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When I had just started my PhD in Computer Science in Korea, a Physics PhD student in the EU proposed a collaboration. He and I wrote one paper for a conference. I learned last week that the paper was accepted. He is first author. I am second author.

I did not tell my professor about this project even though he was my supervisor then. I mentioned it to my professor recently. He became very angry. He asked me to remove my name from the paper. He said that all my work represents his lab and my university. I shouldn't conduct other work.

My professor's points

  • The collaboration should be done between supervisors. (My professor's background and interest do not fit with my coauthor.)

  • Another issue is none of us can present the paper at that time, asking someone for authorship is acceptable for this situation?

My question

How can I mend things with my professor and continue to collaborate with my coauthor?

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    @Alexandros I disagree that funding is the main problem. It seems that the supervisor's expectation of how the student allocates her time is the main problem. – mac389 Mar 8 '15 at 14:16
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    Did your professor mention any objective specific issue with the paper (or possibly the target venue)? I am wondering because of the remark about "representing the lab and the university". If he didn't, you might want to at least think about trying to switch to another supervisor. At latest at the PhD level, you should become able to work on your own, and setting up your own collaboration and managing to submit a paper that gets accepted is actually excellent. A supervisor who goes as far as requiring to take your name off of your own successful work actively hampers that development. – O. R. Mapper Mar 8 '15 at 14:24
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    So you added your supervisor as a co-author? This was not in your question. – Alexandros Mar 8 '15 at 14:39
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    Your adviser is a jerk, regardless of culture. This is 2015, not 1895. – gnometorule Mar 9 '15 at 5:22
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    We western people need to stop giving Asian students cultural advice. Many of the suggestions here are sound based on western standards, but sound like horrible mistakes for somebody studying in Asia. – xLeitix Mar 10 '15 at 10:51
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It's reasonable for your professor to want some input as to how you spend your time, and it's customary for students to keep their advisors informed about other things they are working on. You have perhaps committed a slight breach of etiquette by not telling him about this project earlier.

However, in my view, it is deeply inappropriate for him to ask you to take your name off the paper. He is your advisor but he doesn't own your life. You have done the work and as an academic it is your right to publish it. An interaction like this would have me thinking about looking for a new advisor, quick.

If the professor has technical concerns about the quality of the paper itself and thinks that it is not ready to appear in the scientific/academic record, then he should discuss this with you, and you should share those concerns with your coauthor and come to a decision on their merits. But I feel it's not appropriate for your professor's reputation to be part of that conversation - just decide whether the paper is good and publishable or not.

Your second question is unrelated but I'll address it here anyway. Do not add another person as author (your advisor or anyone else) just so they can present it at the conference. In order to be an author, a person must have made a significant intellectual contribution to the work, and it's unethical to "gift" authorship for any other reason.

In many cases, conferences allow a paper to be presented by someone other than an author. So if you know someone who is attending the conference and willing to present your paper, they may be able to do it without you unethically making them an author. But if the conference really requires one of the authors to attend and neither of you can, then I suppose all you can do is withdraw your paper and resubmit to a conference which you can attend.

  • It's unclear whether the student was working with this professor when her friend and she submitted the paper. – mac389 Mar 8 '15 at 14:49
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    I'm under his supervisor when I conduct the results with my friend – Atena Nguyen Mar 8 '15 at 14:53
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    "it's customary for students to keep their advisors informed about other things they are working on" - and this comes with a great deal of variation. I am used to settings where this information sometimes does happen by telling one's advisor about having successfully submitted a paper the advisor didn't yet know about (and advisors generally being very happy about that kind of own initiative, as well as about touching upon different research topics beside one's current core topic, and about breaking out of the apparent constraints one's grant might officially impose). – O. R. Mapper Mar 8 '15 at 15:01
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    I may be wrong but it seems that OP was working on the paper in his own time, on his own budget, not using the resources of the professor. Professors/supervisors do not own people like their pet turtle. – Greg Mar 9 '15 at 13:14
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    I'm sorry, but this is Korea. The professor/student relationship is very different than the one in the west, particularly if the professor is from an older generation or is a reputed researcher. – Angry Lettuce Mar 10 '15 at 8:54
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Decode your professor first

  • If this is a scientific disagreement, then you should try to have a scientific discussion with him and perhaps the other author.

