Difficult to title this, but in essence, I am working on the premise that ethically, the work done in the lab belongs to the PI and the lab as a group. So if there is another question that deals with this I have not found it.

In the case where a lab takes undergraduate interns or UROP positions, such that the undergraduate is not a student of the PI, how to inform them (as it is their first research experience) that the work they contribute to is not their own research to go and publish.

In a situation such that the student is put on a project and is guided to developing some code or doing some analysis (without their own substantial intellectual contribution, just development and applying standard methods), the student then leaves the internship or position. How to make it clear to the student without some threatening way, maybe by showing some international/online standards that explain, they can not take the work they did and publish it on their own?

Likewise, how should the PI reasonably decide authorship, and explain that students authorship or lack of, due to insignificant contributions of the final work.

For example, on a given project, I may have 4 or 5 undergraduates over time interning and doing some develop, exploration, etc. I want to be encouraging, and so I try to over emphasize the 'great job' they are doing. At the same time, I do not want them to misinterpret this as them being given authorship. In some case, I had an undergraduate that after awhile of working together, decided to drop everything and quit. The student now seems to have an attitude that the work they had been doing is theirs to go and publish on their own (in some low quality journal, as it is just part of a larger project that they do not have all material for).

  • 2
    This sounds like a question for your HR and/or legal department. Oct 30, 2015 at 4:50
  • 8
    I am working on the premise that ethically, the work done in the lab belongs to the PI and the lab as a group. Hmm. I wonder if it is universally agreed in experimental sciences that this premise is even correct. I'm a pure mathematician so I can't say, but from my naive point of view it does not sound at all obvious. Can anyone comment knowledgeably about this?
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 30, 2015 at 7:24
  • 4
    @DanRomik I think that the OP is just not choosing his words carefully, but I would also be very concerned if the OP had the mindset that the research of his students on whatever level is somehow "his", and that he can publish it under his own name with or without naming them.
    – xLeitix
    Oct 30, 2015 at 13:07
  • 2
    @xLeitix I am not trying to claim mine, I am trying to say it is the lab, as in institute that owns my work as well. Most importantly, I am not saying I should not acknowledge them, I am trying to say it belongs to the lab as a group, and someone leaving the group that made some insignificant contribution can not take everything they touch for themselves. Oct 30, 2015 at 14:50
  • 1
    @user1938107 Maybe you should clarify what you mean with "owns". Are we talking about ownership as in "Intellectual Property", or academic ownership (co-authorship)? I can see cases were the first would be with the lab, by the second should always remain with the researcher.
    – xLeitix
    Oct 30, 2015 at 15:09

5 Answers 5


I think that you are not referring to the right reason why your former students cannot simply go on and publish the small projects they did under your supervision in lower-tier journals (or any other journal for what matters).

It's not that the work done in the lab belongs to the PI and the lab as a group, it's that you and possibly other people in your group contributed to these projects, at least by providing scientific guidance and supervision (I think the answer to your question is to explain them that bit).

As such, your former students cannot claim that the work is solely theirs by not mentioning you as co-authors and, as a corollary, cannot publish without your explicit consent.

  • I think this is the most realistic and down to earth reason. Your research is your own. But in all collaborations I know or know of, even if you wanted to, you could not take your personal results and publish them on your own as they are interconnected in a million ways with the general effort. Because if they were not, you would absolutely publish them on your own in the first place.
    – user42177
    Oct 30, 2015 at 12:23
  • To me this really helps put it in perspective. Just as I would add any student that was vital to the research and made a significant contribution, they too would need to add me and/or other students that were involved in the work they did. Oct 31, 2015 at 13:21

Written policy, presented to the student before they accept the internship. Anything else starts to smell of exploitation.

