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I am a PhD student in chemistry and my funding is specific for a certain project. This funding also funds another PhD student, a biochemist, with a different advisor (both our advisors are very well-respected). We're both in the 3rd year of our PhDs.

The project is now in its sixth year. The distribution of work is as follows:

  • Some post-docs had done the first 4 years of this work
  • The other student provides the animal samples and some biochemical test
  • I do the "novel test". This test is labour-intensive and time consuming. I very often work on holidays, while the other student doesn't even answer mail after hours, despite having a technician to help her.

The problem is the papers. We are now going to start our third sub-project on this work:

  • Paper #1 [last year] was primarily the post-docs work, with authoring PostDoc*, OtherStudent* (where * denotes equal contribution)
  • Paper #2 [last year] was mostly my work, with authoring me*, OtherStudent*. I was extremely heart-broken and wanted to quit, but my advisor assured me that this would not happen again
  • Paper #3 [this year] is the problem. The other student sent a new batch of samples in for a new paper. My advisor said that it is very likely that the other group will ask a paper co-first authored as: OtherStudent*, Me*, since the other student had not been in the first position of the co-first-authorship yet.

I believe it is unfair that I have fewer papers than this other student despite doing much more work. Indeed, this other student has time to work on other things and get still more papers published, where I am working flat-out on this effort.

My advisor and I argued and I told him that I want to switch to a different project, but he said I can't because my funding is specific to this project. I'm thinking to quit and apply for a new PhD somewhere else but I have spent 2 years and 2 months in my PhD and I believe I will also have problems in the new place (hopefully not as bad).

Am I right to be angry? How should I approach this situation? How do people in academia actually look at co-first authorship? Is the order important?

  • You seem to be objecting to a practice that appears to be very common in your lab just because it now affects you. If the practice is accepted in general, you should accept it in the specific case. – Buffy Dec 20 '18 at 20:59
  • @Buffy This practice is not common at all. The project is an interdisciplinary project so both parties should have equal input (not the case) and equal output. This is the first interdisciplinary project that has been officially done in our group. – java Dec 20 '18 at 21:03
  • Can you explain what a shared first authorship means? – FuzzyLeapfrog Dec 20 '18 at 21:10
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    Shared first authorship means you contributed equally and the order does not matter. If it does matter, it is not shared first authorship. Maybe you should clarify this first. Regardig the working ethics of A: Maybe A has children or sick relatives to look for? Or A is just more effective? Or A does some batch processing? Just judging someones performance from the working hours is not appropriate. – OBu Dec 20 '18 at 21:28
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    I don't think an interdisciplinary project necessarily means that both parties must have equal input and equal output. – mkennedy Dec 20 '18 at 21:55
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Maybe a workaround would be to explicitly assign credit in the paper. This seems to be used in some disciplines and I think it makes a lot of sense, especially in an interdisciplinary project where customs about authors order might differ.

It simply consists in a footnote at the beginning of the paper or a section at the end where all the authors are listed and their contribution is summarized, e.g.:

  • A conducted experiment X
  • B collected Z for experiments X and Y, prepared Z and conducted experiment Y
  • C proposed the approach and designed experiments X and Z
  • D proofread the paper ...

In my domain I'm not very familiar with this usage, but I've seen it in a couple of papers (in medicine as far as I remember).

This could be a way for you to avoid a serious conflict in the project, while making clear to any reader which author did what.

  • In chemistry there are some journals which reqire you to do this always, but most journals don't do this and I think it would be considered quite strange in the ebst case if you do this. Also, readers don't care. The important information usually is what PIs are involved, not what student did what. – DSVA Dec 21 '18 at 4:12
  • This "Acknowledgement" part you described is actually very useful, one may, for instance, have a question at a certain part of the article and immediately know that to whom s/he directs the question. But no matter how much explanation the article has in terms of the contribution, in many disciplines, people only saw the order of the authors in the ent-text citation. In short, this will not solve the conflict. – user91300 Dec 21 '18 at 6:52
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As I see from the many questions regarding first-authorship, and also from what I have been through, this is one of the trickiest parts of the academia.

(1) Your advisor seems to make a promise which can't be kept.

(2) You are making a significant collaboration with another group but you are very distant to each other, so the relationship is adversarial. You should change that.

(3) If you care about the order of authorship, you already became first, so no need to worry much. If you don't care that much, then Erwan's answer will mostly subside your angry feeling about your effort "to be overlooked".

(4) Please, don't make such dialogs with your advisors much. Try to be remembered about your productivity, and find more robust and faster schemes for securing your right, and look at (2) for this.

Overall, I suggest you continue your Ph.D., even though seems unsuccessful, your advisor considers your feelings. I have once in a discussion of authorship in a paper I have completely done the work and rather than feeling bad or something they simply removed my authorship. Additionally, more than 2 years is a significant amount of work, if you add more over it, you will get more benefit from your experience, just be patient.

  • This is very spot on. My advisor can't do much because he's not the only prof here but, on the other hand, he is very politically correct as trying to keep good relationship with the other prof. We've tried to establish better communication but their response are very slow, seems that they don't prioritise our collaboration, which is true as they publish another paper outside our collaboration. – java Dec 21 '18 at 13:28

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