26

A couple of months ago I finished my masters in computer science. A few days a go the following happened.

My main supervisor wrote an abstract of results from my thesis. He put me as the first author along with the two others, and himself.Then he sent a group email informing that the abstract is going to be submitted to a conference. In the email he refers to a previous agreement to submit a paper to this conference.


I have three issues.

  1. I don't remember agreeing to submitting the results anywhere. We did talk about trying to publish the results and I was, at the time, very positive to the idea, but I always understood that we were going to "get back to it" at some point.

  2. I don't want to work on this any more (Nor do I want want my name put on any thing.). There is a reason I didn't apply for any phd position, despite encouragement. Academia stresses me out. I have a job now and am very pleased with that.

  3. His first draft of the abstract was either written to be misleading (over-emphasising a connection to a much cooler subject), or he doesn't understand the context of the results, which makes me feel uncomfortable.


I feel pressured to let them write a paper about the results and put my name on it.. but I'm worried they will misrepresent things and do a bad job. I don't want my name on something I didn't actually write.. even if the results are mine.

Am I making a big deal out of nothing? Or should/can I put the breaks on the process?

  • 8
    It is both academically unethical and a malpractice! Being quiet about this would only encourage them to continue doing this in future. – Ébe Isaac Aug 14 '16 at 16:12
  • 2
    The way you've written this question seems like it would be almost right as-is for an email to the professor on the subject (CC someone else too). Have you considered simply talking to him about it?? – Lightness Races in Orbit Aug 14 '16 at 19:58
  • 12
    So you did work in a group under a professor, got a masters degree, and want nothing at all published of your (small) part of the work, denying all the others any payoff from their efforts? All while they are giving you your due (first authorship) even after you have left them in the lurch? So you got your's (degree), but the hell with everybody else? Wow. Just wow. Quite a sense of entitlement there. – Jon Custer Aug 15 '16 at 2:47
  • 2
    @JohnCuster We don't teach because we get publications out of it, we teach because we have a duty to. If we don't teach the knowledge doesn't get passed on. What's more, the students pay to be taught. He does not have a false sense of entitlement, he is entitled to supervision, and he should certainly not feel guilty for not going along with this kind of pressure. – Peter Aug 15 '16 at 17:15
  • 3
    Maybe I'm missing something, but isn't it one of the basic ground-rules-level expectations that a thesis will be published? – Mason Wheeler Aug 15 '16 at 18:35
79

You may be overreacting -- there aren't enough details to say that you aren't. In particular, suggestions that your supervisor is acting unethically are very much not grounded, at least in what you've said. Slinging around such accusations carelessly will only hurt your reputation. (You probably shouldn't care much about that reputation if you really have left the field, but given that you worry about your name being attached to something not up to your standards, I guess you really do care about it.)

I would suggest analyzing this from your supervisor's side. He had a student in whom he probably invested a fair amount of resources, including grant money and time spent training that student. The student ended up producing good research, novel enough to be worthy of publication.

Now the supervisor is certainly aware that the student left the field, but he has an interest in getting the results published. He offers to do (or delegate) the remaining housekeeping in putting together a final manuscript, but wants to give credit where it's due. Unexpectedly, the student comes back with "I'm too busy, and I don't trust anyone else to publish my results."

Sure, you can prohibit a manuscript from being submitted with your name on it, and you can also prohibit having your name removed from something where you were undeniably an author-worthy contributor. But now that means the field is permanently deprived of your research. What was it all for, now that you refuse to let it be shared? Being uncooperative to the point where you censor your research can itself be unethical.

We did talk about trying to publish the results and I was, at the time, very positive to the idea, but I always understood that we were going to "get back to it" at some point.

Well, you never did, so your supervisor is stepping up and doing what needs to be done.

I don't want to work on this any more

Then don't.

His first draft of the abstract was either written to be misleading (over-emphasizing a connection to a much cooler subject), or he doesn't understand the context of the results, which makes me feel uncomfortable.

Dressing things up to get attention is not unusual in academia, nor is it unethical. At worst, if one goes too far, one gets a reputation for having too large an ego. If no lies are being told, then don't worry. If you want to micromanage every sentence of the manuscript, then you have to write it yourself and forbid anyone else from contributing.

I feel pressured to let them write a paper about the results and put my name on it ... I don't want my name on something I didn't actually write

I've seen a lot of papers published by more than one author. In a majority of cases, only one person ever did write all those sentences. (Where this isn't true, there tends to be a disruptive change of writing style.) The other authors contributed in other ways. If you were key to getting the results, your name should be on the paper, whether or not the manuscript was drafted by you personally.

