I have a particularly unusual problem that puts me in a bind. I am a first year Masters student at my faculty, and recently my supervisor have pushed me to "update" her previous student's unpublished paper (few years old, so need to find newer papers to cite inside and format it properly for submission), add my name onto it as co-author and publish it to IET. I feel it's unethical, although my supervisor has assured me permission will be obtained from the original author. Feeling uncomfortable with this practice, I delayed doing that paper.

What are the implications if I proceed with it? Would it pose any problems to me in the future? I'm inclined towards not doing it, though, but I want to hear expert opinions on this kind of practice. Thanks.

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    I notice that you don't say why you think the proposed action is unethical and that you feel uncomfortable with it. Based on what you write, it's not obvious why you feel that way, but I wonder if your feelings are based on something you didn't say. – Pete L. Clark Mar 17 '17 at 15:45
  • Think of it as a temporally disjointed collaboration :) – Fábio Dias Mar 18 '17 at 1:56

Publish it. As you mentioned that your supervisor obtained permission from the original author and you will be working/editing it, then I assume its 100% ethical to put your name as coauthor and will be no negative sequences. Indeed, this kind of preparation that your supervisor follows is beneficial for you. At the level of PhD, I got the same task. I converted 3 years old master thesis to conference work and I put my name at second coauthor and the original author was mentioned before the name of the professor in the affiliation! since your supervisor is involved in this task, I assume that he knows what he is doing.

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    And I guess this is just the start. You'll find out that you have to make some of the figures, re-do one of the experiments, do the actual submission. After that you're probably on the hook for all the additional work required by reviewers. Just start, it will probably take long enough to also make you feel like you deserve authorship. – VonBeche Mar 17 '17 at 8:24
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    @VonBeche exactly. Even if it not accepted, you will be the responsible person in reviewing and submitting it again. – Krebto Mar 17 '17 at 8:25
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    Obtaining permission is irrelevant. Only the amount to which OP will effectively contribute to the submitted version of the paper. Publishing someone else's work is plagiarism, event if that someone agrees (see ghostwriting). – Cape Code Mar 17 '17 at 9:57
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    @Krebto Even if everyone involved agrees with something, it can still be unethical. – Roland Mar 17 '17 at 13:43
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    Permission is relevant - it is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for this procedure to be ok. Besides publishing ethics, the question is "What are the implications if I proceed with it?" and for this question, the permission is 100% relevant. – Dirk Mar 17 '17 at 13:48

If your contribution to the paper is really just formatting and finding papers to cite, no, you shouldn't be an author, and your advisor shouldn't make you one. Your advisor is very likely not trying to be unethical, but rather is trying to reward you in some way for doing the tedious work of formatting, etc., and / or is taking this opportunity to get you to be familiar with the literature.

What should you do? (i) do the work, and point out that you'd prefer to just be acknowledged in the paper rather than being an author; or (ii) refuse to do the work. I'd do (i). But your written solution of "delaying" doing things is not a good one -- this doesn't help you, your advisor, or the paper.


TL;DR: If you can publish a few-year-old unpublished paper, your contribution definitely deserves co-authorship.

However, you will find that the actual work will soon exceed adding citations, and changing format. If that were easy, your advisor or her previous student would have done that few years ago. This may cost you months.

When you add new citations, the least you need to do is to add more discussions in the related work. After 3 years, there would be a lot of progress in the field, will the technique in the paper still state-of-the-art? How it compare to the papers from last years etc? You may need to do more experiments to compare with the new techniques. This often means you have to do all experiments in the paper.

Changing format may not be enough, you may need to change the narrative to fit the theme of the conference. Some conferences require particular sections, e.g. Threat to validity, etc.

The conference may adopts rebuttal phase, conditional acceptance etc etc. Handling all these costs a lot of effort.

Since it has been abandoned for a long time, this is likely not a great paper. It may be rejected the first time you submit, and maybe more than one time. I'm sorry but this is the truth :) It may take you a lot a lot of effort.

You don't have to worry if you deserve co-authorship, if this is what bothers you. Instead, you should worry if you can actually do it.

Like you and Kbreto, I was asked to do the same task during my PhD. I refused to do it :) The paper my advisor wanted me to work on was in a good shape in term of format etc. But it had been rejected a couple of times before. I thought that it would be easier for me to do my own research and publish it, rather than trying to save someone else paper.

Fast forward 5 years, that paper is still not published, and I don't think it will ever be :)

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