My mentor professor has threatened to take authorship of my work away from me because of a disagreement. Can she do this? Is this plagiarism on her part for not including me as an author? I wrote the original paper, before editing. She never provided a syllabus and kept tacking on more and more things for me to do. I told her she was taking advantage of me and was told to go to the head of the department. She now says that I can no longer get a grade above a D, even though I am an A student and won an award for my work at a symposium. I have no idea what to do about this situation.

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    Assuming this is a genuine question, you should go to the dept chair immediately and say what you have said above, with all possible evidence of what you say. (Hopefully, or maybe not, this question is not a troll prank...) Apr 1, 2016 at 23:07
  • What's the disagreement about (roughly, not details)? Is there something you are not telling us that may be relevant to the case? Apr 2, 2016 at 1:59
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    I'm 99% sure we're not hearing the whole story here. Among other things, a professor trying to steal your work and publish it would be unlikely to be foolish enough to also give you a poor grade at the same time.
    – Corvus
    Apr 2, 2016 at 5:04
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    Did she put any of these threats in an e-mail? When you were writing the paper did you consult with her over the e-mail? Take this evidence and escalate the issue. Note the comments above, where random people who are not friends of the professor in question do not believe you. Department head is probably a friend of the prof, so even less likely to believe what you say. So don't just go in there all guns ablazing, take your evidence and talk it through calmly. I would not make too many accusations, just say that you are concerned and if he/she can help you resolve the issue. And have evidence.
    – SMeznaric
    Apr 3, 2016 at 1:41
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    I think more information is needed to make this question answerable: I am confused about the idea of a syllabus for a paper, and more generally about the circumstances in which this paper was written.
    – jakebeal
    Apr 17, 2016 at 13:43

2 Answers 2


If you are the original author, you have authorship rights and your advisor cannot take that away from you. The worst that she can do is refuse to coauthor with you and take her own name off the paper, not yours, although if she did that, you should remove her contributions from the paper.

At your school, there should be a number of people who will advocate on your behalf, and I would start there. The dean of students and the department secretary are usually good first stops. If that fails, you could consider going to the school dean, the provost, or conceivably even the university president (although if it got that far, you are likely in the wrong or have a terrible program). If your advisor publishes without you as a co-author, you can seek redress with the editor of the journal where she publishes.

If you already know that this is an issue, you need to start getting your "ducks in a row." A first step would be to 'publish' your paper as a working paper somewhere. Where you do that is going to be discipline specific, but SSRN is a good choice if you are in the social sciences, and Academia.com has this ability as well. If you do that, make sure you give appropriate credit, too. Two wrongs don't make a right, as they say.

Try to ensure that as many people as possible can attest that the idea is yours, and if you still have the original graded by the professor make digital copies, preserve the original at all costs. In the end, you don't want it to be your word against hers, and the more evidence and witnesses you have, the better. Rightly or wrongly, other faculty are more valuable than students, so show it to as many faculty as possible.

A few words of warning.