  • If this is your supervisor's indirect/cryptic way of saying that he cannot pay for this, look for other means of funding. Perhaps your university has a general travel fund. At worst, you may have to sit this conference out. Anecdotally, I have seen many formerly well-funded professors who project their anger at their shrinking budgets onto students in situations like this.

  • If this is an interpersonal conflict, then you have to decide whether the tension results from miscommunication or deeper differences. As @O.R. Mapper says, a PhD student is learning how to conduct independent research. Shockingly, that involves the student taking initiative.

Tread lightly

We all have to deal with irate superiors from time to time. If you two cannot have a civil conversation about this, work around him until things cool off. (See the general travel fund above.) Is there an ombudsperson? Can someone from your committee who is at your supervisors level mediate?

Mind the politics

Invoking Sayre's law, politics in academia can be stupidly vicious, especially if the issue involves people at different levels in the hierarchy. It is wise to recognize if your supervisor is playing power politics and wiser to recognize if supervisors you might go to tend to do the same thing. You wouldn't want to win the battle but lose the war.

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He is your advisor but he doesn't own your life. – Nate Eldredge

Professors/supervisors do not own people like their pet turtle. – Greg

Your adviser is a jerk, regardless of culture. This is 2015, not 1895. – gnometorule

I don't think there is such a thing as "regardless of culture". The world is very diverse and sadly, the English-speaking Internet tends to forget that.


As you may have noticed, the hierarchy is very strong in Korean society. Your professor may not "own" you, but he is both older than you and hierarchically above you. As such, you owe him respect. In theory, if he gives you an order, you have to comply, whether you like it or not. If he asks you to come work on a weekend or late at night, you have to. In practice, rules are more relaxed for foreigners, who are not expected to know all these cultural details, but I suggest you be aware of them to avoid any mistake!

What you really have to remember is that you and your professor are not equal. In all situations, your professor dictates what is right and what is not, what you should do and what you should not.

That being said, there are (mainly) two kind of professors:

  1. Your professor is from an older generation and / or he is a reputed researcher in his field. This kind of individual tends to be very traditional and very finicky on "proper respect". If this is the kind of professor you have, I strongly advise: do not displease him. Just obey. Lie if you have to, but do not go against him in any way, the consequences may get way out of proportion. I am serious!

  2. Your professor is more understanding and used to dealing with foreigners. First, start with an apology and try to explain the situation with him: you didn't know you were not allowed to do what you did, and that you will refrain from doing it without his approval in the future (again, lie if you want to, just try to not offend him). He will probably listen to you (but it's unlikely that he will change his mind anyway) and move on. Perhaps try negotiating a collaboration with him and the other author's supervisor.

So, in short:

How can I mend things with my professor and continue to collaborate with my coauthor?

Make an apology, do (or say you will do) what your professor wants, and continue collaborating discretely. Do not get caught again and do never mention any external research again. If asked about it, feel free to lie if needed. It is OK to say something and do the opposite, the only important thing is to not show disrespect.

This may sound stupid or senseless to foreigners, but this is how things work, whether you like it or not. Hopefully, it will change over time, and in fact, it is already changing, albeit slowly.

Hope that helps.

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    Your first sentence makes me question whether you have read my post at all. Anyway, lying in Korea is common: face and respect are more important than honesty, it is a fact. It is not about fabricating results, it is about preserving a relation of respect with the supervisor. Completely different. The OP can stay hidden by using a nickname, even though I frankly doubt the supervisor will take the time of searching for his name in future publications anyway. – Angry Lettuce Mar 10 '15 at 10:15
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    Lying is common in Korea [citation needed]. Do you have any studies on that? And the fact that you may lie in your public interactions, does not mean everybody does it. Also using a nickname for publications? That is another silly idea. The OP will spend all this time for her "hidden" research and then she will get zero attribution for it? And how does that help her in her academic career? – Alexandros Mar 10 '15 at 10:21
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    @Alexandros You seem to be surprisingly sure about a culture, that, based on names, is not yours but Park's. And, yes, there are indeed Asian cultures were lying is widely considered more appropriate than truthfully telling that you are not going to do what your superior suggested. – xLeitix Mar 10 '15 at 10:49
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    @Alexandros I think you may be startled by my use of the word "lying". Maybe this is not the right word. It is not about fabricating results or cheating on others or violating ethical codes. It has little to no moral significance, it is merely about "saving face", if you will, i.e, avoiding embarrassment of either parties. – Angry Lettuce Mar 10 '15 at 15:32
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    I don't think there is such a thing as "regardless of culture". But there is such a thing as the ethical standards of the global academic community. It is my opinion that for a professor to coerce a student to remove their name from a paper they have already written, for reasons unrelated to the content of the paper, violates those standards as I understand them. The professor's actions in this case may be culturally acceptable in his culture, but I stand by my assertion that, according to general academic ethics, they are inappropriate. – Nate Eldredge Mar 14 '15 at 20:04
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I will throw out another opinion here: if your supervisor was paying you to work on his research agenda, it is unethical and unprofessional to instead work on something different without telling him. Likely the money came out of a hard-won research grant that specifically stipulated the type of project you were to work on, and your advisor will be on the hook with the funding agency when the project doesn't deliver.

