I have recently abandoned my master's program. Long story short, she was a very strict director who always put me down. I didn't get along with her, and she never gave me any emotional or financial support. Now that I have quit, she asks I do a backup of all of the work I have done for her. I don't think it is fair that I have to give it to her, especially since there was no funding AND she kind of forced me to quit. I can't find any rules that adresses this type of situation.

Should I give her what I have done since I produced those results while being her student?

Here are more details: After 4 semesters, she told me that I didn't have the abilities to complete the masters program, and that she didn't know what to do with me. While it is true that my work wasn't the best, there also were a lot of problems with the actual project which explains why we weren't going as fast as she would have liked. She went on to talk to the dean, and I went to see my co-director for some alternatives so that I can complete my studies. He came up with a new project,with less interactions with her and more with him, which she rejected. She said that seeing how I have "not produced a single result", she won't start a new project. if I want to continue with her, I have to complete a number of tasks (on the original project) within the semester, and if I fail to complete them, the project is over. Since I was (still am) in a deep depression from working with her, I refused to continue seeing how I don't want to get psychologically weaker. I left school and hoped to get all of this behind me, but she then writes to me saying that since I decided to abandon, I need to give her my all of the data, articles, and other works. I don't understand why she wants my work when she says that I was an incompetent student who hasn't produced any results.

She never did any investment apart from giving her time, I paid for all of my studies and did my own research alone. I don't think I owe her anything.

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    The answers so far have focused on legal obligations. I don't see that as very relevant - even if the advisor/university did have a legal right to the OP's work, it seems very unlikely they'd go to court to get it. I'd focus more on the academic or professional consequences to the OP of either sharing or withholding the data. Initial thought for the OP: do you know the fable of the dog in the manger? May 17, 2015 at 2:48
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    Do you not want to give the data to your former supervisor because there is something more you would like to do with it in the future, or simply to spite the person whom you feel treated you badly? The latter seems hard to justify from an ethical standpoint. May 17, 2015 at 7:01
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    Maybe think of it this way: you left because your supervisor lost confidence in your ability to do the work you were assigned, even to the extent of having "not produced a single result". Given that it's all the same to you, would you rather your last interaction with her prove her wrong or prove her right? Behaving professionally while leaving a bad situation can be a source of comfort and closure to you in the future. Behaving badly can be a source of regret. May 17, 2015 at 7:02
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    From the information you have provided, if you don't want to give her your information, you don't have to, at least not from a legal standpoint, since you were self-funded. I don't understand why you are posting here to ask about this. Are you trying to get validation for your actions from strangers? Do you want them to tell you it is Ok? I suggest you just do as you want. And, with respect, I disagree with @PeteL.Clark. I don't think ethics enter into it. And you are under no obligation to show professional courtesy to people who don't show you any. May 17, 2015 at 8:23
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    I faced a kind of similar situation. I complied because (a) it only took a few mins (b) I could forget about it more easily (c) I didn't want to stoop to her pettiness (d) I wanted to be able to honestly claim that I'd always behaved reasonably and done everything possible to achieve the project aims (f) I had already salvaged stuff that I believed was entirely mine and could be published. May 17, 2015 at 14:20

7 Answers 7


She never did any investment apart from giving her time

Whoa, there! That sounds like a significant investment, to me. Indeed, it's hard to see what other investment you could reasonably expect her to make. She's not responsible for your funding; she can't do the work for you because it's supposed to be your master's project, leading to your degree, not hers.

Nonetheless, it is typical for an advisor to provide sufficient guidance intellectual contribution to the project that they could reasonably expect to be a co-author on most papers coming out of the project. This is joint work and it belongs as much to your collaborators as to you, even if you don't get along with your collaborators any more.

What does it cost you to hand over the material? Do you expect to benefit from it in some way that will be diminished by giving it to the professor? If it costs you little or nothing, it's hard to see any justification for not handing it over. "I don't like her" is spite, not justification. The main benefit that I see from handing it over is that you can expect to be a co-author of any paper that results directly from the work you have done. And, if you do hand over the data, you should make this a condition.

You should also consider the impact of your decision on your future career. If you intend to leave academia then it's probably minimal: you're unlikely to be asking for a reference from this professor and it's unlikely you'll have any interaction with her in the future. However, if you intend to stay in academia, you need to think carefully about this. People's perceptions of your actions will depend very much on who they think was at fault. If, for example, your professor has a reputation of being difficult, maybe you gain sympathy from the community. However, if she has a reputation of being reasonable, trustworthy and easy to work with, there's the danger that you acquire the reputation of being difficult to work with, falling out and torpedoing projects.

