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When I was in high school, I spent one of my summers working in a lab. The professor had a small lab, so I was given my own project, and made enough progress on it to publish a paper.

While I was working there, one of the PhD students started taking a keen interest in my work, and she kept wanting to discuss the problem, asking about details of my methodology, etc. She even started replicating my work and literally rewriting my code to produce the same graphs that I was getting. She was not originally assigned to the project, but I was happy to discuss the problem with her, because I enjoyed my project and wanted to talk about it with as many people as possible.

At the end of the summer she asked me to send her the slides from the talk I gave at group meeting. A few months later my supervisor told my brother that she presented my work at a conference without mentioning my name. (He never told me directly, probably because he thought I'd be sad.)

Anyway, my dad (who is a professor) was very mad about this, and told me I should write a draft of the journal paper myself so the professor would feel obligated to give me first authorship instead of that PhD student. A few months later I sent him the draft, and he didn't give me first authorship, but did give me coauthorship on three different papers, one of which was only marginally related to what I did. I got into my top choice of college (and graduate school), but this was one of the more traumatic experiences I had as a teenager, and ever since this incident I've sworn off academia as a career option.

Do you think I should have done anything differently, and what would you have done in this situation?

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    Remaining bitter about this situation may not be good for your health. The situation itself is pretty bad as you've described it, but you should move on. Since you seem to have stated you've already gotten into grad school, it's been 4 years removed from the issue. You shouldn't remain bitter about it. I spent 3 years trying to get into medical school before moving on with my life, for example. Letting it weigh on you after you can no longer change it will eat you up on the inside. – Compass Nov 21 '14 at 0:36
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    As a bit of a silver lining here in this problematic situation, three co-authorships as a high school student probably super-accelerated your career and your applications. Not to say you would not have gotten in without it, but for sure something good came out of this, as no one in high school or early undergrad can say their name is on three pubs! Perhaps you should have been first author, but the sheer number of co-authorships here, that early in your career, was probably worth far more than fighting to be first author on a single paper. – Tommy Nov 21 '14 at 3:36
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    Yeah, I think I've generally made peace with the situation itself, especially since I got three co-authorships out of it. I think it still affects me in subtle ways though. For instance, once I was using my research for a class project, and I refused to share my code with my project partner because I was afraid he would steal my project. Even though this fear was probably pretty silly, because he was a master's student and I was a PhD student. I also know this was kind of a dick move on my part, because who does a project with someone without sharing the code? – Ben Bitdiddle Nov 21 '14 at 7:49
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    Regarding you last comment: If you are concerned your project partner might wrongly claim attribution for your code, you should not refuse to share it. Instead you should document that and when you wrote it, e.g., by putting it on GitHub or one of its competitors. – Roland Nov 21 '14 at 11:53
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    @Roland: I guess I wasn't afraid that he would steal my code, more that he would take my code and do all the work for me, and essentially squeeze me out of the project. Eventually I told him to do something that was kind of tangential to the project (and largely his idea), which seemed to work out because he produced a contribution that I wouldn't have produced if I was the only one on the project. – Ben Bitdiddle Nov 21 '14 at 19:38
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The situation that you describe sounds like extremely unusual and improper behavior on the part of the professor. The graduate student is part of the problem, but the real responsibility lies with the professor who committed two major instances of misconduct:

  1. Allowing the graduate student to co-opt your work without giving you credit.
  2. "Giving" you authorship on a paper that you did not participate in.

Whether or not you should have been first author is not necessarily clear---one would have to know a lot more about the final form of the work to judge for certain.

As for your actions, I think that the primary actions that you took (raising the issue with the professor, then walking away from the situation when the problem was not addressed) were appropriate. I think that you should probably feel uncomfortable about the paper that has your name on it when you don't feel you deserve authorship. You can get that fixed by the publisher, if it makes you uncomfortable enough.

I think that you are making a mistake, however, in allowing this experience to sour you on academia. Unethical people who will take advantage of you can be found in every profession, and in academia at least there are clear rules on what the ethics are supposed to be. You won't necessarily find that in the business world, where it is often considered ethical to exploit people for money (see: fiduciary duty to stockholders).

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    To be fair, I don't think that in the business world there is no ethic. I'd say that since there is more economical interest involved, it's much easier for some people to forget about ethics. – clabacchio Nov 21 '14 at 13:14
  • Your sentence beginning "As for your actions, I think..." looks like it was intended to express an opinion about the actions. I approved the third-party edit that added "were appropriate" to the end of the sentence, as it seems that was what you intended. But please correct it if we're putting the wrong words into your mouth! – David Richerby Nov 21 '14 at 13:41
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    @clabacchio Please note that I did not claim the business world is unethical---I myself am in industry, and most of the people that I know are extremely careful about their ethical decisions. The question of profit, however, often creates direct conflict between different ethical stances. For example, where is the boundary between the responsibility to maximize profit and the responsibility to maintain a safe and healthy environment for workers? These issues certainly crop up in academia as well (see: adjunct professors), but its non-profit status typically provides a degree of insulation. – jakebeal Nov 21 '14 at 14:05
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    @jakebeal I get it that there may be ambiguous situations, but I think your example doesn't really work: making profit isn't ethical per se, therefore it's second to workers' safety. Experiments on animals and/or humans could be more debatable maybe. – clabacchio Nov 21 '14 at 14:40
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    @jakebeal it seems to imply that if reducing quality and safety standards to the minimum required by law helps increasing profit, then it's the most ethical conduct (according to the law). Scary at least. But I get the point you make. – clabacchio Nov 21 '14 at 15:12
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Take the rough with the smooth.

Yes, it seems the other student took advantage, and if you had been an adult you would perhaps have been more wary. But you were a child, so I don't think it's your fault.

However, you did get your name on several papers, which is very unusual for a high-school student, and there is still some question over whether your work would have been at the same standard as the PhD student; it is easy to think that the idea is all that mattered.

On balance, it worked out well for you. And you clearly have academic aptitude. So my advice would be to go into academia; you are in a rare position of having published already, and having experience of some of the pitfalls of coauthorship in research.

Put the past behind you, it will not be your greatest work and digging over the coals serves no constructive purpose. If it prevents a great academic career, the tragedy will be yours, not hers.

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Personally, I feel mad as well as your father.

This is not only about you but about the fraud of the lab you have worked in. Even the professor approves this behavior by bribing you.

I would never, ever let this go.

Please do not think that I'm winding you up or anything. But this behavior is unaccaptable.

and what would you have done in this situation?

  1. I would accept that this has happened and do not try to change the situation.
  2. I would not accept the authorship of the papers I have not participated in.
  3. I would tell the story in every possible media tool without hiding the names, institutions etc.
  4. I would save all the proofs that I can, that approves the work was mine.

Besides all these, I would carry on with my works, not spend a lot of time on this matter (it seems that (3) contradicts with this, but you can write in a blog and copy+paste the link).

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