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Advisor making me do extra work that will not benefit me


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I work in a lab where we run experiments with animals. My advisor is going to have one of his research assistants run an experiment, but before that happens, he needs to write the computer code that will control the experimental procedure. Here is the problem: I am the only one in the lab who knows the coding language, and he has asked me to write the code. I said yes but told him that I am extremely busy--I run experiments of my own, take classes, and teach classes. Would it be weird if I asked to be an author on the final paper? Otherwise, this extra work does not benefit me whatsoever, and I would feel like I'm being taken advantage of.

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Are you getting paid as a research assistant?

I know some psychology programs are a bit different than other bench sciences, but in general if you're in a PI's lab, you will need to do work that may not directly benefit you. Some of it is in exchange for you getting paid, some of it is part of what you do to pay your way (since you're getting access to facilities, resources, etc.). 

If you write code that makes an experiment possible, I'd certainly think you would deserve authorship on the paper. Generally, any substantive contribution to a research project will get you authorship (again, some of this is slightly field dependent). 

On a completely different note, I'd think you might want to re-visit your feelings of being "taken advantage of" just because you're doing something you aren't directly benefiting from. I do work for colleagues all the time that I won't end up seeing authorship from, but is part of, well, being collegial. Those people in turn help me with things that are in their wheelhouse down the road that I don't have the skills for- it's part of building up a professional network. 

Do you ever ask your advisor to do things that don't directly benefit them? If so, do they do those things? If they do, I think you might use that to inform your feelings of "being taken advantage of", as it's a similar (reversed) situation to what you're describing here. 

All of this goes out the window if you're being paid by the advisor, as that payment is the benefit for the work they are asking you to do.

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Just to add to what Eigen said, I think there is a difference between simply "being paid by the advisor" and "being paid by the advisor for this specific project". I think if your advisor is paying you as an RA for Project A, that doesn't give them free rein to assign you work on Project B instead.

I think for any work that takes a big chunk of your time, every student should be credited in one of four ways: authorship, money, course credit, or "quid pro quo". I couldn't think of a better term for the last one sorry, but I mean doing something nice for someone else in the interest of being collegial which will probably indirectly benefit you in some other way. 

I use a lot of vague/relative words because as Eigen said, everything is so field dependent. Money and course credit are generally straight-forward---it's either in the RA contract or not. To help solidify things on the other two things, I'll give you some examples of things I've done that did and did not qualify for authorship.

Things I did for others that resulted in me getting authorship:
- Collect data for a colleague while on "my" experiment (telescope) time and then analyzing it and providing the results as well as writeup description of what I did

- Take someone else's data and used my own code and analysis tool to compute some numbers and helped my colleague interpret them and incorporate into their paper's main argument

Things I did for others where I was okay with not getting authorship (i.e. the main value is "quid pro quo"):
- Collect data for a colleague while on "my" experiment (telescope) time and then just passed the raw data on. This is a gray area---the first author offered authorship but since I did not have anything to do with the experiment, and since I have no understanding of the science, and since my only contribution was to provide a few data files that took less than 5 minutes to collect, I declined authorship credit and took acknowledgement credit instead. However, I might have decided differently if I played a larger role in the scientific analysis of the paper. Although I don't "keep score", I collect data for others and others have sent me their data for "free" too.

- Consult with my colleagues on the analysis of their work. I do a lot of Bayesian statistics stuff and I often help other students and postdocs in the group develop statistical analysis tools that they use in their paper. I usually get acknowledgement credit for this. This is a "quid pro quo" because I think this is me "repaying" the group for all of the training and help I got when I was new. Also, the people I help are experts in other areas and I ask them to consult on what I'm doing all the time anyways. 

- Help teach another group member a computing language and/or help them write their own code to do something I already have code to do. Sometimes this results in acknowledgement credits. Again, I think this is a "quid pro quo" thing: senior group members help train junior group members. I feel like my department is really collegial---I would do this for any grad student in the department, not just my own research group. And also, I benefited from similar training/mentorship while I was new too!

- Read drafts of papers for other group members (or other students). Attend practice conference talks (or quals or candidacy or practice defenses etc) and provide feedback to them. Bounce ideas around in the office or coffee room, etc. All of this things are automatic collegial things, in my opinion. I automatically do them for others without thinking and I feel others won't hesitate to help me in the same way. It's part of being in a great collegial department :) 

One gray area, to me, is when people want me to send snippets of my code so that they can edit it and modify to their own uses. I usually don't like to do this, because often a polished piece of code took me weeks to write. I would rather train them to write their own code (see point above), or run the analysis myself and be part of the paper. However, sometimes it's just a very simple or tiny piece of code (i.e. it's a common algorithm that didn't require original thought on my part---I just copied it from a coding "cookbook"). In that case, I don't mind sending it their way at all!

Finally, a few things that I think are inappropriate for an advisor to ask you to do, unless they are paying you specifically to do these tasks:
- "busy work" like writing emails for them, doing random IT work for them because they don't know how (e.g. downloading a list of papers that don't benefit you in any way), schedule meetings for them etc.
- non-research related things such as house-sitting, babysitting (unless of course you are volunteering to do this or they pay you separate from your RAship to do this!)

