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I am a US postdoc at a lab in Japan doing niche research in computational biology. I recently found out my advisor will not allow me to be first author on papers. He says the datasets (which were my primary reason for joining this lab) were funded by the Japanese Government (although the data collection was international) and so a foreigner cannot be first author (though I would be doing most of the work).

There is a half-Japanese/half-American professor who teaches a short course for foreigners about how to survive/excel at the university. He told me this is common and that most foreigner postdocs leave the university with zero first-author publications - because first-author credits are typically reserved for Japanese researchers. He said I will need to creatively navigate these issues while not stepping on toes.

I want to figure out a way to obtain first-author publications during my postdoc without stepping on anyone's toes.

Question: Is this typical for foreigners in Japanese Academia? How can I navigate it? I know it is difficult to switch labs in this niche field, but if I do not take action, I will finish my postdoc with 0 first-author publications.

Possible solution: I have connections with a scientist at a government lab in the US. I have a negative impression of him from our past interactions, but he does have datasets in this niche research area. I could ask if he would be willing for me to remotely analyze one of his datasets. Does this seem like a reasonable solution? Any caveats I should be aware of?

  • I have no idea for Computational Bio but in some fields, the order of authorship isn't important but rather who the corresponding author is. Is it at least possible for you to still be listed as the corresponding author? – ssjjaca Jul 18 at 21:21
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    What is the government agency that funded the datasets? It wasn't JSPS? – Kimball Jul 22 at 4:34
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    FWIW, I know non-Japanese people in Japanese universities who regularly publish as first author when using datasets collected with Japanese government funding. This may be your advisor's policy, or potentially even a university policy, but it isn't a universal Japanese one. – Flyto Jul 22 at 16:14
  • @ssjjaca. I can definitely bring this up. But I feel first-authorships in computational biology have more weight in committees than corresponding author. – user3603093 Jul 23 at 23:46
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    @Kimball. It was not JSPS, although I am currently applying for JSPS funding mostly to increase my pay. The agency is a JAXA. I am hesitant to give too many more details publicly, but the data is quite expensive and rare. What surprised me though was that it does not just seem to be these expensive and rare datasets funded through the Japanese Government, it seems to be the case throughout the university (according to the Japanese/American professor). – user3603093 Jul 23 at 23:49
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While what you are describing is entirely inappropriate from a perspective of scientific ethics, I would not be surprised if:

  • there may be a language/culture miscommunication causing you to misinterpret the situation, or
  • there is indeed an informal policy of this sort amongst some laboratories (but individual labs all over the world sometimes have odious policies)

Anecdotally, while I have not worked in Japanese academia myself, I have Japanese colleagues who don't appear to have such a policy and have non-Japanese colleagues who did postdocs in Japan and published as a first author. Such a policy is at least thus not extremely common.

So, what should you do?

  • First, I would recommend starting from the position that this is a mis-communication and asking how your advisor recommends you getting first author publications during your postdoc, since this is important for your career.
  • Your advisor is unlikely to say no (for a number of reasons), but if they do not give you a clear path to getting first-author publications, then I would indeed suggest finding other people to work with, while doing what's necessary to maintain relations and face with your current laboratory.
  • Finally, note that while first author publications are wonderful, "co-first-author" and second author publications are also good, and if the common denominator amongst a number of papers is you, then people will likely recognize that fact.
  • Thanks @jakebeal. My advisor was quite clear that I could not be first author because it would "look bad" to have a foreigner as first author when these data were funded by the Japanese government. On his proposals for these projects, I am listed as contributing to 50% of the effort (which I am hesitant to agree to). The Japanese/American professor is a bridge between the cultures/language, and he was very clear that most foreign post-docs at the university leave with 0 first-author publications. I only met him briefly and plan to ask him for more advise before speaking again with my advisor. – user3603093 Jul 23 at 23:58
  • Thanks @jakebeal. I think it is a good idea for me to ask directly how to obtain a first-author publication. So I am at least being clear that is an item I am hoping to achieve during my work in the lab. I could also ask about co-first-author publication (since the written proposal seems to suggest I will be asked to do 50% of the effort). – user3603093 Jul 24 at 0:02
  • Thanks @jakebeal. I am hesitant to leave this postdoctoral position because I have invested substantial time applying to various funding sources and moving overseas. However, I am considering finding other people to work with, as you suggest (remotely). I am considering asking contacts in the US who do similar work if I can analyze one of their datasets remotely (as my solution above). I am hesitant to do so without seeing perspectives from others about whether that is appropriate. – user3603093 Jul 24 at 0:04
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As a person working at a Japanese university, I never encountered such cases. Having said that, I can imagine reasonable motivation behind your advisor's actions. It all boils down to the fact that the "first author" is considered the "primary author" by default, and being the "primary author" makes reporting a smoother process. Say, I obtained (as a "primary investigator") a certain dataset, and I expected to report results achieved with the dataset. So it would look better if I am also the main contributor of the corresponding research paper(s). Similarly, it is easier to obtain additional funding for a conference trip if I am the primary author of the paper to be presented. (There are also various internal evaluations where your authorship counts, so it's tempting to increase own score, even at the expense of others).

None of these considerations turn into ironclad rules, but I understand that it's much easier for an advisor to be "the one who contributes" and "the one who reports" at the same time (especially if you aren't planning to stay long there and you might not be a lab member at the time of reporting). However, as I said before, these are my informed guesses rather than hard facts.

What you can do... well, perhaps, negotiate. Maybe you can sacrifice first authorship of this particular paper, but you have to do it on condition that your next paper will go with you as the first author, and if is means switching the dataset or adjusting anything else your advisor considers necessary -- let them sort it out before you do any more work for them.

  • Thanks @rg_software. He could have other motivations, but his outward reason was that it would "look bad" to have a foreigner as first author when these data were funded by the Japanese government. Still, it seems to be university-wide. I like your suggestion to negotiate (and I will try). However, from the start, I expressed interest in a specific subtopic of his lab work, and since these data are all funded by the same agency, I worry he will probably not allow me to be first author on any of them due to his stated reasons. – user3603093 Jul 24 at 0:20
  • Thanks @rg_software. I am considering asking contacts in the US who do similar work from a corresponding US government agency) if I can analyze one of their datasets remotely (as my stated solution above). I would of course inform my current advisor as well (who seems open to collaboration). I am hesitant to do so without seeing perspectives from others about whether that is appropriate. What do you think of this approach? – user3603093 Jul 24 at 0:23
  • Well, I'd also try passing the ball to your advisor. You can state that you absolutely need a first authorship for your own career reasons, and it is his job to find out how to do it if he wants you to contribute. I understand you are in the same boat, but after all you are both motivated to get the job done, so you may as well ask him first how he can help you to make it happen. – rg_software Jul 24 at 14:35

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