I am a postdoc and have dedicated the past five years to working on a big project spanning several groups and countries. My and my supervisor’s contribution was to interpret their results in light of our knowledge in my field. For me, the project was an “aside” project, i.e. I have done volunteering work and the other authors explicitly said repeatedly that they were not the boss of this project. We submitted a manuscript to Nature, with me being one of the first authors. This article contained insightful information interesting for both our fields.

We got feedback from five different referees. Most of them saw our results as interesting but had many questions and one did not like it. The editor’s decision was that the manuscript could be considered again if the issues were addressed correctly. They did not request a change of format or length, respectively.

We have been rewriting the manuscript to make things clearer, and people from the other field have worked on their side for the past six months without giving me any updates. I discovered a couple of weeks ago that it is now a short letter and most of my contributions have been removed. I remain on the authors list.

When I asked why, no one answered. A rumor is that the part on my field was too complicated for them so they cut it because they believed that my contribution on their field is sufficient for submission. So in the end, the project started as multidisciplinary but it ended with a short letter addressed only to scientists of their field, not mine.

I disagree with this move since it was in my opinion illegal to take such an important decision without my consent and because the paper has lost a lot of interest for my publication list, now that a big part of my original work has been cut out. Since I have worked on this for five years, this decision jeopardizes my career. My own director does not care but I do. The rest of the authors do not really care about my opinion and are saying that even without my consent, the paper will be quickly published with my name removed. I don’t think that is right. They indeed asked me to write a new paper and publish it on my side, but I certainly won’t be able to publish it in the same journal (Nature) and the problem is that I finish my contract in a month. I guess it is somewhat possible to justify five years of work for a Nature paper, but for lower-ranked journal, it is more difficult.

If I decide to retract, can they publish the work as it is? Meaning that they still use my contribution to this work? If not, who and what department/lawyer can I turn to?

  • 5
    illegal most likely not. I know it's frustrating but I doubt that the law can help. You need to involve the people higher in the institution.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 14:23
  • as a side question: who signed the copyright transfer agreement and when? Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 2:14
  • I removed most comment because the requested information is now include in the question. If anything remains unclear, please ask again. I also edited the question to contain all this information and be a single story. @Romain: Please check whether everything is correct and edit it if needed. In particular, it is my understanding that the paper in question has not yet been re-submitted.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Dec 1, 2018 at 13:05
  • 2
    I've not seen it suggested in the current eight answers that one option would be to request your co-authors to include at least a short sentence explaining that their work depends on unpublished work by you. It seems to me that this can be a compromise that everyone might accept, since you get the explicit credit and they don't have to include the parts cut out. But I'm hesitant to post this as an answer because I don't think we know enough about your relationships with your co-authors to know whether this would work.
    – user21820
    Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 15:48
  • @Wrzlprmft Thanks for the editing. Indeed, the paper has not been re-submitted yet so we still don't know for now whether it is a Nature paper.
    – Romain
    Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 16:19

8 Answers 8


First, take the time to carefully consider your options.

From your description the problem looks like a disagreement between co-authors: the behaviour of the corresponding author is careless and disrespectful, but it doesn't look like a major breach of ethics. Turning this into a legal battle might cause a lot of trouble, especially in a large multidisciplinary project. This could damage your reputation.

This is why I would suggest a more subtle approach first:

  1. Ask your co-authors why the article has been shortened and why your parts have been removed.
  2. Try to negotiate with them: explain why you think some parts you wrote are really important and should be added back
  3. If this does not work or if too much of your work has to be removed, ask to use your contribution to write another paper for a different journal/conference. This time you would be the main author and present your work as you see fit. Your co-authors can hardly refuse this to you after cutting your part.
  • 36
    This. Taking a legal approach, or writing to the editor is going to alienate you from the people you will rely on in your career and might jeopardize the publication altogether (long or short). If I were the editor of the journal and got an email from a co-author, I would just withdraw the paper altogether and write back to the authors saying "Look guys, you've got issues. Figure it out -- that's not my job." You may end up with upset colleagues and no publication at all. Is that worth it to you? Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 15:54
  • 2
    Yes. Indeed this is what I've been trying but we're stuck at point 1. I don't get any explicit response. I think they believe they don't owe me any explanation because I was only a postdoc during this project.
    – Romain
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 16:26
  • 2
    @Romain Issues like that may be better handled in person than via email, can you just talk the person responsible for shortening the paper?
    – Konrad
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 16:33
  • 2
    @Romain I understand how you feel, this is unfair to you. If you think it's worth it and if your co-authors don't answer at all, then you can only contact the editor directly indeed. Just be aware of the risks for yourself, the editor could decide to cancel the paper completely to avoid any IP trouble.
    – Erwan
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 17:23
  • 4
    As for me it is a breach of ethics. An author is supposed to consent for the submitted form of the manuscript (some journals are explicit about this: icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/…). Submitting paper without consent of ALL authors is like forging their signature in a contract.
    – abukaj
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 17:50

