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Promises made. Promises broken.

Google defines “promise” as telling someone that you will certainly do something. In my first year of PhD, someone also made a promise to me. But as it is said, promises are meant to be broken, the promise made to me was broken which broke my spirit too. I feel I have been wronged.

In first year of my PhD, I worked meticulously to complete a project that was given to me. I was promised I would be given authorship. That day, my red blood cells were swimming in a pool of oxytocin that my brain produced, signaling it had trusted the Professor. But as of today I am now only acknowledged on the last page of the research paper.

Initially, when I started working on the study, it wasn’t in greed of any authorship. I started working on it because I saw an opportunity to learn and gain experience. I continued working on the study under the Professor’s guidance even though my term in that lab had ended. I worked diligently. After running a few experiments and drawing conclusions, we decided to wrap up the study. I was asked to make pretty-looking figures for the paper and start thinking about what to write. I was the only student at the time doing research-related work and coursework together. Many peers also teased me by calling me an overachiever. Few of them took even a sumptuous party from me.

But only a day after the prof asked me to start writing the paper, I was told that another PhD candidate wanted to continue my study further. And that I may become the second author of the paper of which I was the sole author. At this stage, I’ll agree that I agreed to this condition to get my research article in a better journal. I said, ‘yes’.

Had I taken a scan of my Professor’s brain that day, it would have revealed the truth. It is known that different brain regions (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex and amygdala) light up when the person decides to break their promise. It would have revealed their deceitful actions even before they committed them; by removing my name altogether. These regions work together to suppress a desirable fair outcome. Most of these areas also form part of our reward circuit, which gets activated when an individual receives a reward. But is it ethical to receive a reward at someone else’s expense? Well, at the end of the day, a neuron is naïve and doesn’t care about moral correctness while firing.

Today, I don’t have the authorship. The acknowledgement paragraph says, “I helped with data collection for experiments X and Y,”. When in fact, I didn’t just help but indeed did the data collection myself. Not just that, I designed the experiment myself, and after collecting the data, I analyzed and interpreted it.

It’s been three years since that conversation happened, and It’s already been 1-2 years since I know I am not getting the authorship, but the pain doesn’t go away. How do I let go of this all? I am upset that I wasn’t given authorship and wasn’t even communicated about the same. I am also upset that I wasn’t even adequately acknowledged.

I often ask myself, when I hadn’t started this study in greed of getting any paper out, why does it hurt so much now… Had I scored better in my coursework, had I not continued the project after my term in that lab had ended? … What would have happened if I had said no when the Professor had asked me if I was okay with letting other PhD student work on the project further?... Would I have been happier if I had not shown that greed to publish in a better journal that day?

I got the experience, and I learnt a lot. Is that not enough? Maybe my brain understands that, but my heart still longs for the broken promise.

P.S. This is not written from a place of anger. I just wish to express myself. I also want to clarify that I have never confronted the Professor or the other PhD student about how I felt. And I am content with my choice of not talking to them. But I do feel wrong about how I was made feel by my peers, who kept teasing me when they learned I was getting a publication within months of joining a PhD program. Sometimes, a few people still walk up to me and ask about the publication. It is then that I am reminded about the whole fiasco.

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