A colleague has approached me with a tough situation. I'm unsure how to advise her.

She is a postdoc, and will soon take a month-long planned medical leave. Her adviser, a senior research scientist, has a history of reshuffling authorships of papers of his subordinates during leave, sometimes to make himself first author. She had previously hoped to have the paper in question in submission, but “serendipitously” some last minute data is unavailable. Adding to her suspicion, the adviser has asked her to deliver all drafts and all data analysis code before leaving.

Her question, which stumped me: how can she safeguard her present first-author position? I will meet with her at the end of the week (17th) and share this thread with her.

Some details:

  • This advisor has reshuffled authorship on several previous occasions of which I am aware. He has suffered no disciplinary action from the department in these situations, and has a reputation for working to damage the careers of those that work against him. The unit has a history of turning a blind eye in these situations.

  • There's very little accountability to be had within this unit. Pieces of proof like emails and widely witnessed public statements are unlikely to be actual safeguards.

  • The advisor really does control all the inputs and outputs. This is true even after her return: he may switch authorship at that point over any real or perceived failure.

  • My feeling is the successful path here will involve some clever way to move the power in the situation from his side to her side.

  • Certainly, she is looking for a exit from the lab. A solution will substantially increase the chances she can take this first authorship with her.

  • My sense from our discussion is that early drafts and data analysis already shared, but the most recent ones are not yet. That said, the entire situation seems to suggest a lack of trust on all sides.

  • The distribution of work put into the paper is roughly: 95 % by my colleague, 4 % by another co-author, and 1 % by the supervisor.

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    There is an obvious answer which works perfectly in my field, which is to just sit down and have a conversation about the author order ahead of time. However, this only works if you have decent people in the field. – knzhou Aug 12 at 9:09
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    On a practical level, it sounds like the advisor can't submit without the drafts / data analysis code. – Stuart Golodetz Aug 12 at 13:46
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    This might be one of those cases where someone needs to bite the bullet and get that person fired by going high up. – DonQuiKong Aug 12 at 17:17
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    @Tom What laws legislate author order? – Azor Ahai Aug 13 at 15:06
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    In some areas, a working paper (unsubmitted form) is allowed to circle around, just to collect ideas, and suggestions to improve on the main body of work. Why don't your friend do that? – An old man in the sea. Aug 13 at 15:28

I would send an email along the following lines to the supervisor and copied to the person doing the additional piece of work. While not complete protection, this approach provides evidence and also makes it clear that the supervisor should respond if he doesn't intend to wait.

The draft article attached to the email should have a version number and date.

Dear ...

As requested, I have attached the latest draft of our paper, TITLE. It is saved at LOCATION, together with the data and analysis code. Unfortunately, I was unable to submit the draft before taking leave as planned because the data concerning XYZ was not available.

I understand that OTHER-RESEARCHER is intending to complete his/her part of the analysis while I am on leave. I will verify that analysis and integrate it with the existing paper as my first task on my return in a month. I understand that OTHER-RESEARCHER is willing to draft that section of the paper, but as lead author, I want to ensure that it is consistent with the existing message and style of the paper. I would therefore prefer that the analysis is prepared as a separate document and I will integrate it myself.

Assuming that no additional questions are raised by this final analysis, I expect to be able to circulate the complete draft within a week of my return for submission shortly thereafter. As the analysis has already taken NN months, I don't expect this delay to create any difficulties, but please let me know if you are concerned about waiting until my return for the paper to be completed.

Depending on the reason for the medical leave, it may also be appropriate to add a final paragraph:

If there are any questions about this work, I am contactable during my leave at EMAIL

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    And if the person in question ignores the email and publishes? – DonQuiKong Aug 12 at 17:15
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    @DonQuiKong If a journal heard that a paper was submitted without approval from all authors, or that an author had been removed, they would not publish it at that point. – Jessica B Aug 12 at 17:37
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    @DonQuiKong The situation is nowhere near optimal, so I don't see that an optimal solution exists. Also, unlike many others here, I believe people should stand up for what's right, not just give in to the bad people to protect themselves. – Jessica B Aug 13 at 5:39
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    @DonQuiKong Sometimes the best option is the option that gets the closest, not the option that fully solves the problem. This solution is about presenting a position, establishing leadership, and providing documentation of that position without having to say to the boss 'I don't trust you'. – JenB Aug 13 at 7:27
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    Having evidence is not the end of the conflict, it's preparation for it. If no one else has bothered with this step, previously, it would be reasonable that not much was done. – The Nate Aug 14 at 5:47

It seems like the work dynamic in this place is rather perverse. Let's set that aside, though.

