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I am an undergraduate student, and recently I was introduced a PhD student in my university's math department.

In a brief interaction with him, he mentioned that he was doing work in Differential Topology, an area which I happen to be self-studying at the moment. I asked him about his research problem, and mentioned what I was self-studying, and he offered me an opportunity to work with his PhD advisor (a former professor of mine), and himself, and stated that they were looking to publish a paper in mid 2018, and I could possibly be listed as a co-author.

He has yet to run the idea past my former professor, but he has stated that my former professor would be all on board with the idea. My former professor likely does not know or remember me, we only had one brief interaction during a class on Discrete Mathematics (coincidentally the interaction was about Differential Topology and some other Differential Geometric stuff, because he saw me reading a book on it before class commenced).

However, my university has no official undergraduate research program, so everything (i.e. any research conducted) will likely be done on an informal basis. My main question is this, how can I protect the work that I do on a project like this? What measures can I take to ensure that whatever work I do is credited, if the paper containing my work is published?

Firstly it should be noted, that regardless of whether or not my work will be recognized on the paper (if any contributions to the paper are made by my part) I still intend to take this opportunity and work with the PhD student and my former professor, mainly as it will be a good learning experience for me on how to properly do research, the possibility of being listed as a co-author is just an added bonus.

Also I'm well aware, that it's probable that I may not make any contribution at all, however I am asking this question in the event that I do contribute some work towards the paper.

If it's of any importance, I have a good relationship, and am somewhat well known by other faculty members (Topologists) in my universities' math department, as they have previously allowed me attend lectures for their courses which are only reserved for students in years above me.

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    Under normal circumstances your work will be credited appropriately regardless of your lack of official position. – Andrew Nov 13 '17 at 3:06
  • I edited your question slightly because the PhD student who you called A wasn't actually relevant to the question. All they did was introduce you to the PhD student you're considering working with. I think the question's easier to understand when the cast of characters is just you, the PhD student and the professor. – David Richerby Nov 13 '17 at 15:55
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    It is weird to be so focused on getting credit so early in the process. Just engage with the process. If it starts to build up into something where you are making a contribution, then you can broach it. You will be a co-author unless they are unethical or something. The person has already said this, so I'm not even sure why you are worried? There is nothing you have said that indicates you should be. – neuronet Nov 13 '17 at 16:23
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    I've been in this exact situation before (except I was attending a different university than the one I was researching with). At the end of the day, whoever's writing the paper decides if your contributions warrant a spot. I tried to be as useful and friendly as possible, so when it came time to make that decision, my fellow PhD would want to add me; not feel like she had to. – Lord Farquaad Nov 13 '17 at 17:54
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What measures can I take to ensure that whatever work I do is credited, if the paper containing my work is published?

Unlike other answers, I'll mention that it is not unheard of for higher-ups to fail to credit more junior collaborators. So while you have no reason to believe this will happen in your case, some relatively-benign protective measure may be in order.

I would suggest one (or more) of the following:

  • Using some relevant on-line collaboration tool - such as a git/mercurial repository for paper drafts, or a Dropbox/Box.com/OwnCloud shared folder through which you exchange files - preferably one which they cannot delete on their own.
  • A bit of "wordsmithing" in some of your email exchanges with them so that whoever reads the email exchange understands that either some of the work is assigned to you, or some of the results were obtained by you. Things like doing a bit of planning or roadmapping over email typically achieve this effect without sounding off.
  • Engineering one or more occasions in which you and one of the other two are discussing your joint work in the presence of a third party with closer/better relations to you than to them.

The first two you could probably do regardless of wanting to protect yourself; the third one involves at most a bit of bragging, which is understandable for an undergrad and can be minimized.

Each of these reduces the degree of plausible deniability in a theoretical argument about credit, and even more importantly, discourages the very inclination your senior collaborators may have to ignore your contribution.


A side-note: There could be three scenarios here regarding the extent of your contribution to such work.

