you do so, they'll probably be extremely grateful for advancing their knowledge in their chosen careers, and you'll have done good for the scientific community as a whole.

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    +1. In grad school, I thought I had "done all the work" with my first paper and putting my advisor's name on was a formality (although I had no problem with it). Later in my career, I'm realizing it was probably considerably more work for my advisor to set up the work for me than to just do it themselves. So being new to research, publications, etc can lead to these misunderstandings quite easily.
    – Cliff AB
    Mar 16 at 4:51
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I'll tell you my story because it is extremely similar to yours.

I was recently in a position where a PhD student at my institute removed my name from a paper in which I was appointed as second author by the project leader (the PhD student was the first author, and the leader is one of his advisors). I asked him what had happened, and he said that the project was going on a long time before I had arrived in this laboratory, so he didn't think I had played enough of a role to deserve authorship. I sat down with him and told him that the results they had achieved were only possible because of a dozen of methods that I suggested, plus the several dozen discussions we had in which I gave him clear instructions of what to do and what to look for. Even though the project was "older than me", they had not seen any results before I instructed them, which is why I believed I needed to have my name in this paper. Note that I don't particularly like the paper, I just believe I need to be held accountable for any problem or solution anyone extracts for it, since most of the ideas and interpretations in the paper were mine.

I did not try to hide my dissatisfaction with the fact that he went behind my back and removed my name. I told him this was highly atypical in science, and he should not do it again. If he believed my name shouldn't be there he should have asked for a meeting with all coauthors present. Besides, just like in your case, I told him the paper needed to be completely rewritten because it was unintelligible.

I subsequently had a meeting with the student's supervisor and told him the paper was horrible, to which he immediately agreed and told me he already had plans to rewrite it. In the end we both (me and his advisor) rewrote the paper together, subsequently sending it to the other authors and having it published shortly after.

TLDR: The only form of "reprehension" I employed was to tell the student face-to-face, and in a serious tone, that what he had done was inadmissible. I don't know (and I don't care) if he learned the lesson or not, because I chose not to work with him anymore. Regarding the paper: I talked directly to the project leader and rewrote the paper with him, ignoring the student (who was uncooperative) except for feedback before publication (there was none). This was my solution, and as far as I can see it worked pretty well.

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    Just for clarification, the student is still an author of your paper? The first author?
    – quarague
    Mar 15 at 12:03
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    @quarague First author. Mar 16 at 17:33
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    “Now, since I am a lot more experienced than he is, I believe I am in a position where I can simply ignore him and talk directly to his advisor.” — No. Just no. Regardless of your relative levels of experience or the hierarchy in your work place, ignoring a colleague and going above their head is never the right solution unless there is a valid reason for explicitly keeping them in the dark (e.g., reporting someone for sexual harassment). Having a meeting with the supervisor is fine, but the PhD student should be made aware of this as well and should not just be ignored. Mar 18 at 12:13
  • @JanusBahsJacquet The first thing I did was to talk to the student. Read the answer again. Besides, you're wrong: postdocs in charge of students will often have meetings with the student's supervisor without the student present. Mar 18 at 15:09
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    @QuantumBrick I’d call that overruling, rather than ignoring. As long as you had the dialogue with the student and told them that all of you agreed that he was wrong, and that you were going to rewrite the article to make it intelligible, then you didn’t ignore him – you simply outvoted him. That’s fair and can be necessary. Mar 19 at 13:22
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You have spoken with the group leader. You are not their supervisor. You are acting on behalf of your group leader/advisor.

You did the right thing by speaking with your advisor, and you should continue to do so as this matter becomes resolved.

It is not your role to reprimand/discipline.

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    "Continue to speak to your advisor" should be emphasized. If you are not satisfied with the current resolution, have another meeting such that your professor better understands your concerns. -- But the final decision does need to go through your supervisor: they need to determine how best to handle the students and - equally importantly - how best to handle your dissatisfaction with the situation.
    – R.M.
    Mar 15 at 19:02
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I have two PhD students directly supervised by me working on this project

So then supervise them by first inquiring why they think the way the article was prepared is the right one (authors, AI text, , ...) and then explain to them how it should have been done.