  • That's how the same issue would be dealt with in a business context, as well. The employment contract would clearly state something along the lines of "all work done on company time or using company equipment belongs to the company". It sounds like the OP just needs to put something comparable in their standard internship agreement/policy.
    – aroth
    Oct 30, 2015 at 14:15
  • Yes we have contracts, and they state in all sorts of over-reaching ways that the institute owns all IP etc. I am looking more for a good way to explain to the students why these things exist or how it works. As its undergraduates, they not only are new to research,but usually have not even had a job where they learned about corporate policy. For example, you dont get to work at Microsoft and then quit, make your own company, and use the work you did at microsoft to compete with them. Oct 31, 2015 at 13:23

I think this is a very interesting practical question for the experimental sciences. We often have projects that have the need for a bunch of "menial" work (e.g., programming in many of my projects, wet lab work in other fields, ...). I think a lot of the existing answers already highlight important issues (I particularly like Dmitry's), but let me chip in some more thoughts.

I think there are basically two angles you need to think about.

Angle 1: how to explain to students that they can't publish their own work because it will be part of a larger paper, even though they themselves will not be co-authors of said paper

I understand that if this is the situation, it will seem unfair and exploitative to the student. It seems that this is potentially one of these situations that are hard to explain to an "outsider" because, well, they actually are not particularly fair if you consider them from the point of view of the student.

I understand that not every tiny contribution to a project warrants co-authorship. I usually use the metaphor of an open source project to explain this to students - a large open source project like the Linux kernel is a collaboration of many, many people, but only those that contribute significantly enough over a longer period of time get to be maintainers (or co-authors). However (and this part is directly relevant to this question), the individual contributions of each contributor always remain their own "work" - the maintainers can choose whether or not to use them, but they can never pretend that they actually wrote them. Hence, I would urge you to go away from the mindset that the "work of the students is owned by the lab". It isn't. Whatever the student does, it is owned by the student - you can use their work for a publication, but it never becomes "your" work. You didn't do it, and you can't ever pretend you did.

As a direct consequence of this, it is also potentially difficult to prevent students from publishing their own research if the only reason against doing it is that it would hamper your own publication plans. As their work is their work, they should be free to publish it if it is strong enough. Practically, I would strive for a compromise. If your "big" paper is for instance on the analysis of certain data, and the student wrote the tool to collect the data, you can write a tool paper together with the student in parallel or after the submission of the "big" paper. This way nobody can use your tool paper to scoop you on the main paper, and the student still gets his stuff published.

Angle 2: how to decide whether a student should be a co-author?

My simple rule of thumb here is that if the student did anything that shows up in the paper, (s)he is in. To reuse the example of above, if the student wrote a tool to collect data, and the tool is never explained (because it is standard or straight-foward how to do this), I would not make her/him a co-author. If there is a section "Experiment Design" that describes the tool in any length, (s)he is a co-author. Personally, I have a lenient approach to this - if in doubt, make her/him a co-author, maybe under the requirement that (s)he needs to contribute heavily to the rest of the project.

The most important part is to communicate this early - telling a research undergrad that he may be a co-author, and then, after (s)he dilligently did all her/his work, decide against it is a big letdown. Decide when you define the project whether it will be enough for co-authorship and communicate this clearly.

I feel it is also important here to keep in mind that (at least here) many undergrads are "in it for the co-authorship". That is, they are doing free research specifically with the expectation that they will be "paid" in a co-authored paper if the project works out (and good letters, of course). This is another reason to communicate early and honestly with a student - giving a student a project that, even if done nicely, will not be sufficient for co-authorship may be perceived as a "setup" from their side. That is, they may feel that you really just used them as cheap programming labour, without real chance for them to get what they expected out of it. Telling them then about the things they have learned will not smooth things over anymore.