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    While some your points are valid and should be considered, at the core of the answer you're mixing professional conduct and ethical one. Sure, they significantly overlap, but still the concepts are different. Moreover, your suggestion to make conclusions on a particular situation (circumstances of which, unless made public, are known only to those involved and witnesses) and, correspondingly, build perceptions about a person, based on general reputation of a professor is IMHO unfounded and wrong. May 17, 2015 at 13:45
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    @AleksandrBlekh I'm saying that people do build their perceptions of unknown person X based on what their acquaintance Y says about X and how trustworthy they feel Y is. Whether people should do that is largely irrelevant. May 17, 2015 at 13:58
  • Fair enough! I hope that not all people build their perceptions, entirely based on third-party opinions. May 17, 2015 at 14:07
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    "The main benefit that I see from handing it over is that you can expect to be a co-author of any paper that results directly from the work you have done" only works if the OP does get authorship, which the OP needs to negotiate carefully before handing over the data. In particular, in that situation I would not hand it over without written agreement that the OP will be co-author and that they will have veto power on the resulting manuscript. By the sound of this supervisor, she may not necessarily be willing to agree to those terms.
    – E.P.
    May 17, 2015 at 16:10
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    @E.P. I'm not sure what one can conclude about the supervisor's attitudes given only one side of the story. But I agree that all parties need to be clear what has been agreed to. May 17, 2015 at 17:21

I disagree with @AnonymousPhysicist - AFAIK, based on US Copyright Act (Title 17 of the US Code), copyright is, by default, assigned to authors of original works, with some exceptions (for details, see the Act or the article linked below). In addition to those exceptions (which, I believe, don't include specific references to academic environment), it is important to emphasize the term "joint work", as it very often is applicable to academic and research environments. For that, you need to check your student handbook and/or other university policy documents. For a brief, but more readable than legal text, explanation, see this page.

  • I want to mention that my answer above is focused on works, which includes papers and other literary and audio-visual artifacts. Works might also include secondary data, however, determining the original data's copyright is more complicated, as it depends on various factors, such as institutional policies, sources and methods of gathering the data. May 17, 2015 at 2:32
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    The more relevant copyright doctrine is the work-for-hire doctrine which effectively defines the author as the employer. Disney, the company, is the copyright holder for its film. If there was no payment or contract, that seems unlikely to apply here.
    – mako
    May 17, 2015 at 4:33
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    @BenjaminMakoHill: I don't see how work-for-hire concept is relevant to the case of research of a student, who is by definition not employed by university. May 17, 2015 at 4:38
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    And the OP made it clear that the work was not funded, so I don't see any way it could be considered "for hire". May 17, 2015 at 5:27
  • The student probably entered into a contract to comply with the university's intellectual property policy when they enrolled. May 19, 2015 at 0:56

I'm not a lawyer, and I think that this whole discussion over who owns the copyright is pointless

Copyright law gives copyright owner a monopoly over distributing copies of copyrighted work. So if University has that monopoly OP can't lawfully use the data for his own good. Hovewer copyright owner can't (I'm not a lawyer) force anyone to give back a copy of copyrighted work.

University shouldn't also be able to force you to do any work for free (and backing up two years of work is a serious effort), so answer: "I'm busy" should be accepted.

In my university there is no regulation stating that student is obliged have their work properly backed up. So you are not obliged to even have the data on your computer.

So IMO you are not obliged to give back the data. Wheter you should depends on whether you want to leave academia (and you are sure that you'll never want to go back to academia). You need to decide that yourself.

If you give the data back, plesae note that you should, at least, be a co-author of all publications based on your work. On the other hand, even if she promises to give you co-authorship, you'll have no means to enforce that promise.

  • "even if she promises to give you co-authorship, you'll have no means to enforce that promise" -- well, if your work really appears uncredited in a reputable journal, then you can write to the editor laying out your claims. If it appears in a disreputable journal, then frankly, who cares? May 17, 2015 at 14:25
  • For starters OP would have to search journals for publications of OP professor and his group, which is hardly practical. Second thing is more important: if they take his work, develop it and then publish (in plain words: if they dont commit plain plagiatarism) --- his claim would be very weak.
    – jb.
    May 17, 2015 at 14:27
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    "say that due to hard-drive faliure you lost all the data" - as I grow older I find this kind of stuff more uncomfortable. If OP doesn't want to give the data back then they can just say no. May 17, 2015 at 14:27
  • OK, perhaps it depends on the field. In my field, preprints get posted on arxiv.org daily, and I skim the list anyway- I'd notice pretty quickly if someone posted something relevant to stuff I'd worked on. Yes, if the professor develops things so much that it is not recognisably based on the OPs work then indeed the claim would be weak. May 17, 2015 at 14:31
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    I gave this answer a -1 for recommending that the OP gratuitously lie in a professional context. Either the OP is obligated to turn in the work or not. If he is, then not turning it in and lying about it is two instances of misconduct. If he is not (which in my opinion is much more likely) then he can just reply negatively or (simpler!) just not reply at all. Lying in a professional context to avoid being uncomfortable is not a good precedent for the OP: presumably he still wants to be a professional something in the future. May 17, 2015 at 21:59