I'm worried they will misrepresent things and do a bad job

In which case is the world a better place: (1) this research never sees the light of day, or (2) this research is written up in a more grandiose way than your modesty is comfortable with? Those are your only options, and unless this paper is going to be so misrepresentative as to be harmful (and how can you know that given that you've only seen an abstract?), you should probably go with (2). Be wary of making the comparison to (3) the paper is magically written the way you would like without any effort on your part. (2) might be worse than (3), but (3) isn't on the table.


There really is an easy negotiation here. Ask that whoever writes the manuscript be made first author. That way the research gets published, but everyone understands that the style and tone and other such soft features of the writing are probably not yours. If your name is on the paper you will be held accountable for its factual correctness, but no one is going to ambush the second author and say "I think you personally could have given a better account of how your paper connects with that cool subject."

  • 11
    +1 I think this is the correct answer. The implicit assumption in many undergraduate or MSc theses is that the results will eventually be published. If the OP did not want the results to be published then he should clearly have told so, before starting this thesis. – Alexandros Aug 14 '16 at 20:39
  • 2
    This. OP should keep in mind that advisors generally assume that any students they take on will be on board with having their research published (assuming it's publishable, of course). – Mad Jack Aug 14 '16 at 21:06
  • 8
    I was also very happy to see an answer like this being left. Yes, the student has the right to oppose publication at any cost, but if he can summon just a little empathy for the advisor's point of view, this looks like a distinctly ungracious way to proceed. – Pete L. Clark Aug 15 '16 at 2:50
  • 4
    "But now that means the field is permanently deprived of your research." The thesis was submitted. The field may be deprived of being alert to the research, but the research is still out there. – curiousdannii Aug 15 '16 at 3:41
  • 3
    Also, just because you're out of academia right now doesn't mean you should be cavalier about burning bridges. – Jeff Aug 15 '16 at 13:38
7

I think Chris White's suggestion of accepting co-authorship but not first authorship is a very good one. But if you really don't want the responsibility of authorship, there is a reasonable way to decline without blocking publication.

You presented two options, "let them write a paper about the results and put my name on it" or stop them from publishing. You actually have a third option. If you don't want to co-author the paper (don't want to take responsibility for its contents, etc), whether as first author or any other author position, you can decline authorship and have your contributions recognized in the acknowledgements section instead. (See e.g. this answer.)

This approach has several advantages:

  • The other people who have invested time and energy in the work can still get a "return on their investment".
  • The results will appear in the literature, where other people can build on them.
  • You don't have to spend any more time on this if you don't want to - you don't even have to read the draft paper. You don't have to share responsibility for a publication that you're unhappy with.
3

Allow me to explain how you are making a big deal out of nothing. Your situation is one of boundaries. Healthy relationships have mutual respect for each person's yes and no. Saying yes to something you clearly don't want to say yes to will leave you resenting the other person or regretting your decision or both. If this is the result you want, then go along with your main supervisor. Saying no to something you clearly don't want to say yes to will leave you feeling relieved that you didn't do something you didn't want to do. If this is the result you want, then do not go along with your main supervisor.

-7

Edit: refer to Chris White's answer before this one. Use this only as a last resort only when you are confirmed when the intentions of your supervisor is to exploit you.


It is up your your wish to publish your research findings. That right does not belong to anyone else. As you are the first author of the manuscript, you would be the first to be blamed for anything misinterpreted or flawed in it. I'm not in favor of having your name in any other order other than the first either.

If you are sure that you are not going to work with the same supervisor/ institution in future, you could actively oppose this act. Try to convince your former advisor that you don't want this to be done. It would be also better to leave a note to the head of the respective department with respect to this regard. If he still persists and if you are aware of the conference to which the paper is submitted, send a formal mail to the conference committee about your refusal to submit your paper.

I don't think your former advisor and his associates would try to publish your work again in future after you show how serious you are about not publishing it. This would risk damaging their reputation. If they try to publish it without your name and knowledge, then you could claim against them for act of plagiarism, noting the fact that your thesis is already published in your university.

  • 16
    Writing to the conference organizers without contacting the old supervisor first seems out of line to me, to be honest. Moreover, it looks like a backstabbing: through whatever process (possibly a misunderstanding) the old supervisor is under the impression that the OP is OK with publishing the results, so the first point of contact should be the him, to clear up the misunderstanding. Escalating this up the chain is only warranted if the supervisor explicitly acts against the OP's written wishes. – E.P. Aug 15 '16 at 0:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.