Professional ethics: Publishing a student's project

Thomas A. Collet tacollet at
Sat Jun 24 22:38:17 EST 1995

In article <3sggpf$nfg at>, n8010095 at (Phillip
Bigelow) wrote:

> sam.scheiner at (Samuel M. Scheiner) writes:
> >Here is a question on the ethical treatment of a student. I have a MS
> >who completed a research project almost a year ago. In the last nine
months he 
> >has done almost nothing to complete analysis of the data or write up the 
> >results for his thesis despite repeated discussions with me and his
> >At this point I have serious doubts whether he will ever finish.
> >Ethical decisions:
> >1. How long should I wait before I simply take the data and publish it
> >with him as co-author of course? What sorts of ultimatums are reasonable?
> You should hold-off doing anything until the time-limit (if there is one) has
> passed.  If I were you, I would be up-front with the student regarding what
> your agenda is.  Tell him you fully intend to publish whether he finishes or
> not.  Don't do anything without giving him ample warning.
>   You have an additional problem if you act without his consent:  If you go
> ahead and publish the results, and *then* your student decides to return and
> finish his thesis, you have corrupted the student-teacher reltionship by
> "doing" his thesis for him.  An ethics review board at your school would
> not look favorably on you for allowing this to have happened (if this does
> occur, I hope you have tenure   :-)  

The student-teacher relationship requires responsibility on both sides. If
you don't uphold your part of the deal (as a student or as a teacher), you
lose your stake. Moreover, presumably, someone paid for this research.
Research that does not get published is largely wasted. How about the
rights of the guy/agency, who funded all this work? Just look at the last
few issues of SCIENCE to find out how strongly some of the payors feel
about getting value for their money!
I do agree though, that this student should have ample warning (documented
and in writing).

> >2. [Just to broaden the discussion] Does the extent of my imput matter? In 
> >this case I provided the initial idea, much of the detail on experimental 
> >design, and a fair amount of labor both directly and indirectly by hiring 
> >extra help. [And you ask, how much work did this guy actually do?] But, can 
> >we come up with general principles?
>   I don't think your input should have any bearing on this at all.  Your
> student is the one doing the project.  The results are his.  Although it isn't
> "copyrighted work", it still is his property.  If he burns the manuscript
> drafts and the floppies tomorrow, it is not much different than if he burned
> one of his text books.  The large amount of *your* input is inconsequential.
>   Another way to look at your dilemma is this way:  If this work was so
> important to you, you probably should have done the research yourself, and
> never given it to a student as a MS thesis project in the first place.

Where do you get the idea that any "one" collaborator owns a project?
Credit should be given according to the input provided by the individual
team worker!

Seems to me that the only way to rescue this situation is to give this
student the last chance to shape up and then go ahead and publish anyway
(this still means that credit should be given as appropriate in the author

Thomas A. Collet, tacollet at or Thomas_Collet at
phone:(708) 866-9191 near Chicago

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