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Help! Publishing dissertation work in a competitive field

3 posts in this topic

Hello all

I just finished my Biology PhD and am considering applying for another degree program (JD or MBA). I was hoping to rework some of my dissertation work into a publication as well. 

During my PhD, I had submitted a paper with my PhD advisor to a top tier and second tier biology journal, but my publication was rejected twice. Since then, my paper has languished on my advisor's desk for nearly one year. As one might imagine in a competitive field, this nearly guarantees that a study will be "scooped" (i.e. another group will publish the same or highly similar findings first).

My friend, who has a rival paper, is offering me a co-first authorship for providing a single image to his study. He is also willing to offer me co-first authorship for "intellectual contribution." If I do not place my name on his paper, my data will become worthless as my friend will "scoop" us. Moreover, it appears that my friend's study surpassed the study I submitted with my PhD advisor and is being considered for publication in a top-tier journal. I feel the urge to add my name to his paper to get a publication that is related to my dissertation work.

The other fact is that I am not on good terms with my PhD advisor (which happens).

As a graduate, I am no longer affiliated with the PhD program or institute in which I produced the PhD work. The trouble is, do I need to include my previous advisor as a co-author or I am allowed to add my name to my friend's paper without my PhD advisor's name? Is there a distinction in the rules for providing data or intellectual contribution?

So my question is really, is this done? Is it okay to try to publish now that I am temporarily out of academia? Do I need to get in touch with the professors from this past project? 
Thank you! 

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You have proposed many questions in your post, here are some things to consider:

1. Just because a different paper publishes similar findings, it does not necessarily mean that your paper will be "scooped". It is incredibly rare for a different research group to publish similar findings using the exact same methodology....and even if this did happen, your data will still be publishable. There is a massive concern in all fields of science on being able to replicate findings, and papers that have shown similar findings as others are now valued moreso than they were in the past. If there have been 10 or so papers that have shown the same thing that you have....sure, maybe you won't be able to publish in a top tier journal, but your work is still likely valued and publishable. Also, it could be several years for your work to be published by a different group, for instance, our research group sat on data for ~5-6 years, saw several papers published that were very similar to ours, and this data was recently published in the same caliber of journal as the other published papers before us. 

2. After considering my comments above, you will need to decide if this route is appropriate as a scientist to go down. Do you think that providing one image to his study warrants co-authorship? Perhaps it does, and it is a significant addition to the manuscript, but if it is not, then you should consider not joining as a co-author if the image does not significantly contribute to the publication. In my opinion, at the very least, providing one-image to a manuscript does not satisfy earning a co-first authorship position on a manuscript. Your other situation where your friend is offering to add you to a paper for "intellectual contribution" should be considered as well. As long as you have actually contributed a significant amount to the manuscript, this is OK. These decisions are difficult to make at times, and are part of the job of being a scientist. For instance, I recently just fully removed myself from a paper  that I was second author on. I did all the subject recruitment, designed the study, was an integral part of data collection (3 of us were full time with data collection), and wrote/edited a significant portion of the paper. I did not analyze the data, and at the end of the day myself and the first author did not agree on the way the data was analyzed and presented, so even though I sunk maybe ~150 hours into this project, it wasn't worth it to me to have my name on it. 

3. Sure, I can understand that tension rises between supervisor and student during your PhD, especially when trying to finish, but if you want to get your data published you both will need to resolve your conflict in order for this to happen. 

4. You can publish all you want, even if you are not affiliated with your University anymore. However, your data you will not be able to publish without your supervisors permission. Technically, it is your supervisors work/property moreso than yours. To be added as a co-author on a paper that your supervisor is not on is OK, and it is up to the first author and/or the last author of the paper that you wish to be included on. If your supervisor has an issue with this and is not the primary or last author, he/she can't do much. Unless your supervisor makes it his life goal to remove you from a paper, you'll be OK. 

Overall, it sounds like restoring your relationship with your PhD supervisor will aid you in both of your goals (publishing your data and co-authoring on other project). You should also consider if these publications are worth the hassle. You are done your PhD, are you working (or working towards) a field that values publications? If so, I'd say go for it, if not, why bother with all the hassle?

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I think there are two separate things to address in your post.

First, what are your future plans? It sounds like you don't have any current plans to continue in academia, which means having more publications does not really help you at all. Later in your post, you say "temporarily out of academia", which indicates you might have plans to return? I think what you do next really depends on what you want your future plans to be.

Second, there are no universal "rules" on when you are allowed to provide data or intellectual contribution. This depends entirely on your specific situation and your relationship with the data and your advisor. Generally, you certainly have to include your advisor in the discussion in some way because it's very rare for a graduate student working in a lab or any research group to have sole ownership of the data. Maybe the data that you are being asked for by your friend is indeed entirely yours because you got that image without any support from the PhD program (i.e. on your own time, using your own personally owned equipment etc.) But this is not usually the case and I think you should talk to your advisor first.

In addition, you cannot unilaterally decide that the work from your dissertation will not be (re)submitted to another publication/journal. If you provide your friend with an image that you were planning to use in your original publication, then you might make it no longer possible to publish your original paper. You may choose to no longer be involved with getting your dissertation published, but your advisor/coauthors may still own the data and want to do their own publication with it, and you should not be competing against them or sabotaging their attempts by giving away images/data that isn't yours. 

That said, if you want to add intellectual contribution to your friend's paper, now that you are no longer affiliated with your grad school and not being paid by your advisor, you are free to do what you want with your time. So if you are being added as an author for intellectual contributions (honestly, this sounds super shady on your friend's part to include you in this manner but that's outside the topic of this post!) then I don't think you "need" to talk to your advisor. However, as I wrote above, you are basically competing against your former group now and while I can't think of any policies that might still be in place to prevent you from doing this, it really does not sound like a good idea. Especially if you want to go back into academia, you will need the support of your former collaborators and I think getting yourself on a rival paper that is scooping your old group will destroy your relationship with the old group and burn all your bridges. 

Summary of my opinion: If you don't want to go back into academia, then having more papers will not help you. Being part of this rival paper will needlessly hurt your former group and bring you no benefit. If you do want to go back into academia, then I don't think the benefits of being part of this rival paper will outweigh the harm from burning bridges with your former group.

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