  1. What you are talking about is plagiarism, and could even be intellectual property theft. Universities take this very seriously, and it can end careers—both yours and your advisor's. Consequently, things can get very dicey very quickly. Be absolutely certain before you start making claims publicly that you are in the right: talk to someone you trust outside the department and outside the discipline and show them your work with the work you are doing jointly with your advisor; verify your sources; know your allies. Once this goes beyond you and your advisor, and perhaps a small cadre in the department, it is the intellectual equivalent of going to war.
  2. Be prepared to come to the table. If this isn't published yet, then there is still hope for a negotiated solution. Know what your objectives are, and use your position to get those objectives, and don't get hung up on abstracts. For example, if you are really hoping to get into law school, then being author may not be as helpful as something else, and be prepared to accept that something else. Make no mistake, what I am talking about is corruption, but as an undergraduate, it is highly unlikely to be worth hanging yourself out to dry over something like this, if there is a negotiated compromise. On the other hand, if you are hoping for a PhD and a career in the field, then authorship can be crucial, and you may need to go to the mat over this so as not to be seen as a pushover or a flake in the future.
  3. Don't get caught up in office politics. If your advisor has enemies, and she likely does—especially if this is typical of her treatment of others—departmental enemies will likely try to use you as a weapon to get to her. While it may be gratifying to do so at first, if you let that happen your interests will fall by the wayside as the whole issue becomes about whatever stupid issue is driving the office politics, and not about your intellectual and students rights.
  4. Don't get steamrolled, but don't overstate your contribution. This is hard as an undergraduate, because you definitely don't have as much information about the discipline as your advisor, and it can be tempting to think "My idea changed the world!" whereas it is only a minor contribution. Know what you have done, and don't get pushed off that, but being seen as someone who is self aggrandizing or consistently over-estimates their own importance will hurt your cause. There are already people who devalue contributions because of who the contributor is, and you don't need to give them any ammunition, or give your potential allies pause because they are unsure of the reliability of your perceptions.
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    I'm putting this as a comment, since it doesn't belong in the answer. I have seen an entire, world famous department destroyed through a process related to this exact issue. The careers of neither the advisor nor the advisee, and even many of the ancillary characters, never fully recovered. In that case, I'm pretty sure plagiarism did not occur, but once that ball got rolling it didn't matter. Tread carefully and learn the lesson of Pyhrrus of Epirus! You are dealing with people's lives, including your own, and while the situation may not be of your making, the end of the story will be. May 4, 2016 at 18:40

Usually a university will have a policy specifically about publications and student projects. I'd recommend beginning by finding their policy. But in general, yes, she can do this (all personal ethics aside). Assuming she does not use any substantial part of what you wrote, it is not plagiarism. As a student project, your work is generally considered like that of an RA (again, this is legally, not morally), so you have no requirement to be listed as an author of the paper. Assuming, of course, that anything you wrote is not being used in the publication.

My recommendation would be to try and discuss it with your previous advisor, and if they are not willing to discuss it, or you cannot reach an agreement, ask your advisor if they will get the chair of the department to mediate (she'll be less offended than if you just go over her head). If she says no to that, discuss it with the chair yourself. But be clear on exactly what you want to get out of it. Whether that's a chance to write it yourself (which doesn't legally make you first author as a warning), or merely inclusion as an author on any final publication. Always keep your end goal in mind in all conversations.

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    "As a student project, your work is generally considered like that of an RA (again, this is legally, not morally), so you have no requirement to be listed as an author of the paper." - this makes no sense. Legality is irrelevant. Authorship is based on academic ethics, not legal standards - there are no laws in jurisdictions I know about regarding who gets authorship credit on academic papers. And having been an RA on the project is also irrelevant to the authorship question.
    – ff524
    Apr 3, 2016 at 10:34
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    Using someone's intellectual contributions without crediting them is certainly against university policy in many universities, and against ethics standards in virtually all fields. So I'd have to strongly disagree with "not against university policy or any ethics standards".
    – ff524
    Apr 3, 2016 at 10:43
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    I don't even think it's just university policy. In a scientific ethics course administrators explained that the rules stem from the granting agencies (NIH/NSF). By law, any data that is generated via grant money is owned by the principal investigators on the grant. Thus the "student's data" is actually the PI's. They technically don't have to credit you for it because it's not yours. Of course the whole class had many questions and were furious, but what I got out of the fury is that it really is up to your adviser. In mathematics it may be different because there's no data ownership issue. Apr 3, 2016 at 10:49
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    Undergrads can certainly make intellectual contributions, and I don't know how you can assume that the OP didn't. I just co-authored a paper with a high school summer research student. The first paragraph of this answer, which suggests that students somehow have less of a right to be credited with authorship based on their student status, is irresponsible advice.
    – ff524
    Apr 3, 2016 at 11:06
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    -1 for suggesting that this is in any way something the advisor can do. If a student of yours does some original work and you publish a paper based on tvis without including them as an author (assuming the work would have merited authorship had they not been a student), then you have committed academic misconduct of a serious nature, whether or not you use none of the writing of the student. Apr 3, 2016 at 12:24

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