I partially agree with Peter K.’s answer: contacting the editor is one way to proceed, although admittedly it’s a somewhat drastic step, and you might want to consider more gentle approaches first. A respectable journal will be very cautious about publishing work with controversial authorship, so at the very least this could buy you some time to try to resolve the situation. It’s possible that the journal will also actively help to establish the facts and mediate the dispute, although I’m less certain about that part.

With that being said, I think before you start throwing around accusations of “illegal”, or even just unethical or inappropriate, behavior, you need to think carefully about the logical basis for your argument. From your description of the situation I’m actually not sure you have a strong case, although your collaborators’ behavior may reasonably be seen as nasty or uncollegial. What I’m understanding, roughly, is that the project has two parts, one (let’s call it “part A”) that was the work of the collaborators, and another, let’s call it “part B”, which was your work. The plan was originally to publish both parts together, but now the collaborators decided that they only want to publish part A. Well, I’m afraid you can’t force someone to associate their name to a work they don’t want to be associated with, so although you are understandably upset about the removal of part B, personally I think the collaborators are within their rights to remove it and tell you you’ll have to publish it on your own if you want to see it published. The real question, and the one I’d advise you to focus your argument on, is your authorship on the new version of the paper that only contains part A. If they put you in an inferior place on the author list relative to where you feel you deserve to be, that’s something you should discuss with them.

Anyway, good luck.

Edit: on further rereading of your question I am slightly confused about the precise events here. Are you still a coauthor or the shorter paper? Are you still one of the first authors? Are you complaining about anything other than the removal of part B? Did the collaborators get your approval to submit the shorter paper with your name as a coauthor? If they didn’t, that would be a legitimate thing to complain about, but if the shorter paper was indeed accepted to Nature, I would tend to agree with Wolfgang Bangerth that they might have actually done you a big favor - the longer paper might well have ended up not being accepted, and now you get a publication in Nature and an opportunity to publish another, separate paper as sole author.

  • 1
    It may be just the way I have read it, but the part A that the other authors want to publish still relies on the work of the OP so whatever form is published the OP should be listed as an author...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 16:24
  • 1
    @SolarMike it’s not clear to me. But it does sound like OP is still on the author list.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 16:26
  • 2
    Sorry for being confusing. Yes, @Solar Mike got it right. I was involved in both A and B. Although A is useful for their field but not much in mine, it still relies on my work. And they have decided that B was not useful for them so the article could be simplified and turned into a letter. So for now I am indeed still on the co-authors list (although they told me my name could be easily removed if I disagree with their choice) but with the new version the spotlight is only on their field, not on mine anymore.
    – Romain
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 16:29
  • 10
    It sounds like your thinking on this may be influenced by an anchoring effect. You are comparing your current situation to a hypothetical one you seem fixated on in which the longer version of the paper is accepted to Nature, putting your own work in the spotlight. But that’s purely hypothetical. Surely you know how difficult it is to get a paper placed in Nature? It is not at all clear to me that this comparison between one real situation and another completely hypothetical (and for all we know, wildly implausible) one makes much sense.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 16:39
  • 4
    @Romain ok, thanks. I can’t think of much to add based on this information. It sounds like you are somewhat fortunate to have had some version of the paper ultimately accepted to Nature given the initial mixed opinion of the referees, so that’s definitely something to feel good about (you may be underestimating how good, in fact). At the same time, the other authors have been unpleasant and maybe unprofessional, and you have some legitimate reasons to feel mistreated. Ultimately I confess I don’t know how you should feel or what you should do. I certainly agree it’s a tricky question!
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 17:59

I am adding a short answer based on your updated question, now containing all key points.

