When I was doing my PhD project, I got an idea to solve a different but related problem. However, my supervisor said neither the motivation nor the initial result were interesting, and so he refused to offer me help on this topic. Then, I did a paper on my own with a lot of work afterwards, and submitted it to a high standard journal, and it was accepted.

My supervisor knew this, and he commanded me to add his name to the paper, otherwise he would write to the editor. I asked him what his contribution was. He had nothing to say, but insisted he had spent time to discuss the result with me.

So, if he writes to the editor, what would happen? Or if the paper has been published, then he has nothing to do with it? I am pretty much sure he can almost show nothing about the evidence of the contribution.

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    In fact, I am more interested in what the editor will do with this situation – user17682 Jul 13 '14 at 9:50
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    Somewhat unrelated to the main question: Do you have emails or other written material verifying your claims that the professor indeed initially was not interested in the problem, or otherwise would indicate that he might have given up on his claim to authorship? Similarly, are there any emails implying that you might have asked for guidance from the supervisor? – alarge Jul 13 '14 at 11:21
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    "Or if the paper has been published, then he has nothing to do with it?" Not sure what this sentence means. – Faheem Mitha Jul 13 '14 at 12:52
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    "He had nothing to say, but insisted he had spent time to discuss the result with me". A warning -- this appears confused. Did he have nothing to say, or did he say something you disagreed with (that he contributed by discussing the result with you)? You need to be absolutely clear what "contribution" means in your field before you can begin to assert that your supervisor didn't do it. If running the lab as PI is seen by the editor as a contribution to every paper that comes out of the lab, that's going to inform their actions. – Steve Jessop Jul 14 '14 at 1:24

The short answer is that the editor will likely ask for more information from you and the adviser in response to a letter such as your adviser apparently plan to write. I doubt any action will be taken immediately and without some research if the editor is taking the task seriously.

As an editor, I would find this sort of case very difficult since I would (most likely) receive two conflicting pictures of the story. Editors have the power to take whatever action they find appropriate. Their decisions may of course be disputed and the story could go on. In a case that is relatively similar in parts (case link), an editor has turned to the Committee on Publication ethics to get support in a decision. Their case portfolio can also be of help to editors.

Obviously, following the linked case, an editor will try to have you and your adviser fix the problem yourself, it is after all primarily your problem. Hopefully the editor will come up with a plan for further actions, perhaps, as in the case, bring in a mediator and finally, if all fails, make a decision based on the existing facts that will be final. Some similar line of action seems appropriate and was also deemed appropriate by COPE. What route an editor will take may of course differ depending on the case but the aim will be to try to resolve what is right or wrong will be the aim and if all fails a suggestion on how the journal will proceed will follow.

  • COPE has a series of flowcharts on how to handle the most common issues : publicationethics.org/resources/flowcharts . See specifically the 'if you suspect ghost, guest or gift authorship' chart and the page on 'how to spot authorship problems', and maybe the 'ethical problem' chart – Joe Jul 14 '14 at 13:49

Further to Ben's comment: I'd say that your advisor has burned bridges with you, which is unfortunate. There is a lesson in this for doctoral students. Choosing an advisor is a life-altering decision. Personal compatibility and reputation are as important as professional reputation.

The filial obligations run in both directions: whatever you do in your field will reflect in some degree on your advisor. It's in your advisor's interest to help you along professionally. It is unfortunate that your advisor has chosen to take this sort of action. He (She?) apparently wants the hit in an "A" journal.

What can the editor do? Anything she wants to do, actually. You don't say if the paper is in print yet. The best case for you is that it is not in print yet. Adding your advisor as co-author is still possible, and this whole mess can remain relatively closely held to you, your advisor and the editor. If the paper has appeared already, the editor could do anything from withdrawing the paper (very bad, as that action reeks of plagiarism or other academic dishonesty) to issuing a corrigendum note (not as bad as withdrawing the paper, but bad). In the short run, the best case for you would be for the editor to do nothing. I'm not sure that is in your long-run best interest, however.

