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This question is perhaps a particular case of this one. I still feel it deserves to live standalone.

I am sure that a published paper with 4 authors--A, B, C, and X--was almost entirely produced by X. X designed the study, gathered the data, analyzed the data, and wrote the paper. A helped X a little bit (sort of supervised X). B and C are listed there because of typical dishonest authorship mafia. At that time, X was a student. X could do very little to oppose adding those authors in her/his very first paper.

Now, I am writing a paper that references this one. While A et al. paper is correctly displayed in the References, I was thinking to purposely cite the paper as X et al. (year) in the text.

That would be a subtle way to entail that I know what was going on there. I would cite the paper in the way that was supposed to be. Maybe B and C will also get it. That's a sort of nerdish academic subversive behavior, I guess.

Would that be meaningless? In particular, would that damage X citation counts? I do not think so, because the paper is correctly listed in the References. However, I am not sure because of this question.

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"Would that be meaningless?" Yes. Most people would never find out, those that would find out would think you simply messed up your citation, and those that would think you are being "subversive" would wonder whether that is actually the best way to voice your concerns. –  xLeitix May 18 at 17:16
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Thank you xLeitix. Another reason I enjoy posting here is that people never (or at least rarely) judge when replying or commenting. –  dgraziotin May 18 at 17:37
    
I am not sure if you are being sarcastic (Internet problem), but my comment was not supposed to be judgemental - just an honest answer to your question. –  xLeitix May 18 at 17:42
    
I was completely honest and I upvoted you :-) your comment was well appreciated –  dgraziotin May 18 at 19:03
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up vote 23 down vote accepted

References have one major purpose: to be able to trace the information provided in that source. This is why the first (named) author is always given in "et al." references. The problem you encounter is that references are also used to cast merit in the academic system but that is actually a secondary task. So if you decide to use another authors name, you make it more difficult for others to locate the paper n question. So I would strongly advise against the action your propose since it violates the purpose of the referencing system. So even though one can trace papers with for example, doi-numbers breaking the systematic representation of cited sources is not good.

There are other ways to state the source of the work in the text by stating that "the work by X (A et al. yyyy)..." or something similar. But, I would not recommend doing this for just reasons that are beyond anyone's means to control and the risk is that you will not be perceived positively or at least a bit odd. I am sure that the circumstances, if based on unethical behaviour or the like, will become common knowledge in the field.

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I actually did not think about making it "more difficult for others to locate the paper in question". That is also why I enjoy posting questions here! –  dgraziotin May 18 at 17:36
    
Yes, and the original authorship order problem you described is certainly not a good situation and dealing with it difficult. –  Peter Jansson May 18 at 17:38
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I occasionally encounter this in papers when X is the senior author, i.e. "results by the X lab (A et al.)" or "the X model (A et al.)". –  Bitwise May 18 at 19:29
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