I agree with you in that it must be infuriating to see 5-years-worth of your time flushed down by your colleagues behind your back. I have worked in such a group setting, in a highly competitive institution. I had colleagues in similar situations. Years of dedication and long meetings, lab work, learning, dedication, and the feeling that you don't relate with the final outcome.

If you want to fight this battle, I believe others have provided you all relevant advice here. I just want to tell you what I'd do.

Your feelings are justified, but: (i) this is how ambitious institutions work, most of the time, and you cannot change that; (ii) working in a production line is frustrating as compared to the artisan's life, however it is favored by modern society (read Karl Marx on this); (iii) as others say, you'll end up with a nice publication on your CV and apparently the freedom to reorganize your data for another subsequent publication; (iv) modern academia is mostly about prestigious authorships and not quite about morals/personal values/human development; (v) any serious players involved will crush anyone standing between them and some "Nature" paper.

You are worried about justifying your contract time based on your publication outcome. Well, if you fight this war you'll finish your contract with no paper, and the accusation of being a troublemaker. Also I believe you're exaggerating this issue: likely you'll have enough justification as long as you don't mess things up (which you're considering doing right now). I therefore suggest you accept their conditions, finish your contract, take some time off, and then come back to your own work and objectives.

Drink this poison, digest it later. Good luck.

  • 1
    Thanks for your feedback. It actually helps having others understanding this feeling of despair I'm having at the moment. What you say makes sense. I'll consider it.
    – Romain
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 18:29
  • 2
    I've read your comments on the top answer (which is very good indeed). You're right: they're avoiding you because you're "just some postdoc". I am afraid editors and staff will think the same if you escalate this. For instance, a PhD student has international associations and regiment rules protecting them. Ever looked for international postdoc associations? This is a lonely ride, mate.
    – Scientist
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 18:34
  • 1
    Very lonely indeed. And yes I've tried a bit to look for associations but they're almost inexistant where I am (I work in a country, the project is managed in another and some of the big bosses are in a third one...). I'll see what I can do. Thanks again !
    – Romain
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 18:37
  • 1
    "5-years-worth of your time flushed down by your colleagues behind your back". This is not the case. @Romain can still publish that material independently, perhaps as first author, and has a Nature co-authorship as well. The OP needs to step back and see the positives here, and that this situation (at least as described) is not terrible, and in fact seems relatively routine. Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 1:50
  • 3
    @MichaelMacAskill This is ultimately about empathy. We all know the sun is still shining outside, the OP probably has a healthy body and a long life ahead, and all the sweet PC rhetoric. Still he feels bypassed by closest colleagues in spite of 5 years of dedication to a project, and that hurts. Sure he (probably) can do whatever he wants later with his part of this project after he submits to a coup which also does't feel nice. It'll likely be a bit off sense & context without all the rest as planned, but hey, just look at that nice flower. Swell.
    – Scientist
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 11:25

During my PhD I was also part as a computational person in a developmental biology project that made it into Nature. In contrast to your case we always discussed and agreed on how to proceed. Since the experimental results were spectacular, my contribution was kept at a bare minimum and buried in the SI not to upset any referees. Actually, the whole presentation was geared towards that: not upsetting any referees. Even after acceptance the text had to be reduced by a substantial amount. In my opinion the final paper does not really do justice to the whole project, so I can vividly imagine how you must feel and what is going on.

However, I don't think it is worth risking a CNS paper (particularly as first author) over presentation (if e.g. your statistical analysis would be interpreted in a misleading way things would be different). Furthermore, I don't think it is worth worsening the relationship with your colleagues. Publishing in Nature is a dirty business, but it certainly helps your career and it might help you publishing your work in more detail elsewhere. After all having a follow-up paper is almost as important as having the CNS if you are looking for a job. And not having letters of recommendation from involved big wigs would be a huge red flag.

I would strongly advice you to talk to a senior person you trust and who knows as much of the story as possible. I have never heard of legal steps helping anyone in academia. If you think it helps, I am happy to share my experience over Skype or something.

