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Summary: A senior faculty member insisted on uploading a draft of our math paper with incomplete proofs and intermediate results that turned out to be wrong to the arXiv. This was completely deliberate and done in order to claim priority. How serious is this? Does this warrant approaching an ethics committee?

I'm a PhD student in math in my last year. Some time ago, I got involved in a project with a senior faculty member, apparently a top researcher in his field, who is not my advisor. Initially everything seemed going well and I was enthusiastic about the project. As time went on he increasingly started pushing me more and more to finish the paper as he was worried about competition on the same problem, and I got into some trouble with my other work. But it's what happened in the end that really bothered me.

The senior reseacher insisted on uploading a half-finished draft to arXiv in order to establish priority on the results. He specifically told me that it does not matter that some of the intermediate results aren't stated carefully, and most distressingly that we should try to make it look just good enough that nobody will notice that most of the proofs are actually just rough sketches. In practice, this meant leaving out many arguments from our working draft and replacing them with weasel words like "clearly", "obviously" and such, or with long calculations that look relevant but on a closer reading turn out not to be justified adequately. When I raised my concerns about this being unethical he said I'm too naive to get to the top.

Some weeks after uploading our preprint, another preprint proving essentially the same result appeared on the arXiv, so at least my senior collaborator was right about there being competition. As for us, after some months' hard work after uploading the paper, we got most of the arguments fixed. The main results didn't change, but some intermediate results "of independent interest" changed almost beyond recognition. Even though the competing paper looked careful and not at all rushed and our proper arguments were on the arXiv only after theirs, my senior collaborator keeps giving talks where he stresses that we were first.

The episode changed gave me serious concerns about becoming a research mathematician. At least my view of scientific ethics was grossly violated when we posted a preprint with false proofs and uncertain results in order to claim that we were first, and moreover I'm shocked that this seems to be business as usual for someone. Now, I know arXiv isn't a peer-reviewed journal, but I'm ashamed of my part in the process and of having a paper with such a history in my publication list

I'd like to clear my conscience. I'm wondering if I should bring this up with some other senior faculty or even a university ethics committee. Would these events be considered a serious violation of scientific ethics? Would there be some consequences for the professor if I approach an ethics committee? Am I also at risk, should I wait with voicing concerns until my graduation?

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    I fear this is very much the usual question: Did you discuss the collaboration at all with your supervisor? Your supervisor will know if this is usual behavior from you collaborator. – nabla Oct 19 '16 at 15:59
  • My supervisor encouraged me at first, but he seemed to have some reservations that I didn't understand then. Now I think that he knew that I was going to get involved with a difficult person, but that he also thought that the reward of a student having a joint paper with a top researcher would be worth the risk. I didn't discuss this particular issue with him. – user63515 Oct 19 '16 at 19:28
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    Always discuss things with your advisor, especially when you need advice. It's literally their job to give you that. – David Richerby Oct 19 '16 at 22:31
  • You say your advisor had reservations about Jerk Prof being "a difficult person," but he might not know the extent of JP's dishonesty. You should definitely let him (and maybe your dean/chair) know the specifics so he (they) can warn other students in future. – MissMonicaE Oct 20 '16 at 12:04
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Your collaborator is a jerk. Don't listen to his nonsense about you being naive; that sounds more like he's trying to justify his bad behavior to himself. You are quite right that this is not appropriate professional behavior.

However, I don't think it rises to the sort of ethics violation that could threaten a career. Now that you have a proof of the results and (presumably) have updated the arXiv preprint, the scientific record has been corrected, so I think you're back on firm ground. Besides that, I'd recommend:

  • Don't do it again.

  • Don't work with that collaborator any more.

  • When you mention this result in your future work, always cite the other group together with your own. Don't bring up the issue of who was "first" - even if you had been legitimately first, it just seems like bad manners to brag about it, as your collaborator seems to be doing.

  • If you see other authors citing your paper, contact them to suggest they cite the other group as well.

I don't think it is worth bringing up to an ethics committee or trying to "whistle-blow". I'd just treat it as a learning experience: there are jerks in the world and you don't want to be like them.

  • @ChristianClason: Right, I don't think they should withdraw the manuscript, since they have fixed it. What I mean is that if they hadn't fixed it, they ought to have withdrawn the manuscript until such time as they could fix it. Of course, the sloppy draft is permanently recorded whether they withdraw or not, but the withdrawal would at least indicate that they know there are problems. But all of that is moot now, so I took it out of my answer. – Nate Eldredge Oct 19 '16 at 21:58
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    +1 be sure to cite other group together with your own - basically (as time passes) most people are going to take this as two groups who are 'at the same time' and in long term, it will usually be to your benefit to act in this manner. – Carol Oct 19 '16 at 22:14

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