Even if the supervisor gave up nothing but his time training and mentoring you, there was still an expectation that you would work in good faith on the project the two of you discussed.

That said, what's done is done. Taking your name off of the paper is not an appropriate fix, nor is adding your supervisor's name gratuitously. Have a candid talk with your supervisor, ask him for his specific concerns and how he suggests you make things right, and in the future strive to keep communication more open so that a similar situation does not arise.

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    I will throw out a strongly dissenting opinion. If you are being paid to do X, then doing Y is neither unethical nor unprofessional. Not doing X is unethical and unprofessional. My paying you to study frogs does not forbid you to study both frogs and trees. – JeffE Mar 15 '15 at 11:53
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    Yes, but I maintain that if I am paying you to study frogs, your secretly publishing a paper on trees represents a very large amount of research whose completion was unlikely to have been compatible with you having spent full time on my research on frogs. – user168715 Mar 16 '15 at 0:43
  • Certainly it will have raised questions, in my mind and others, about whether you were working on the frogs in good faith. Acting in a way that raises these questions is unprofessional, whether you actually committed theft of time or not, and is easily avoided by decent communication. – user168715 Mar 16 '15 at 0:44
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    unlikely to have been compatibleSo what? If you are making good progress on your frog research, why should I care what else you're doing? On the other hand, if you aren't making good progress on your frog research, why should I care about what else you're doing? On the gripping hand, if I can't tell whether you're making good progress on your frog research, then we have a very different and much more serious problem. – JeffE Mar 17 '15 at 21:25
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    And if you have some funded students and you don't mind them working on something unrelated to your research agenda, get them in touch with me, I can find them something to do ;) – user168715 Mar 17 '15 at 23:05
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Well, you are dealing with politics, cultural habits, and Asian values all at the same time. He is thinking you should be working for him ALL the time. And having the Asian/Confucian values as their background: respect for seniors and authority is more important than being right or wrong. Or whatever...better not to have too much assumptions about others' thinking.

So solution should be quick and easy: if he want your name removed, either continue with another pseudo-name + email, or retain your name + not using the university email, just your personal email will do. Since this is done without using any of the University's resources, you have the right to retain your name as well, and remove all obvious link back to the University. This is not being dishonest, but your right to do things outside your "working hours".

Ok, if you really want to be honest, just follow whatever he said, and showed him nothing has been done externally. But in the background, just maintained your relationship with your collaborators. Many times in life, a paper is often read and forgotten - good ones are few and rare. But your relationship with other people matters most - in future, you may even coauthor many more papers with your existing supervisor + the "illegitimate" partner after you have completed your PhD.

Bottomlines is always: BRIGHT IDEAS that matters most. A name (in the paper) is just for eternity sake (or may be not): it is not as important as the content of the paper. These contents/bright ideas, are always a result of a cordial collaboration / interaction among people - and you should aim for that, actively working towards perfection.

  • So solution should be quick and easy: if he want your name removed, either continue with another pseudo-name.... — This is neither quick nor easy. Many academic cultures consider publishing under a psuedonym to be unethical. In particular, once a paper has been accepted, changing the name of one of the authors to a pseudonym may be impossible. – JeffE Mar 15 '15 at 12:00
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    BRIGHT IDEAS that matters most. — Sadly, [citation needed] – JeffE Mar 15 '15 at 12:04

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