At all costs, this must be "resolved" prior to submission. You don't want the bun fight about authorship to leak onto the review process or, god forbid, post-acceptance or post-publication time frame.

She must protect herself. As an early career researcher, overt action may result in negative consequences in her field. If her senior is petty enough to do things like swap authorship, I shudder to think what the senior fellow can do in retaliation.

I'm not one to advocate a passive-aggressive approach to work, but if there are clear and systematic deficiencies in upholding the most basic of academic mores, what is a junior staff member left to do? There's a phrase in classics that applies here: "Festina lente" or "Make haste slowly".

In the end, she must realise that these options may not work at all. It might be that all her finessing is for naught because her senior has full control of the outputs. I would strongly suggest that she finish up and leave the lab and the institute as soon as she can.

Good luck to her.

Do let us know how this resolves.

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    Why is it so important to keep the fighting private? Surely if this group are so outrageous, others in the field will already be aware of it (or if not it's high time they were)? – Jessica B Aug 12 at 9:07
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    My suggestion would be to make the draft version publicly available now in some form. – Jessica B Aug 12 at 9:45
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    @JessicaB Self-publishing: that deserves its own answer. – Lawrence Aug 12 at 10:57
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    There really isn't an answer here at all. OP knows they don't want a fight. OP knows they must protect themselves. Leaving the institute does not solve the present problem. The question is, how to navigate the situation? This provides no answer whatsoever. – J... Aug 13 at 11:36
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    @Flyto Yeah, except that’s not how answers here work: answers answer the question. Fully, completely, concisely if possible, but above all else, clearly. How exactly does festina lente apply here? What passive-aggression is St. Inkburg suggesting here? It’s unclear to me, which is deeply problematic when those are the very questions set before us to answer. – KRyan Aug 13 at 15:27

My suggestion would be to make the paper available in some form now, to establish the existing authorship. How to do that without causing too much trouble (if that's possible) will depend on the details of the situation.

Some potential ideas:

  • Give a talk about the work, with a copy of the draft to hand
  • Send the paper to an interested colleague in the field (eg PhD supervisor, someone they're applying for a job with..)
  • Provide the draft copy via a personal website
  • Post the paper minus the final data on the arXiv (if in a suitable field), or on a personal website
  • Send the paper with some query to the university research office
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    This can cause huge problems. Publishing something online without the permission of the other authors isn't a good idea. Depending on the journal you want to publish in you might not be allowed to publish it beforehand and most import, why would this prevent changing the order of authors? It's quite common to add or change the order of authors during iterations of a draft or even during revision. – DSVA Aug 12 at 18:00
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    But the talk part where you give copies is kind of interesting, especially because gives you leverage to escalate if things go bad. You'd have witnesses inside the department and might work as a deterrent. – Fábio Dias Aug 12 at 20:04
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    @DSVA Posting on a website is not publishing. In my field it's standard. But I said the details depend. It doesn't necessarily prevent the author order being changed, but it gives a starting point for the argument, whereas the current situation doesn't seem to provide any evidence that the person was first author to start with. – Jessica B Aug 13 at 5:36
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    Of course it's publishing if you put it online for the public to see. Making it available for the public is the definition of publishing. And yes, in some field this is standard, in others journals won't accept the paper any more since it's public knowledge. But even if that's not the problem, making it public without the permission of the other authors can still cause huge problems. – DSVA Aug 13 at 7:18
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    In my opinion, journals that forbid publication as a preprint haven’t understood how scientific progress works and therefore I wouldn’t publish my work in such a journal... – Sebastian Bechtel Aug 13 at 10:39

How about not giving copies of all the drafts and data analyses...? Just "forget"?

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    while practical, that leaves you at fault. What if the guy uses that as an excuse for retaliation? tricky – Fábio Dias Aug 12 at 20:09
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    +1: "The only copy is on the computer in my flat, and unfortunately I'm now out of town for a month - I guess it'll have to wait till I get back now, sorry." Something like that should do the trick. – Stuart Golodetz Aug 12 at 22:28
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    @StuartGolodetz Good. Seriously, (supposed) ineffable putziness is a great defense for many things. :) – paul garrett Aug 12 at 22:41
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    This. I mean, how harmful can playing dumb be in these kind of situations? As long as she can pretend it was a honest mistake it would be unreasonable to expect long term consequences. In case you want something even more innocuous there must be a way to, for example, create a corrupt compressed file that shows all the desired files, but from which it's impossible to extract them. – user347489 Aug 13 at 10:41
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    Encrypt the files, put them on an usb stick, hand it over on the last day and "forget" to provide the encryption key. – Tschallacka Aug 13 at 11:04

The straightforward approach: say what you want.

