As an undergraduate, I did some group research a little over a year ago which is now being compiled into a paper. My advisor at the time is contacting us to request feedback and help writing it. I am especially important to the effort, because I am the only one who knows some of the results (and proofs) well enough to be able to explain them and structure the paper around them.

However, I am just beginning a PhD, in a completely different field than my undergraduate research. This comes with a new set of challenges to focus on, including that I have to find an advisor here within my first year. I would like to be primarily focused on making the most of my PhD program and thinking about current research, rather than having to worry too much about this old research I did as an undergraduate, which I do not feel will impact my career. Even if our research gets published (which it might not), because it's not in my current field it does not seem that it should be my top priority.

In summary, I do not think that assisting with the writing of the paper is in my personal best interest. However, I also understand that I have some obligation to the research group I was in and the research we did, and that it could be rude and irresponsible, even unethical, to drop out of the picture entirely. What exactly are my obligations to writing this paper? What is the most ethical thing to do in this situation, which also preserves my interests as much as possible?

Finally, if I should avoid working too much on this paper, how do I communicate this to my undergraduate advisor and to my fellow researchers? It would be rude to cut back on the work without any explanation.

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    It sounds like much of the work for this paper is already done, so you may be able to get a journal publication with limited effort. Even if it's not in your current focus area, this may be a better time investment than writing a paper from scratch in your new area. Plus, you never know whether you might want to go back to that earlier area later. Plus, some (some!) diversity of interest looks good on your CV. Plus, your undergrad advisor may be a good reference some day if you make him happy. I'd recommend you try to find some limited time to push this through to publication. – Stephan Kolassa Aug 30 '16 at 6:38
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    An early start to your publication record, an early insight into the paper-writing process, and friends in academia are good things. Needlessly annoying people isn't. – Chris H Aug 30 '16 at 9:51
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    How long ago was this research? Months? Years? – Lilienthal Aug 30 '16 at 10:29
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    I will say this: a friend of mine recently finished her PhD. The couple of irrelevant publications she got in her undergrad, which have little to do with her current field, helped a lot in her job search - they make her look well rounded and more established, even if her new stuff is much better. I wouldn't be too eager to lose the chance to get these publications! – Richard Rast Aug 30 '16 at 10:42
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    As you get to the end of your PhD, how would you feel if somebody bailed on their part of a paper you wanted/needed to publish? Spend the time and do the right thing. Those downpayments on good will will be returned in the future. – Jon Custer Aug 30 '16 at 15:52

I think the Golden Rule applies here. While you have no obligation to act against your own self-interest here, if you were in your former collaborators' position, you would probably be rather unhappy at being blocked from publication because one co-author is no longer available.

Is your preference to not work on this paper at all, or just to limit the amount of time you spend on it? From your collaborators' point of view, a few hours of your time might be sufficient to avoid blocking the publication, while not placing much of a burden on you. It's perfectly OK to tell your collaborators, "I'd like to help, but I have many other demands on my time right now. I can devote 4 hours this Sunday to helping you get this publication ready, please let me know how I can use this time in a way that is most helpful to you."

On the other hand, if a few hours is really unmanageable to you right now, just tell them this, and let them know if you expect to have a little more time in the near future.

I suggest that you learn from this experience going forward, and make sure to document your work in sufficient detail for others to follow before you leave any research project.

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    If you're still the expected first author (who should do most of the writing) you could offer to just give the data and an explanation to someone who's still in the field. That person could write his or her own paper using your data, and might save you a whole lot of time. – VonBeche Aug 30 '16 at 11:33
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    In addition to the golden rule considerations, your undergraduate advisor is a potential ally in finding a PhD advisor at your new university. If you have changed fields, any networking may be rather indirect, but just being willing to say "user61117 is a good researcher who did x, y, and z" may help. – Patricia Shanahan Aug 30 '16 at 14:35
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    +1 for that last line. Not just in academia/research, but in any field where someone else might have to continue something you started after you've moved on. You always want to leave things in a state that someone else can pick them up again. – senschen Sep 1 '16 at 11:45
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    +1 especially for the "golden rule" bit while is a good basis for answering many of academias questions, especially when they involve dealings with other academics. – Dikran Marsupial Sep 1 '16 at 17:24

I think you're wrong about it not being in your best interests. Having a paper from your undergraduate work will help you when you come to apply for jobs in the next stage of your career, and gaining experience of the writing and submission process now will help you when you come to publish papers from your PhD work and in writing up your thesis when it comes to that. Having work from more than one area published shows flexibility and is a useful asset if you want to move into a different area later.

Publishing your work is a key part of science, without it your work will be for nought. There is no hard obligation on you to publish but your previous advisor would be within his rights to be upset with you for walking out on your earlier work at this stage. If you're struggling for time, then explain the situation to your previous advisor and see whether you can reduce the time commitment needed while still providing the necessary work to get the paper published.

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    You don't mention who the first author is. Assuming that it is not you, then you should be able to draft the changes required and let the others in the group polish your contribution. The key to being an academic is to be a good team player. In the long term it will work in our favour if you are willing to collaborate. – CyberFonic Aug 30 '16 at 10:57

I don't think you have any formal obligations, and if you don't want to work on it because you have more pressing obligations, then don't work on it. It is usually a good idea to talk to the people you work with: tell them that you have little time to spare since you have a new job. That is perfectly reasonable, and reasonable people should understand and accept this. If your former co-workers want to publish, and you don't care, then they can do the work.

However, journal papers is academic gold. It always looks better with more papers on your publication list. Very few people actually read the papers when assessing your credentials; so even if the paper is in another domain, it will still look better on your CV. Something to consider.

  • I just think (and ff524 pointed it out) that it may not go very well with them. Maybe it's "reasonable" but it's also really unfortunate for them. Thanks for the comment about journal papers being academic gold. – user61117 Aug 30 '16 at 5:16

I've faced this situation several times as an adviser. I'd recommend your continuing to contribute within your own time limits: this collaboration will be a credit to you in future. Whichever way you choose, remember that in order to be listed as an author in a reputable journal you must be available to read the final submitted manuscript and sign a declaration that you contributed.


If I were you, I would welcome the opportunity to publish this early in your career. You are getting a PhD so it sounds like you are considering academia as a possible career path. If you believe that the research you did contributes to the body of knowledge in whatever field and was done in an ethical manner..publication can't hurt.

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