What should you do? Someone has to be the bigger, better person. Your advisor has already (to the extent that your version of the story reflects the actual history) revealed him(her?)self to be a rather petty person. I'd say to add your advisor as co-author. The power dynamics are pretty asymmetric here and you are on the weak side. Unless you care to go to your University's research ethics system with a complaint (and you'd better have irrefutable proof the situation is precisely as you say if you choose this route) and ruin your advisor's career, there isn't much you can do. Whistleblowers often do not fare well.

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    To me this is awful advise. You should not put someone as a coauthor of your paper to "be the bigger person". Publishing a paper with non-contributing authors is also misconduct by those contributing authors who let it happen. – Tobias Kildetoft Jul 15 '14 at 11:38
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    The case is far from as clear-cut as you suggest. Picking one's battles is important, and I see enough gray in this that it is a battle worth avoiding. If the case is exactly as presented, then maybe it's a battle worth fighting. Maybe. When I look at the upside and downside risks, I'm not certain. To expand a bit, we do not know what form the "negative comments" took. If they were detailed comments about why it was not interesting and what would be interesting, then perhaps the advisor feels a substantive contribution was made. – Dennis Jul 15 '14 at 17:31
  • I fail to see any gray area here. The way this has been described, the advisor is as close to having made a negative contribution to this paper as is possible. – Tobias Kildetoft Jul 15 '14 at 18:18

This is not a clear-cut case at all. It's the adviser's job to offer the student guidance, and this includes guidance on whether a particular topic is or is not important, interesting, or likely to get published. Your adviser gave you this kind of guidance. It was negative, you disagreed with it, and it probably offended you. Nevertheless it was a substantive comment on the direction your work was taking. It seems to me that it would be very, very difficult to say that your adviser's comments had no effect on your subsequent work. You probably had them in the back of your mind, and when you wrote up your results as a paper, you probably worked extra hard to write an introduction that would convince the reader that your results were important, interesting, and well motivated. This would be a positive result of your adviser's negative comments.

Does this level of participation from your adviser make it appropriate to add him as a co-author? It's hard to say. Different fields have different standards for this, and you haven't said what field you're in. In many fields, the standards for co-authorship are extremely low; if you make any real contribution at all, you qualify.

So to me, it's very unclear who's in the right, and I've only heard your side of the story.

If I were the editor of the journal, and I got a letter from your adviser complaining that he should have been credited as an author, then at best my reaction would be the one described above -- but in addition I might be persuaded by his letter. My basic reaction would be exasperation and a very negative professional impression of you. You're at the stage of your life where you're building your professional reputation. That's more important than any particular piece of work you publish -- and much more important than whether your adviser is listed as second author on that piece of work.

The underlying issue here seems to be that you and your adviser had a very poor relationship. It sounds like you're done with your PhD, and now, rightly or wrongly, you've antagonized him to the point where he is threatening to do something that will seriously harm you professionally. This means that you've burned your bridges with him. You can't safely ask him for a recommendation in the future. This is a very negative outcome, and now you need to focus on moving beyond it and building a positive reputation in your field.

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    Why the downvote? – Ben Crowell Jul 14 '14 at 0:49
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    I didn't downvote but I feel your first paragraph has a bias in favor of advisors. I read it as "whatever your advisor could say, the advisor is right and helpful". – Taladris Jul 14 '14 at 1:38
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    I won't downvote either, but I find the first paragraph to be a real stretch. "It seems to me that it would be very, very difficult to say that your adviser's comments had no effect on your subsequent work." The standard for coauthorship is not "having some effect"! Maybe the OP's significant other dumped the OP, engendering feelings of inadequacy and opening up lots of extra time on the OP's behalf, which the OP sublimated into a very nice paper. Does the SO then get coauthorship?? – Pete L. Clark Jul 14 '14 at 3:53
  • I won't downvote either — I will. – JeffE Jul 14 '14 at 3:55
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    "Does this level of participation from your adviser make it appropriate to add him as a co-author? It's hard to say." You're really having trouble evaluating whether making a bunch of initial discouraging comments is enough of a contribution to merit coauthorship? Come on. Too much open-mindedness in the range of acceptable coauthorship standards risks allowing that absolutely anything might be kosher in certain circles. While logically sound, that doesn't seem like useful advice. – Pete L. Clark Jul 14 '14 at 3:57

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