  • +1 For "My simple rule of thumb here is that if the student did anything that shows up in the paper, (s)he is in." and "if in doubt, make her/him a co-author". Adding a student as a co-author costs nothing. It is a valuable lesson to him to include junior people as co-authors in his papers, when he ups the ranks (PhD student, postdoc, professor).
    – Alexandros
    Oct 30, 2015 at 17:06
  • I think this is good advice, Angle 2 is good, and was similar to what I do now, Im not so concerned with adding students as coauthors as them writing their own paper on their own. Which brings me to my main issue of Angle 1 is interesting, but I think @CapeCode gives a clear distinction, which is they should not be publishing on their own, because they did not do their work completely by themselves. Oct 31, 2015 at 13:19

It can be difficult to convince people, that the work they did belongs to someone else, unless they are well compensated for this work and the conditions of employment are clear upfront.

It is even more difficult to convince a student, that something they learned through their work in the lab belongs to someone else. Presumably, they pay for their education, and therefore feel themselves free to do whatever they like with the knowledge they obtained, e.g. write about it in a blog or in an academic paper and try to publish it.

It may be easier to explain to the students, that it is in their best interests to collaborate with the lab even after the work is done. In particular, it is in everyone's best interest, if the publications which come out of this work are made by the lab collectively:

  1. PI gets credit and can get more grants to buy equipment
  2. Lab assistants and techs get some credit and are more keen to keep supporting researchers in their study
  3. The paper is checked by more experienced member of the lab, details are verified, badge of authority is attached to it, and it can go to a more prestigious journal
  4. Student shows that he/she is a team-working member of academic community, who understands the unwritten rules and agrees to follow them.
  5. By maintaining the contact with the lab, student has a chance to be involved in future work and publications.
  • Exactly - the first two paragraphs of your answer really hit the nail on the head. The more I think about it, the more I think this question resembles this one, wherein both questions start from a premise which seems dubious at the very least (and outright wrong in the case of the other question) and proceed to wonder seemingly innocently how to impart such dubious information to students. Now, I'm still willing to give the benefit of the doubt here, if someone can confirm that the premise in this case is actually reasonable. But still...
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 30, 2015 at 9:05
  • something they learned through their work in the lab belongs to someone else It doesn't and OP is not saying it does.
    – Cape Code
    Oct 30, 2015 at 12:10
  • @CapeCode Yes, but OP says that student has a limited right to share what he learned. Oct 30, 2015 at 12:26
  • "It can be difficult to convince people, that the work they did belongs to someone else" - yes, it's hard to explain because it inherently feels unfair and exploitative, especially if the person was not paid. I think the OP needs to move away from the "all your work belongs to us" mentality, and start considering a research project like an open source project: many people contribute and their individual contributions will always remain theirs, but not everybody does so regularly and impactful enough to be a maintainer (or co-author).
    – xLeitix
    Oct 30, 2015 at 15:24

In the United States, if you paid them, it is work for hire. I think it is more ethical to pay undergraduate researchers.

  • 5
    I don't think this solves the problem. One issue is that "work for hire" is a copyright matter, and copyright can't prevent someone from publishing if they don't copy anything. If I create a work for hire for you, that doesn't stop me from publishing my own, differently worded account based on the same ideas, since copyright doesn't protect ideas. And it covers only works created as part of employment: if I leave your lab and then write a paper after I'm no longer being paid, then that paper was never a work for hire. Oct 30, 2015 at 4:17
  • 3
    Another issue is that academic papers are typically not considered works for hire. In most cases the authors initially hold the copyright, rather than their employers. (There's some debate about whether universities could classify them as works for hire, but they usually don't try and would face protests if they did.) That makes it awkward to apply such a policy to undergraduates. Oct 30, 2015 at 4:21
  • @AnonymousMathematician you cannot just reword laboratory data. The question did not ask about ideas. Oct 30, 2015 at 4:21
  • 2
    Copyright doesn't protect data either. Some (but not all) data sets would be considered copyrighted compilations and nobody else could publish a copy of the compilation in this form. However, it's not a copyright violation to publish papers based on the data or make other use of the data (fitting models, plotting graphs, etc.). Oct 30, 2015 at 4:33
  • 2
    This is not to say you can't stop students from misusing the lab's data. A suitable contract could do the job, but copyright alone isn't enough. Oct 30, 2015 at 4:37

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .