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I'm a 2nd year PhD student in a computational field. I'm about to submit my first paper on a new optimization algorithm. I've been working intensively on the problem for the last 2 years and finally managed to get the result. Besides the professor, I'm supervised by another postdoc whom I respect a lot. Although the two didn't contribute to the ideas I present in the paper, they helped me understand the field and prepare the paper. So, they deserve to be coauthors.

However, there is one man in my lab who is really ruining my mood. He is a postdoc, 15 years my senior, and has been with the lab for ages (he has a permanent position). Just for the record, he hasn't published any first or last author paper since 7 years. We are assigned by the professor to the same subgroup meeting. We use the subgroup meeting to report our individual scientific progress.

About a year ago, he came to my desk I said that I should include his name in the work I was working on because the professor said so. I was quite surprised to hear that because he had nothing to do with my project besides sitting in the same meeting. Nevertheless, I agreed because I just simply care about who was on the coauthor list.

Since then, the postdoc constantly asked me to do many things for the project, which I thought didn't make any sense. I told him that he should brought up his request during the meeting when the professor is there. And every single time the response of my professor was something like "Why would you want to do that?" and his answer was "because I'm interested in it." I wish my professor would have said "then do it yourself."

About 6 months ago I came up with an idea which I thought very promising and I presented it in the subgroup meeting. The professor was away on travel, which was not unusual. The postdoc basically told me that I need to stop wasting time on my ideas and listen to his suggestions instead if I want to finish my PhD. I felt very offended and spent days and nights coding my idea. 2 months later, I got the best results that I could ever ask for. I presented the results in front of my professor and others. Everyone was happy except one man.

Today, I was trying to finish the paper and he came in. He asked me to do yet another ridiculous analysis. I told him that I cannot see why this analysis could make the paper better. Besides, this is already the final stage and everything has been discussed thoroughly with the "real" coauthors. He answered me "This might not go into the paper but I'm interested in knowing it. I'm the author and I'm allowed to make request". My reaction was something like a silent WTF and he immediately corrected the word "author" to coauthor. I tried my best to not ask him the question "What did you contribute to the paper?"

I want to submit the paper as soon as possible but this man made me crazy. He would talk to me all day long until I do want he wants. I don't want to write to my professor (who is again traveling) to complain about him. But I'm afraid that he will use his coauthorship to keep bothering me.

What should I do?

Update: Thank you for the comments and answers. Today this man came to me again! I told him that the professor had read my draft paper, made comments, and did not tell me to do any of the work the postdoc was suggesting. I also told him that his experiments were unnecessary, since the algorithm's motivation and performance against benchmarks are already well established, and we are up against the page limit as-is. He agreed with all this, but said he still wants to do the experiments he suggested. He agreed to do it himself so as "not to bother me," but I had to spend the entire day explaining how to do it, so it actually took longer this way. I think he was just desperate to make a contribution. Lesson learned for the next project!

Update (22.August 2022): 8 years have passed since I posted the question, and it seems to still draw some attention. Thus, I want to post some updates. Good news first, the paper has been cited more than 11K times as of now. We showed that our new method performed best for the problem. We basically took the crown from the reigning champion of 10 years. For that reason, people started using our software a lot. That explains the high number of citations. Shortly after the publication, a known group in the field published a paper to independently compare our method with the former champion using their data. Their first revision was so bias towards the other method (they ran our method once and the other multiple times, taking the best result). Luckily, this did not pass the review, and they were forced to do a fair comparison. We were not the reviewer, but they sent us a draft. To our surprise, our method now looked even much better in their comparison. All doubts are silenced.

Not so good news, I left science shortly after my PhD. I finished my "mission" and never planned to stay longer. Although the road was bumpy, and I had to experience to some extent the dark side of academia, I have never regretted doing the PhD. To this day, I still don't think that I would have been able to "get rid of" the unwanted coauthor because he was "assigned" to it at the very beginning. It is just how the system works. The method that finally appeared in the paper was against the will of the remaining coauthors, including my supervisor. They only accepted it when the data were presented. My task was to extend the old method by my supervisor and not inventing a new one. Nevertheless, he was fair and supportive.

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    I tried my best to not ask him the question "What did you contribute to the paper?" — Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I do this.
    – JeffE
    May 20, 2014 at 0:53
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    Most likely he would then drop the matter, never to be heard of again. In general, you don't want to be saying yes to requests of this nature. In any case, is this person officially listed on the co-author list? If so, removing it is probably an option, if he has not done any work. May 20, 2014 at 6:05
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    Reading the title "How to get rid of [...] co-author?" I was tempted to vote to move it to something like Criminal Minds Exchange. Turns out, there is no such site, how disappointing.
    – dirkk
    May 21, 2014 at 7:21
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    “Although the two didn't contribute to the ideas I present in the paper, they helped me a lot to understand the field and prepare the paper. So, they obviously deserve to be coauthors.”—Is it the norm in your field for people who haven't contributed substantially to the intellectual content of a paper to be listed as coauthors? Perhaps it would be better for them to be listed in the acknowledgments. Sep 27, 2014 at 18:14
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    Do not spend too much time for 1-1 discussions. The more you discuss, the more formal reasons he has to be a co-author. Learn to say NO. The most common communication errors are either being too passive or too aggressive. The happy middle ground that is the most effective is called being assertive. It means being able to stand up for yourself or express yourself clearly and honestly without upsetting yourself or others and while accepting and respecting the opinions and feelings of others.
    – yarchik
    Sep 13, 2021 at 21:25