One option would be for OP's colleague to explicitly bring up the issue of authorship order with her advisor: To tell him that she wants to make sure that it's agreed that she continues to be listed as the first author on the paper, and that since she's going to be on medical leave, she will not be around to discuss this issue if it comes up.

Now, the advisor might dodge, or may explain why he intends to not make her first author, but at least she'll know where she stands. She will just need to get past the timidity, or the fear of appearing greedy or presumptuous by bringing this up.

Notes:

  • I also like @JessicaB's answer in case the direct approach turns sour and OP's colleague feels she's being cheated - but then things will get even more confrontational.
  • I'd like to use this opportunity to advocate against naming authors by order of supposed contribution, and switching to alphabetic naming only. The assignment of credit for the work should not be part of the paper, and these ego battles or mis-/re-arrangements are completely spared in disciplines such as Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science. If someone wants to know who did what - they can ask. If and when your colleague becomes more senior, suggest to her to insist on an alphabetic naming policy.
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    Except it sounds like her advisor will agree to make her first author, and then put themselves first anyway. How does your answer prevent that? – Benubird Aug 13 at 9:22
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    @Benubird: It doesn't sound like that. OP did not indicate the advisor renegs on concrete commitments regarding author order, only that he takes the liberty of rearrangement - supposedly when it was only "understood" who should be first. – einpoklum Aug 13 at 9:29
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    This is also a good approach. The bull by the horns. However, the OP only gives a partial moral portrait of the adviser, with which it's pretty hard to know how effective this idea would be. – user347489 Aug 13 at 10:46
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    He has made this commitment, repeatedly. He has a history of breaking this commitment. – Industrademic Aug 13 at 15:30
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    @Industrademic: That's why graduate researchers need a strong union, to deter the institution for not taking serious action in cases of plagiarism. – einpoklum Aug 14 at 18:23

There’s not a whole lot you can do to protect against this happening. All you can do is document things in writing and prepare for war if it does happen.

JenB’s answer is a great suggestion for how to start on documenting things. I’d also suggest some language documenting previous discussions as to who is first author.

If it comes to war, you’ll need some allies and to apply for new jobs. Talk to your Ph.D. advisor, to any powerful allies you have, to the chair, and to the local Title IX and/or disability offices. See if anyone is willing to back you up. Try to nail down any documentation about the previous instances. Ultimately you probably have no real recourse, but you can at least see what allies you do have.

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    This is something along the line of what I told her. Regardless of her allies, who mainly will be able to get her out, the unit would need to be willing to back their junior people. They are not, and have demonstrated such in the past repeatedly. Really stunning how toothless university systems leave the uninitiated... – Industrademic Aug 13 at 0:52
  • "...you probably have no real recourse..." Not with the job but with the publication one should have a little recourse. Scientific manuscripts usually require the agreement of all authors for publication and author there doesn't mean the names that are printed somewhere but the person that have done the work. The laws would kind of protect such cases of utter arbitrariness although only so little protection is offered there. – Trilarion Aug 14 at 8:41

Well, there's always the Gordian knot solution: Don't take the medical leave and continue working, to the detriment of her health. If she's not on medical leave, the senior researcher can't use her lack of presence to screw her over. Whether that's something she's willing to consider depends on what exactly she's taking the medical leave for, and whether she's willing to take the damage to her health to avoid the damage to her career.

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    Heh. Yup. This is pretty non-negotiable medical leave. She will be taking it. – Industrademic Aug 13 at 0:53
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    I still like this comment. It was my first thought. Of course, it was my privilege to think that way as I have never had a completely nonnegotiable need to take leave. – Industrademic Aug 13 at 15:39
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    Discouraging people from taking leave they need (and are entitled to, without any resulting discrimination) is not really very helpful. I've known many people who would say it is far, far better to keep your health than to stay in academia at all. – Jessica B Aug 13 at 21:08
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    @Jessica B There’s also plenty of people who are willing to make that sort of trade off though, even if they usually work in the trades rather than academia. I figured it was a valid answer. – nick012000 Aug 14 at 7:16
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    @Industrademic Exactly why nobody further should be led to make that choice. Accepting the awful situation is not the way to make academia better. – Jessica B Aug 14 at 20:50

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