  1. Sufficient to merit co-authorship
  2. Sufficient to merit a "crediting mention" ("The authors wish to thank Ms. Jane Smith for useful comments regarding frobnicating the bar").
  3. Less sufficient

... and with you being an undergrad it will be hard for you to tell the difference between these three. So if you feel you're being under-credited, consult other people first, discretely, for their opinion on this.

Good luck and I hope you don't need any of this advice!

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    Upvoting for the bit below the line which is very important. – Jan Nov 15 '17 at 8:21
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The best thing you can do to ensure your work is recognized and credited is to have honest, open communications with the other people you’re working with. So long as everybody’s clear on who is doing what, and everybody is acting ethically, you shouldn’t run into problems.

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    In particular, the fact that you are an undergraduate has nothing to do with getting recognition for your work. This exact advice applies whether you are an undergraduate, a graduate student, a tenured professor, or a janitor. – JeffE Nov 13 '17 at 2:39
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    In the past, we've occasionally had final-year undergraduate students credited on papers written by profs and postgrads because their final project worked on/contributed to part of it. It's been regarded as a very positive thing to get undergrads involved in the whole process. – Dan Nov 13 '17 at 11:17
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    The other important thing is to get them to confirm in writing what your contribution will be and what credit they expect to offer and for you to save that in a way that's legally permissible so that there's a paper-trail if they decide to publish without your name (for whatever reason). – Valorum Nov 14 '17 at 15:30
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However, my university has no official undergraduate research program, so everything (i.e. any research conducted) will likely be done on an informal basis.

Except for very large projects, essentially all research collaboration is done "on an informal basis". You've seen that being on a formal undergraduate research programme and being a PhD student both give some sort of formal basis to a research collaboration and you've incorrectly generalized. For example, if two professors in your department are chatting over coffee and decide to collaborate on something, there is no formal programme that either one is a part of.

Authorship of research papers isn't decided by looking at the staff list of some formal collaboration: it is decided who contributed intellectually to the work. If you, the PhD student and the professor work together on something and that work leads to a paper, you should all be co-authors of that paper. The reason that PhD students' advisors are very often co-authors of papers is that the advisor very often contributes intellectually to their student's work, and not because of the existence of the formal student–advisor relationship.

My main question is this, how can I protect the work that I do on a project like this? What measures can I take to ensure that whatever work I do is credited, if the paper containing my work is published?

In the normal run of events, you shouldn't need to protect anything or do anything to ensure you receive credit (i.e., co-authorship).

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    You can't generalize research collaborations as being all informal. There are very formal collaborations, say the LHC, any number of satellite and space missions, astronomy involving modern telescopes like the SPT. In those, who can be an author is strictly defined in the early stages of the project. Here, even if an undergrad does useful work: too bad, often that work can't even be published. It's necessary otherwise with hundreds of scientists, you'd be forever mired in disputes. – user71659 Nov 13 '17 at 18:22
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    @user71659 Conversely, the bylaws(!) of some high-energy physics collaborations specify that X amount of work for a run, plus Y other responsibilities (usually that an institution provide enough people to staff the run), equals authorship. My alma mater routinely has undergrad students as authors on PHENIX, SeaQuest, and more. – chrylis -on strike- Nov 13 '17 at 19:06
  • The paragraph beginning "Authorship [...] isn't decided" is spot-on, but the first isn't - many (I'd even consider saying most) collaborations are formal. – arboviral Nov 14 '17 at 10:02
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    @arboviral This is probably very field-dependent, so I should rewrite it. In mathematics and theoretical computer science, my experience is that the majority of collaborations are just ad-hoc arrangements between researchers who are interested in some topic. I would imagine this is the case in most subjects that don't involve substantial equipment. – David Richerby Nov 14 '17 at 10:35
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You should be listed as a co-author, it is as simple as "you worked, then you should be on the list".

This is a much nicer question than those that start " I did all this work and they refuse to put me on as co-author" or "My work is being published by my supervisor without my name"...

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