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I'm a postdoc in Computer Science. Recently submitted a paper, co-authored with my adviser. I'm the first author, corresponding author and am primarily responsible for the content.

Less than a day before submission deadline my adviser asked me to withdraw the paper. There was no sign that he disagrees with submission before that. I was keeping him updated with the progress and asking for reviews. Today he gave me a list of unconvincing arguments why we should withdraw. When I refused, he said he'll use his legal authority to withdraw it. Does he have any legal authority to do this?

No ethics policy that I'm aware of links authorship rights with employment status. From what I know a co-author may chose to withdraw his co-authorship, but cannot ask a conference to withdraw the paper against the will of other authors. Anyone encountered such situations?

I have not signed any legal agreements regarding publication policy.

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    Your supervisor might have used the word "legal" loosely. Publication requires the consent of all authors. If you or any of your coauthors withdraws consent, without agreeing to withdraw co-authorship, that ends the publication. So he does have the right to withdraw the paper, but not because he's your supervisor. – JeffE Mar 1 '17 at 2:07
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    Does it mean any co-author can veto the publication unilaterally? Doesn't sound right to me. – anubis Mar 1 '17 at 2:33
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    Yes, that is absolutely right. You should try to negotiate to agree on a version to publish, even if it doesn't sound exactly perfect to either of you. Otherwise, you can remove all the content he contributed and work toward turning it into something publishable by yourself. But that will probably wreck your relationship with him - and this is a person whose backing is fairly essential to your future career. – Nate Eldredge Mar 1 '17 at 2:58
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    By the way, your title is misleading: if your advisor is a co-author then it's not "my paper" but "our paper". And therein lies the problem. – Nate Eldredge Mar 1 '17 at 3:02
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    But anubis, this is your advisor we're talking about. Do you really want to wage war with your advisor? What's more important to you -- getting this paper submitted immediately, or preserving some sort of working relationship with this person (not to mention future letters of recommendation)? – aparente001 Mar 2 '17 at 7:04
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Yes, an academic paper cannot be published without the consent of all its authors (as JeffE pointed out in the comments), so any one author can prevent publication for any reason, with no appeal or recourse. Of course it would be unethical to do so for a bad reason, such as settling a personal grudge, but there's plenty of scope for good reasons. For example, just feeling that it's not yet ready is a fine reason.

If your advisor withdraws the paper, then there's nothing you can do about it. It can't be published in its current form with him as an author without his permission, and you can't remove him as an author if his contributions merit authorship. (If they genuinely don't, then you can and should remove him, but you'll have to deal with serious questions about why he was listed in the first place. Be very cautious with this, since if other people agree with him that he deserves authorship, then trying to remove him will be a disaster for you.)

In principle, you could try to extract your own contributions from the paper and publish them as a singly-authored paper without him. However, this may be difficult, or even impossible if there was enough joint work that cannot solely be attributed to either author.

In practice, you'll probably have to work with your advisor to fix the paper, so that you are both happy to publish it. He presumably feels it's worth publishing after some more work, since otherwise he would remove his own name from it and wouldn't care what happened to it after that. Hopefully you are both reasonable people and can come to some agreement.

In the meantime, if you can't convince him to proceed with the submission, I'd recommend withdrawing it yourself, since it looks more awkward if he does. (It can look like you screwed up and your advisor had to step in to fix it.) If he withdraws it, then you shouldn't try to stop him, since there's nothing you can say to the program committee that would help. All you can do at that point is to make it more awkward and embarrassing for everyone, without changing the outcome, and I don't think it's in your interest to make a fuss.

I'm sympathetic, since it sounds like your advisor has put you in a frustrating situation. He should have reviewed the paper earlier, or asked you to hold off on submitting it because he needed more time to review it. However, his failure to be a helpful coauthor doesn't justify publishing the paper without his consent.

  • Thanks for answer! Yet I cannot accept it. Hopefully someone who faced similar stories from editor/PC chair position can share his thoughts. – anubis Mar 1 '17 at 4:46
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    @anubis: In my experience as an editor, if an author asks to withdraw a paper, nobody asks why; the paper is immediately withdrawn. I've never seen another author object to the withdrawal, but if that did happen, I wouldn't be able to do anything but tell them they needed to sort things out themselves (and the paper couldn't be handled unless they were all in agreement). – Anonymous Mathematician Mar 1 '17 at 4:51
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    @anubis Why do you expect him to be the one to face the embarrassment? As mentioned in this answer, it might as well end up with you being the one to look bad. – Tobias Kildetoft Mar 1 '17 at 8:27
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    As @AnonymousMathematician says, he doesn't even have to tell the editor his scientific reasons for wanting to withdraw, so embarrasment will not enter into it. I am not sure you understand the situation properly. If you submitted the paper without his explicit consent, that in itself was an unethical action on your part. (You say "there was no sign that he disagreed" but silence is not consent.) If he tells the editor he is withdrawing the paper because he never consented to its submission, that could cause serious problems for you. Hence it is better if you withdraw it yourself. – Nate Eldredge Mar 1 '17 at 18:31
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    @anubis Unfortunately anubis, the reason for his lack of permission doesn't practically matter. He position as a coauthor seems to be legitimate due to his intellectual contribution, and permission from all authors are required for submission (removing him in this case would be an ethical violation). The conference will honor his request to withdraw the paper as he is listed as an author. – user58322 Mar 3 '17 at 9:15

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