2

For my thesis, I did some programming for a project. My supervisor seemed to be very happy with the results when I was there and promised I was going to be in the publication. Problems started when I graduated and moved abroad. My supervisor said they couldn't replicate my results and started pushing me to continue into the project. I left all my scripts properly organized with README files and was available to answer emails and connect remotely to do minor fixes, but I was already fully dedicated to my masters and didn't have time to do extensive extra programming. Indeed, I was doing field work and didn't have access to computers for most of the time. After almost a month in which I was out of reach, I checked my email and found a communication claiming I have stalled the whole project and lead to its cancellation. I let things pass for almost two years, not having much contact with my then coworkers or supervisor, and just yesterday found the paper was indeed submitted around six months after that final communication and taken into publication! And I'm in the acknowledgements albeit for a menial task that anyone could do in a couple of hours!

I can't be sure if there was misappropriation of my work since the code of the project hasn't been published. They might have rewritten the code, but they might have also indeed used MY code or parts of it. Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of my work, since I was doing everything remotely in the server and I now fear I wouldn't be able to substantiate my allegation to the editors in case they ask for prove to my claims (I know, I should have kept a copy for myself, but I never expected this to happen at all...).

I noticed some red flags before leaving but didn't think they were of real concern. My supervisor seemed to be resented at me leaving instead of staying in his lab. Although my supervisor is very good in his field, I didn't like the overall way in which he treated us, his students -- he is the kind of supervisor that would yell and call you stupid in front of your colleagues –. This is one of the reasons why I decided to leave the lab and even change field. I don't know if this affected his intention to include me as an author, but in any case, I think they should have informed me I was going to be mentioned in the paper, and they didn't.

Is this among the normal things that happened in academia? Should I tell the editors either they include me as author or they drop any mention of me in the acknowledgements? Also, among the authors are other students for whom I have real appreciation and I don't want to spoil their names in their first publication. Should I let things just pass and be forgotten? (The paper has been published already for more than a year and haven't been cited once. -In my opinion it's a good paper, but not a breakthrough). What would be the normal thing to do in academia?

  • Was it a PhD, MSc or BSc thesis? – Dmitry Savostyanov Mar 26 '17 at 18:01
  • I don't think this is normal; certainly I hope you will resolve not to treat people that way; can you let this be water under the bridge, and focus on learning from the experience (e.g. keep a copy of your work)? – aparente001 Mar 26 '17 at 18:17
  • @DmitrySavostyanov BSc – je_b Mar 26 '17 at 18:26
6

Unless you outright had years of valuable work stolen out from under you that imperils your future career in your field, and you have strong proof of what occurred that would establish to an outsider that clearly something very seriously wrong was committed (way, way past a snub), I'd "count your blessings". From the sounds of it, you have made a clean break from the field, the lab, and most (or all) of the people. There's no huge ethical issues with the paper itself (no fraud, abuse, etc), so you don't have to worry about guilt by association.

You don't need letters from them, you don't need to collaborate in the future, you don't need to even see them passing down the hall. It really sounds like an amazingly good outcome, with the worst-case scenario being you didn't get co-authorship on a paper no one particularly cares that much about. And demanding to be removed from the acknowledgements would make you look like a bit of weirdo, from an outsiders perspective - "give me authorship or don't acknowledge me at all", honestly, will not give anyone a good impression of you to anyone. No upside to be had.

As of right now, from an outsiders perspective, it sounds like did reasonable work as an undergrad, and moved on. You were a bit unresponsive (not checking email for a month tends to be uncommon), but quite understandable given the big changes - though it would not have been cool to be aware of pending collaboration and not even tell your collaborators you are not going to be "online" or reachable for weeks on end. People in the lab may have been disappointed that you weren't more interested in continuing the project to publication, so it sounds like there was some miscommunication, misaligned expectations, and you weren't all on the same page as to where you stood on the project now that you graduated and moved on to something not strictly related. I don't know what conversations you had together, so we can't determine if someone was just being demanding or if you had indicated interest in continual involvement but then effectively didn't follow through. Not our business, but something you might consider for yourself.

Given the lack of major downside, it would be a great opportunity to learn how you might avoid a situation like this in the future, because you'll of course eventually move on from your current position and most people don't perfectly have all work tidied up and permanently finished when they leave. Reflect on how to set clear boundaries, avoid making promises (expressed or implied) you aren't dedicated to following through on, set clear limits to what you are agreeing to, communicate your availability to collaborators, have direct conversations with people to ensure everyone has matching expectations, etc. These skills will be invaluable to your future career, so no time like the present to improve on them, learn from past experience, and build up to a more happy and productive future.

  • To expand on the last paragraph of this answer, an important lesson demonstrated here is that being present for the discussion of your work is as important as the work itself. Regardless of how well documented your work was, it's possible for collaborators to misunderstand what you did. In this case they couldn't reproduce your results, which indicates that additional conversation was needed to identify the source of the discrepancy. Think about it as peer review of your contribution to the lab: you need to convince them your work has value, rather than making them figure it out themselves. – Adam Bosen Mar 27 '17 at 18:38
4

As a BSc student in academic environment, you are the one who is expected to learn and benefit by doing your BSc project (thesis). Academic research is not only about writing the code; in fact, mathematical ideas, numerical results and impact on areas of applications play much more important role. Consequently, the code is usually just a means of achieving the results, but not the main result of the project itself. It is particularly so for partially completed programming projects.

You mentioned, that despite your code contains the README file, your colleagues were not able to use it to reproduce the results and have to abandon all (or most) of it. People would not do this just to annoy or humiliate a colleague who decided to move on to another place. We have to assume that the main reason for them to drop your code was that they were genuinely unable to use the code in your absence, even with a sporadic support over email. This could happen for the following reasons: maybe the code is simply not good enough, or maybe it is actually a nice implementation of the algorithm which is not able to solve the problem at hand (i.e. the problem is not your coding, but the math ideas behind the method).

Despite the limitations the code/method you developed, the process itself definitely provided you with a lot of experience to reflect on and to learn from. You have successfully completed your BSc project and graduated. Congratulations on this achievement!

However, as the publication is concerned, it does not seem to me that your contribution is sufficient to deserve an authorship. You have only contributed to programming aspect, not to development of math ideas and interpretation of results. The code you developed was not used to produce any results included in the paper. You have not actually contributed to writing the paper. If you believe that some of the results included in the paper are yours, you could ask to be included as a co-author. But if you merely suspect that some part of the code you've developed could've been reused in a new project to produce the results, it is not a valid reason to include you as a co-author. A lot of academic research is based on using someone else's code (open source code produced by community / colleagues) which deserves acknowledgement but not co-authorship.

  • The conclusion of the paper is something you mention: The algorithm is not able to solve the problem. I must clarify that I indeed did analysis, obtained results, discuss them in a report and made recommendations. My conclusion was that no meaningful information could be extracted. They promised to scale up the analysis to the complete dataset, which needed months of computation, and in the paper they get the same conclusion. They don't copy my discussion and recommendations word-by-word but they essentially say the same I put in the report. – je_b Mar 26 '17 at 22:50
  • ^I might be biased (because it is my own work), but I'd say I did more than just typing. – je_b Mar 26 '17 at 23:00

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