  • A wise path. Did you follow up on your analysis anywhere else later? It is nice that you've been a similar situation the OP can relate to.
    – Scientist
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 11:33
  • 4
    My work resulted in two manuscripts, one about the construction and one about the analysis of the model. These manuscripts went through two or three rounds of revisions; barely any technical point was raised, but they admittedly required rewriting. However, after I left that lab for a postdoc they spent by now five years on various desks and chances that they ever get published are rapidly diminishing with me having taken a industry position this month ... Thanks for asking ;-)
    – germannp
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 11:48
  • Thanks for your feedback, very useful. I'd be ok if they at least would agree on putting some of my work specific to my field in the SI...let see if they can at least accept to put his back...because I end my contract in one month, a quite small periods to build an entire new paper.
    – Romain
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 15:46
  • Again, you need to talk to somebody who is good at this interdisciplinary game, because what a good move is for you depends on many circumstances: A (first author) CNS can open doors to interviews, but then you will need a strong proposal. A proposal might profit more from these "preliminary results" than from some pieces somewhere in the SI. If you don't have a strong proposal yet and plan to do another postdoc, then you can write it up on the side and it would be easier to publish if it is newer, than if pieces have been published before!
    – germannp
    Commented Dec 1, 2018 at 8:04

It is my understanding that articles in Nature have an almost "pop science" appeal, even though they have a very high impact factor.

Prudence thus dictates removing highly technical portions of the manuscript, and publishing them elsewhere. I know that after I read a paper in Nature, I know that I need to find the follow-up details either in the supplemental material, or in another journal.

  • I was ok with putting most of my work in the SI, but they decided otherwise without consulting me. Too complicated for their field apparently, which means that they don't want to consider this work as multidisciplinary with information insightful for both fields....
    – Romain
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 9:10
  • 1
    but yeah as it is since they don't want to hear, I have no other choice to publish this material elsewhere, thus making the nature paper not interesting for scientists of my field (and therefore not acknowledging for my community the huge amount of effort I have put on this paper). My feeling is that when you look for a position (or job), a Nature paper on your CV won't be perceived the same way whether it is published in your field or in someone else's field. If at least they had done their move kindly and with arguments...
    – Romain
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 9:10
  • 3
    @Romain Most people know that Nature articles are not thorough nor technical, so I very much disagree with you. With the follow-up paper it will be obvious that the Nature paper was the fruit of your labor. Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 11:10
  • 1
    @Romain Nature is aimed at people wishing to learn what is going on outside of their field, they will then look at cited papers and papers that site to find more details if needed.
    – Ian
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 11:28
  • Why are you suggesting SI rather than a follow up article in another journal? I agree with everything else in this answer.
    – Dawn
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 14:20

I worked on a project much less impactful than this, but where a similar situation took place. After working on the project for a year, we were ready to submit the whole group paper. Then the group leader contacted my supervisor and wanted to cut out the part that included our work because of space constraints. Ultimately we substantially reduced the portion that described our part of the work and the group paper was accepted in a relatively high impact journal. So I took the rest of the material I had worked on with my supervisor and put it into another paper, for which we have just gotten back a revise and resubmit.

I recommend the same path to you. Take your material and make a standalone journal paper. All of a sudden, instead of one publication for your years of work, you have two. Perhaps your contribution can go into a journal important for your specific field. While you may be correct that the Nature publication may not seem quite as cool since your field's contribution is minimized, transdisciplinary research is important, and a Nature article is a big achievement. At my institution, which is a major research institution, such publications get highlighted in the internal news and bring other kudos as well to the authors.

The politics in a big group effort can be intense, and you are too junior to burn all your bridges on this one. The time for making the point you wanted to make was sooner, and the heavies in the group didn't agree with you. As your career continues this type of politics will continue to exist. Unless there is truly an ethical concern, it is probably not worthwhile to fight the tide on these. Also, keep in mind that we can all be a little blinded to the big picture. Think of all the musicians who have left groups to pursue their solo careers and then disappeared from view. Perhaps the article you have cowritten has been pared down to be a true classic for the related field.