There are several general situations you/they can be in:

  • they had no idea about the correct way to write an article and they are glad you explained them. Everybody wins.
  • they were #yoloying their way to the article, thinking that what they were doing at earlier schools will fly. You tell them not to do it again and they should understand. Everybody makes mistakes.
  • they are insufferable assholes who think they are the center of the universe and they couldn't care less about what you are telling them. Tough place to be in, escalate to your boss (and think about how to get rid of them, if possible)
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I don't think reprimanding should be the goal, but education. Because it sounds like the official supervisor (your advisor) isn't doing a proper job of managing this project/the work in their lab, training their PhD students and/or establishing clear communication with regards to expectations, responsibilities and accountabilities.

I think what you did as a first step (go to their supervisor) is the right thing to do. But it sounds like it needs follow up because now you have this horrible first draft.

Since nobody else has offered the following option I am eager to hear if people think this is off base, but given the multiple issues with communication and project/authorship workflow in general going on here, I would call for a meeting with the supervisor/advisor and the two PhD students and yourself.

Explain what you think has gone wrong - and be sure to point this out at multiple levels: the manuscript itself (technicalities, writing, content), the authorship debacle and project management in general: because whose project is this and why are you not working as a team if they are there to help you? who has ownership over which parts? And if your advisor has delegated certain tasks to you, is that then clear to all?

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To answer your question directly.

If a reprimand is what you wish to deliver to them, for whatever reason, then you have three options, and can do all:

  1. **Confront them in a polite and professional manner and simply state the actions that are inappropriate and what should be done instead. This can be done face to face or in written communication.
  2. Report this to their professor.
  3. Submit a written complaint to the appropriate department in your institution that handles misconduct.

Any other independent action you take on your own behalf would be outside of professional conduct and be improper. Once you report it, it is up to the institution and/or professor to determine if it warrants corrective action.

These are colleagues. Handle this professionally and with respect. Reprimands can be gentle or extreme. How you conduct yourself and react to situations also reflects on you. I recommend to always be professional and respectful to your colleagues.

**Note, if you have no official authority over them then you don't have authority to reprimand them yourself. You can communicate displeasure, but any language or tone that implies authority would be unprofessional.

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Formal supervision matters such as discipline should be left to formal supervisors, in this case, your professor. It is simply not your place to "reprimand" PhD students in this case.

As others have said, this is a teachable moment here - does your research group regularly review new literature together? If not, this would be an excellent way of showing students what good (and bad) papers are. I learnt a lot from doing this whilst a PhD student.

Really I would be expecting your group leader to be showing more leadership here.

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From your description it is not entirely clear how much help and direction you gave them and how much direction they think they have got.

It is a matter of perspective is it not? Say i am stuck with how to perform a computation. You come and help me out with the computation. You may start thinking that you helped out with the most crucial part which merits co-authorship and I may think that it is enough to acknowledge your help in the conclusion without making you a co-author.

Did you make yourself clear at the very onset that you are helping as a collaborator and as a result will be expected to be one of the co-authors?

In science just because we are discussing with each other does not automatically imply that everyone that I discuss ideas with becomes a co-author.

The young phd students may be at fault but please introspect and analyze whether you are fault free. As a postdoc and as a future professor this communication skills setting up ground rules should also be part of your training.

One publication will not make or break your career but if you are able to extract positive learning experience from the incident then it will make you a better professor.

I did not answer your question of how should you should reprimand your supervising student but the very fact that you are unsure about how to deal with your junior colleagues implies a communication deficiency which you should work on.

In the end we cannot control other's behavior. you can use force or threat but that doesn't yield good results in the long run. If you learn how to communicate better it will make you a better collaborator and scientist.

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How do I 'reprimand' these two PhD students for not taking appropriate care of authorship and contributions?

Don't, not your job or responsibility. The Professor is the principal investigator and takes responsibility for the appropriate co-authorships. It is in their best interest not to produce potential future authorship problems (e.g. potentially you complaining to the journal) by making sure everything is correct, and so they did. This could be a misunderstanding on the students behalf, or intention, it does not matter, since it is the responsibility of the professor.

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I will give you the "corporate" view (and vocabulary) on the matter, because management and governance are needed everywhere, at least as long as we haven't found a better way to work together: the fundamental fault lies with your professor.

Related to the meeting these two had with him, it is ok to meet with your "skip-level boss" (as the slang goes), because, for example, they may wanted to complain about you.

But once he found out that the issue was about a prospective paper, he should explicitly tell them to contact you for any further steps taken down that road and notify you about it, to take hold of things.

It was he that failed you, first and foremost. The students, they just followed his (implied) lead: you do not matter, they bypass you, go to him, have things done their way.

So "reprimand" him and teach them, as another answer said.

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