Typically students' work belongs to the university. The professor is responsible for keeping track of it whether she wants it or not. The professional thing to do would be to provide the professor with all the records of your work. In fact, your supervisor should have told you to do that on a regular basis when you started, not when you left.

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    In what sense do you mean "belongs" here? For instance, in my experience, it typically hasn't been the case that the university holds the copyright to work done by students. May 17, 2015 at 1:47
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    Having had to deal with this issue first-hand (in my administrative capacity, not in my lab!!), I can tell you that at most if not all US institutions any data collected in a PI's lab belong to the PI. However, the student holds the copyright to her written work.
    – Corvus
    May 17, 2015 at 5:16
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    It is generally accepted that universities have some claim to products and inventions created by students as part of projects, but I'd need a lot more convincing before I'd accept your assertion that my theses belong to my university and not to me. May 22, 2015 at 15:11

I'm sorry to hear about this difficult situation and your resulting depression. It sounds to me like you feel like you're being taken advantage after a few semesters of bullying and put-downs. Do you think your former supervisor is a narcissist? If so, you might want to read up on that disorder before deciding how to respond. Here are some options to consider:

If you give her your material, that represents a significant amount of time to back up the work. You won't feel great while doing it, because you'll probably feel like you're being non-assertive and bullied again. That said, you might feel better knowing that by doing so, she's less likely to contact you again and that you can close that door and begin to move on. If she's a narc, this is probably the least dangerous option, and that might make you feel better about taking this option - knowing that you have other choices to ignore/decline her, but that you're choosing to do this for yourself to minimize damage. If you go for this option, you will want to politely email her the information and also indicate that you're not interested in continuing communication with her in the future. You'll want to give a lot of thought into your response, but something along the lines of: "Attached is the information you requested - I trust this meets your expectations. I am currently moving into a different direction, so we don't need to stay in contact, but I wish you all the best with your future research."

If you are feeling too down for that, then you might temporarily feel better to ignore the request. That might solicit more emails from her, which probably won't help you - you'll probably feel guilty or bad about yourself every time she writes. She could also get increasingly aggressive. This therefore wouldn't be a long-term solution - only if you are too down to deal with it "right now".

Another alternative is an honest "no" along the lines of: "I'm afraid I can't attend to this at the moment - this represents a significant time investment and I'm currently quite busy doing other things at the moment. I am currently moving into a different direction, so we don't need to stay in contact, but I wish you luck with your future research." This is all true, because you're busy trying to recover and presumably find another route in life. Like the other options, it isn't great, because if your former supervisor is in fact a narcissist, she might get pretty toxic (mean, slanderous, etc), and she's in a position of power while you're not.

This is a tough call - there is not easy or right answer in my opinion. No matter what option you go for, remember to be polite. Also try to be compassionate to yourself no matter what you decide. Good luck!


If she didn't help at all or provide any guidance, then it is your work completely. Don't give it to her. She didn't do her part in being a good advisor why should you do your part in being a great student at this point? Professors think they can get away with anything. They don't do anything. They barely provide funding or guidance. You as the student come up with the idea and do all the grunt work and in the end you shouldn't be expected to advance her career when she barely lifted a finger for you.


I am a professor (UK). Ordinarily work produced by students belongs to the University - I believe our policy is that submitted work belongs to the University which is a subtle distinction.

In practice, if you don't provide her with the work they aren't going to do anything about it. So if your professor was as unpleasant as you suggest, just keep the work in spite.

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    Which is it -- "work produced by students belongs to the University" or "submitted work belongs to the University"? And a big, fat -1 for advocating spite as the overriding principle. May 17, 2015 at 12:56
  • Personally I vote for spite over taking the doormat approach. Maybe she will think harder about maintaining a good relationship with students in the future if she wants favors from them after they have left. I know I have zero use for the efforts of students who I would fail. I also wouldn't even expect my emails to get a response in her case. Oct 26, 2018 at 20:49

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