  • Thank you for your feedback. I guess the problem in my case is that I've dedicated 5 years of work during a second postdoc, and at this stage, this publication is crucial for my CV i.e. despite the fact that I hate this way of thinking, a 5 years work for a low impact journal will be more difficult to "sell", hence lowering down my chance to continue in academic research...moreover, in certain research institute I'm trying to apply to, I am now also getting too old to get yet another postdoc... It's the whole package let say that puts me a bit into trouble.
    – Romain
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 12:37
  • Perhaps you can send your other work to a high impact journal for your field. Good luck with the situation. I think the Nature article will aid your case.
    – Liz
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 19:35

In general, publicaltion requires permission or a license, but the license may be implied and may not always be revocable.

You marked this as a legal issue. As always, my only advice is that you speak with a competent lawyer in your jurisdiction if you have any thoughts on taking legal action. The legal issue will be copyright, though false light claims or right of publicity claims could also come into play depending on the full circumstances.

Generally, in the USA, an author including a joint author, gains copyright over their work and may use that copyright to block publication of the work without their permission even if the co-authors wish to publish. (Exceptions such as fair use, legal privilege, and de minimis use exist, but these are far beyond the scope of the question)

With that said, remember that permission once given cannot always be immediately withdrawn in the context of copyright. If, hypothetically, a joint author were to give permission, even implicitly, to publish at the outset of a project they may not be able to withdraw that at the end even if they are dissatisfied with the work in its finished form. I refuse to give legal advice on this forum so I will not ask about your specific situation, but as a general rule most academic collaborations I have dealt with have involved giving that permission towards the beginning. Large scale ventures involving grants and financing often have this explicitly in a contract or collaboration agreement. Smaller scale lower-cost ventures often have more informal arrangements but still involve conduct that would grant an implied license to publish that may be hard to withdraw.

Note that this particular question may truly have different answers in different jurisdictions since Moral Rights (droits moraux) vary significantly between countries.

A word on ethics

The ethics of the situation are another matter. While reasonable people may disagree, I personally feel it would be unethical or at least unseemly for your co-authors to publish this with your name and your work before they reach some sort of compromise you feel to be acceptable, which in this case may be splitting the matter into two papers which are submitted to journals in different fields.

  • 2
    Thank you for your feedback. Your statement on permission is very interesting. I feel however that I only gave my permission once for the first submission. I would find it very puzzling that this give them the authorization to make major changes without my consent. As for your word on ethics, I completely agree. And I think this is why I have so much trouble letting things go. They did not behave correctly.
    – Romain
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 18:31

Chances are that your university or institute has a policy to follow the Vancouver Protocol, or similar. This would give you good argument to confront your director, and to escalate to a higher hierarchy in your institute if he is not willing to discuss the matter. Like this, you take justified action without escalating too much. It is totally possible that the whole thing is merely a misunderstanding.

There is no rule how much contribution is required to be listed as an author. So, while you feel that "the key findings are also the fruit of [your] work", the other authors may feel that your contribution was not enough to be listed as a co-author. In that case, they should list you in the acknowledgements, at the very least.

Edit: I am referring to the ICMJE Recommendation "Defining the Role of Authors and Contributors", particularly the first criterion

Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work

and the clarification

All individuals who meet the first criterion should have the opportunity to participate in the review, drafting, and final approval of the manuscript.

  • What is the "Vancouver Protocol"? There's at least two works dubbed with that name, one by the WHO about age-friendly cities, the other the "Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly work in Medical Journals" published by the ICMJE apparently a.k.a. "the uniform requirements". (I highly suspect you mean the latter, or maybe another one my google-fu didn't manage to find.)
    – das-g
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 1:00
  • As the ICMJE recommendations (if those are what you're referring to) cover various topics, maybe you can quote or paraphrase the relevant section in your answer?
    – das-g
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 1:02
  • Over 50people we were only three really working on the interpretation of the results (because we were the only ones in our field). The others have produced results in their field so they earn a place on the paper for sure, but we have given the interpretation.
    – Romain
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 9:13
  • @Romain You mean to say in the end there's 50 co-authors to a short letter where you're neither correspondent nor first author? If that's really the case I doubly recommend you just laugh this off and move on. Not only you but also science deserves better than this!
    – Scientist
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 11:30
  • 1
    @Scientist If I accept their conditions I would remain second first author. But as I see it, I would be second first author of a paper that scientists in my own field would barely consider if the letter stays as it is. I acknowledge though that just the fact to have published in Nature, even if not in my field, is still a plus.
    – Romain
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 15:58

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