4 Answers 4

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If he has not contributed to the paper or the ideas, I would tell him very bluntly that you have decided not to include him as a co-author and explain your reasoning. You don't need to yell or be rude, just deliberate. As far as him constantly bothering you, just tell him he is interfering with your work and you can make time for him during your "office hours".

It's common for postdocs to abuse their "power". You don't owe him anything just because he is a postdoc in your lab. Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself, it's very unlikely your advisor will. He is, after-all, both of your bosses, and you are both adults.

Edit: I was under the impression the advisor was indifferent. It would be best to sit down with your advisor first and explain your case. Be adamant. Co-author inflation is real. Your advisor is likely trying to look out for the interest of everyone, but if the postdoc has not made any contribution, it would be "unethical" for him to be listed as a co-author. I wonder if the postdoc helped write the grant that you are funded by?

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    It seems unwise to me to do this without first letting the advisor know what's going on..
    – ff524
    May 20, 2014 at 0:49
  • Regarding the authorship, I don't think that I can change anything now because it has been decided so long ago. All I want is that the annoying postdoc sits still in his desk and let me do all the works the way I want and as discussed with the 2 real coauthors. It was the other postdoc, which I consider my mentor, who helped writing the grant. The reason why my advisor allowed the annoying postdoc to join the project was probably to encourage him to have motivation to do real scientific works. May 20, 2014 at 18:37
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    Co-authorship isn't final until the paper has been published...
    – derelict
    May 20, 2014 at 18:46
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    You can't control what other people do :). You can only control their effect on you.
    – Suresh
    May 20, 2014 at 21:21
  • @neil_mccauley a way to go about it is to take the journal's coauthorship conditions and tell him, very calmly and assertive, that he doesn't fulfil them and explain why. Another is to let your professor do it.
    – Davidmh
    May 20, 2014 at 23:08
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How to get rid of unwanted and annoying co-author?

Talking to your advisor about your problem will probably help.

Depending on how that goes, you may still feel like you need to keep this "annoying" postdoc on as a co-author. Even so, you don't need to do any more grunt work for this person. Just finish up your paper. If this postdoc keeps bothering you and impeding your progress, you may need to go into stealth mode for a week or so (work from home while your advisor is out of town, etc.). Finishing your paper quickly (but correctly) will at least (hopefully!) prevent this annoying person from delaying your progress further.

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Another way to handle the situation is to brief your advisor, and then, whenever you get such a request, parry with something like, "I'm really trying to prioritize getting the paper ready for submission. Since this won't go into the paper, maybe you can start working on it, and we can see what kind of results you come up with".

If he still tries to push back, then (and only if you've already briefed your advisor) tell him "Our advisor has asked me to prioritize certain tasks: if you want me to change the priority you'll have to talk to him".

I think it's definitely the advisor's job to play umpire/referee in these situations.

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    This seems like the best advice offered till now to the presented situation.... However, you didn't actually answer the title question about co-authorship. Would you... mind expanding your answer a bit to include that as well?
    – penelope
    May 20, 2014 at 12:17
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    I'm not sure if anything can be done. The original mistake was letting the person glom onto the paper without a fight. At this point all the OP can do is talk to the advisor and ask him/her if they can remove the unwanted person. But this is unlikely to happen.
    – Suresh
    May 20, 2014 at 14:09
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    Today, I basically told him the same thing you suggested (see the UPDATE in my posting). I explained to him nicely that I need time to finalize the writing and if I now switch to the technical stuff I would lose my writing flow. Then he asked me to show him how to do the analysis so that he can do it himself. I refused because it also takes time. Then he told me "Why didn't you want to show me? Or did you fake the results?". When I heard this, I really couldn't stand it anymore and ended up doing what he wants. May 20, 2014 at 23:15
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    I'm afraid that you're enabling continuing bad behaviour by allowing yourself to get baited. :(. Maybe something like "I'll write it in the paper and you can read it there"
    – Suresh
    May 20, 2014 at 23:35
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    "As a coauthor, you surely know how to apply this yourself, so just go ahead and do it!" :)
    – mafu
    May 19, 2016 at 10:57
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Ask for a co-author declaration from all co-authors, in which they detail their input. You can find standard formats for this (many journals demand it). You can tell that it is important to substantiate your CV. If a co-author has nil to show, s/he will obviously have to leave the party.

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