I am a graduate student working in life science.

I have started a computational project three years ago which is about to be done soon. There is a post doc who joined this project two years ago by my PI. No one talked about the authorship at that time, but I guess everyone assumed we would be co-first authors. This was my expectation, too.

He had another main project, which has not been going well. In the meantime, I've only focused on this computational project. He participated in important decision-making steps, but my contribution is much greater as I've run most of the data generation and analysis and written the manuscript. I believed my name is going to be the first.

When we talked about our authorship, he said that he understands that my contribution is greater, but he would want the first of the co-first authorship if possible. And I know, as a friend of his, this is not to make his contribution greater. He simply needs to give better impression with his publications for faculty positions because of this pervasive problem in the order of the names in the authorship.

However, as I have tried my best to make this publication as the first of my career, I am not so sure whether I should do this. At one time, I think if he really needed it, he could have contributed more and fairly claimed it. But at another, I start to think about how important this is going to be for his career as I still have time for more research but he doesn't.

I think I will have more power in the decision making. But whatever I choose, someone will get hurt. This makes me worried. I know some of you have already gone through similar situations. What would you suggest?

  • What is a co-first authorship, and how does the paper appear? With a semi-colon after the first co-authors, thereby relegating all later-named co-authors to a lower status? Because with a title like "Knot formations in tapeworms", John Doe, Richard Roe, Fannie Mae, Sallie Mae, and Luis Salazar, it is hard to tell that John and Richard are first co-authors while the Mae sisters are second co-authors and perhaps Luis Salazar is the advisor since he is listed last. – Dilip Sarwate Jun 4 '19 at 4:00
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    In my field, co-first authors are denoted with a special character like * : Z ZZZ*, B BBB*, A AAA, D DDD and E EEE. *These authors contributed equally to the work. However, the order of the co-fist authors may not be alphabetical, and only the first name is eventually what appears when the paper gets cited :(. – Cyan_April Jun 4 '19 at 4:07
  • I still have time for more research but he doesn't I'm not convinced that this one paper will make much difference. – user2768 Jun 4 '19 at 9:24
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    Depending on future research is very (very very) risky. Time is not equal to results. – Buffy Jun 4 '19 at 12:56

Reading what you have written and accepting it as an accurate statement, I have to suggest you would be a bit crazy to go along with this idea. If you did the work, the authorship should be fairly and accurately represented. It should be yourself. "Gifting" first authorship isn't a good thing. It gives others a false impression of the abilities and contributions of two people.

If this other person needs a "boost" for his career, he needs to do it himself, not have it laid on him.

Are you being manipulated because you are a nice person? Many students are just forced to give up first authorship by unscrupulous others, but this sounds like a different way to achieve the same result.

  • Whatever happens, we will have to be both first co-authors. It's just a matter of who being the real first to represent the work. I believe I should keep it. But who knows whether he would be thinking he is the most significant contributor. I will set up a meeting with my PI and him and claim it. Thanks :) – Cyan_April Jun 4 '19 at 17:05

I have had a similar experience and I'll try to shortly state the situation and how I ended up dealing with it. I was doing my PhD in a small research group (1-3 students, 1-2 PhDs, a postdoc and a professor) in the biotech field. An offshoot of my main project was started as I asked the post doc to help me set up some experiments (familiar to him but not me, hence I needed help). The type, conditions and preperation of samples were all done be me and then the experiments itself was performed be the post doc. I had a conversation prior to obtaining actual data with the post doc, where I stated "well, it's going to be interesting with the arrangement of authorships" and got the reply "oh of course this is all yours". However, as the results came in, we realized that this could amount to a rather big story and thereafter the story changed. Now the results were suddenly part of a much longer project which the post doc had spend 4-5 years working on. Unfortunately the post doc was shared between two professors and the senior of the two "voted" against me, in order to secure the last position for himself.

I have now spent a long time (and a lot of energy) being irritated and even at times angry about this (to me) unfair treatment. But I came to the conclusion that in order for me to "get what I deserved", I would have had to sacrifice the collaboration/friendship of the professor and post doc, the paper would most probably never see the light of day (can't publish data without the consent/agreement of the people involved) and it would have costed me even more loss of time and energy.

I have been fortunate enough to be involved in a range of other projects and hence I do not lack publications, which of course have influenced me decision.

And although I am firmly and outspokenly against ghost-authorships and a general disregard for the Vancouver guidelines (or whichever guidelines you follow), I also think that some battles are not mine to fight. Hence, in my case I stepped back and focused on my other projects.

My advice to you is, therefore, if (as I read it) it's only the post doc asking for the co-authorship and you do not "suffer" a loss in declining, I would definitely decline and with reference to ethics, moral and guidelines (not saying "it's because don't want to help you"). However, if you will "suffer" by declining (unfriending, termination of collaborations or perhaps future collaborations) it's a harder balance and although the "right" thing to do is decline, one must take everything into perspective.

Well not so short after all. I apologize and with this end my take on your situation.

  • I am sorry for what you have gone through. It is painful to see how those who come to solve scientific questions eventually have to be played by politics and get hurt :( – Cyan_April Jun 4 '19 at 17:13

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