Anyways, hope these thoughts help you determine what is appropriate for your situation. But these are often so field specific that you have to talk to someone you know well in your field/department to get a sense of what's okay. Maybe some older students in your department would be a good resource. I feel like a big part of the reason why students get taken advantage of or end up in unhealthy relationships is when they don't recognize unfair behaviour when it happens due to the different ways every lab is run. So, I think it's a good thing that you are asking these questions :)

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1 hour ago, TakeruK said:

Just to add to what Eigen said, I think there is a difference between simply "being paid by the advisor" and "being paid by the advisor for this specific project". I think if your advisor is paying you as an RA for Project A, that doesn't give them free rein to assign you work on Project B instead.

I'm sure this is very field specific, but in most of the fields I associate with, there's no such thing as being paid as an RA for "Project A". Maybe at some top-10 institutions in huge labs where there are multiple concurrent NSF/NIH grants that you could be paid from, but that's rare-ish. 

I'm more familiar with a setup where there's one major grant with many aims, and I don't think there would be any problem with assigning someone who's main work is a project under aim A to help with aim B to get a publication out so the grant can be renewed. 

Your field (general you) might have much more succinctly defined projects, but in mine you're hired by a group, and paid as an RA for that group. You have your own projects, but you're also expected to go where you're needed in terms of time to help the whole project proceed. 

As to authorship, you have a quite well defined list of possibilities. My field is much simpler:

Either you wrote a chunk of the paper, or you collected data that went in the paper and has not been published elsewhere. There are actually a lot of ethical considerations, but most journals in my field have started codifying what constitutes authorship, and it's usually "you collected data that went into the manuscript and wrote up that portion of the manuscript". 

A lot of the "grey area" work I do that doesn't necessarily give authorship tends to be computer based. I've written the base codes for all of my research groups data analysis algorithms. Some of it is published, some I will get authorship on when used, some I probably won't. I've also built and coded a number of the instruments in my group, some of which I use, and many that other people use and I don't directly get data or authorship out of. 

I also swap a lot of expertise outside of my research group. I have a really strong group of colleagues (some grad students, some faculty, some post-docs) that all have a different area of expertise, and we all help each other when our research overlaps. If the help develops into a significant contribution to a specific project, it gets authorship. Many other times it gets an acknowledgement with no authorship, or even just something I did for a friend that's helped me out many other times. 

To your last "no-no" items, I think it really depends on how you define "specifically paying you to do this". At least in my field, labs can easily be considered small businesses, with the PI as the CEO and all grad students as employees. My employment contract doesn't specify my roles, and honestly neither does the paperwork with the granting agency- other than the work I'm getting paid to do furthers the aim of that project. 

Accordingly, there's a good bit of latitude in what a grad student is being paid to do, imo, and generally things that keep the lab running (scheduling meetings, IT support) fall well under this. Our lab defines group jobs, and everyone gets a list of things they maintain- it's everything from safety to IT to ordering. 

Once things start getting personal (i.e., your last item) then I think a line has been crossed. 

I do worry about graduate students getting taken advantage of, but I also see a lot of examples (in the bench sciences) where grad students think too much of themselves and loose sight of the teamwork and collegiality angle. Everything comes down to "how does this benefit me", when a large part of academic science is in spreading knowledge and teaching others. 

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1 hour ago, Eigen said:

I'm more familiar with a setup where there's one major grant with many aims, and I don't think there would be any problem with assigning someone who's main work is a project under aim A to help with aim B to get a publication out so the grant can be renewed. 

Your field (general you) might have much more succinctly defined projects, but in mine you're hired by a group, and paid as an RA for that group. You have your own projects, but you're also expected to go where you're needed in terms of time to help the whole project proceed. 

[...]

I do worry about graduate students getting taken advantage of, but I also see a lot of examples (in the bench sciences) where grad students think too much of themselves and loose sight of the teamwork and collegiality angle. Everything comes down to "how does this benefit me", when a large part of academic science is in spreading knowledge and teaching others. 

Just to respond to a couple of points here. I was indeed thinking of one major grant with many aims, where there could be more than one project, so it makes sense to switch personnel between projects on the same grant. But I guess in my field, the grants are probably not as major---they often have enough to pay for one or two students, not an entire lab. So, a PI with many students will often have many major grants to pay for everyone (here, by "major" I mean enough to pay for an entire student or more). In my non-bench science field, research costs are pretty low---a few thousand for computers and then just paying salary mostly. 

I agree that a large part of academic science is in spreading knowledge and teaching others. I guess from my experience, I actually see more cases in my field where this phrase is used to take advantage of students rather than the other way around. I rarely hear students question "how does this benefit me", to their own detriment. But I agree that a balance is important---thinking of yourself all the time will hurt you in the long run, but always trusting that the faculty has your best interests in mind could end up hurting you too! I know you're not arguing for either extreme: I guess we're experiencing different sides of the balance.

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Exactly! Not quite devil's advocate, but different personal experiences that lead us to have slightly different leanings. 

I know you also have had a lot of experiences advocating for grad student rights, but I think you've had students that are a bit easier to argue for. I'm a bit more cynical, because I spent years pushing rights with the faculty and administration, only to be consistently undermined by grad students who weren't holding up "their end" of the deal. 

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Is there a reason he wouldn't give you authorship if you wrote the code? Generally I like to go by the rule that an author is someone who enables the paper to be published as its final state, which is broader than simply someone who contributes data. I really don't see a downside to writing the code for your PI, remember that one of the reasons that your PI took you in the first place was possibly your coding skill. Most professors look for multi-talented people for the express reason that they can have faster turn around time on things like this and have it done in house. In the end you want your PI on your side to build up good faith especially moving forward. If it benefits the lab then it benefits you, even indirectly. You could even code it during slow office hours, or take some time away from a problem set that you don't need to pass the course. 

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