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I recently finished my PhD in Developmental Biology in the US, but I left a couple of experiments completed prior to finishing the paper. (This paper was developed during the course of my PhD and has had numerous changes).

I have since finished my PhD and my supervisor started to take my paper and made decisions on it. He never once asked me for my Drosophila collection, and we never ever discussed the paper and how we could finish it. I became depressed as he treated like I am stupid, even though the paper was almost done and it was worthy of a high-impact journal... He never seemed to trust in my capabilities.

I have since realised that he found a new grad student to finish those experiments (that I could perfectly have done faster and in a much shorter time)... and now (almost a year later) my paper was submitted. Unfortunately, he decided to make the other PhD student the second first co-author of my paper.

I would like to hear some opinions as I don't know what to do. Is this going to impact my future career? I also don't understand how someone that knows deep inside that I am the first author of a paper can do this?

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    Please add 1. Your current job. 2. Your career goals. 3. How many first author papers you have published. While it is always better to have more fist author papers, one paper usually is not enough to make a big difference. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 18 '19 at 3:35
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    I am starting my postdoc position. I just finished my PhD, have two other papers in developmental biology (one second author in a good journal), and this was my first first author paper. – Becky Aug 18 '19 at 3:41
  • Want to become a PI at some point, if I can, but not in the US, I am from Belgium. – Becky Aug 18 '19 at 3:42
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    I can tell you don't understand how life sciences work. The "multiplicity" of publications does not happen in the course of a PhD. Usually after 5 years, one high impact (IF >10) paper is enough. – Becky Aug 18 '19 at 4:55
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    Advisable not to name your department and university in full. It is poor form and possibly defamatory as people can potentially be identified from your post. – Poidah Aug 19 '19 at 8:51
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The title and body-text of your question do not match. The former describes the change of authorship as "last minute" whilst the latter says that the paper was developed from your drafts "almost a year later".

Also, could you clarify what you mean by "second first co-author"? Is that a euphemism for "second author"?

Anyhow, there is a big difference between:

  1. a complete paper having the authorship order changed unilaterally by the corresponding author at the time of submission (which is what "last minute" would imply); and
  2. a draft paper being developed and completed by a new co-author, who is then given precedence over the person who wrote the original draft (which is what the body of your question implies).

If §1 applies, then the person who acted unilaterally acted improperly (even if the authorship order does warrant change, the change should be done transparently).

If §2 applies, then, based on the information available, the situation amounts to a dispute rather than to misconduct. In some circumstances, it may be perfectly reasonable for a person who turned a draft into a complete paper worthy of publication to take precedence over the person who wrote the draft originally. Without knowing the details of the case, it is difficult to say who is in the right.

Your options:

  • A) complain to the editor/publisher (be prepared to provide detailed evidence to substantiate your argument, such as the drafts with their original timestamps) -- possible outcomes include nothing happening (if the editor/publisher disagrees with your claims), change of authorship order, addition or removal of co-authors, or retraction of the paper;
  • B) (may require you to have attempted §C already) complain to the university's research conduct office or equivalent (as with §A, be prepared to provide detailed evidence) -- possible outcomes as per §A, plus possibility of disciplinary action if the university considers serious misconduct to have taken place;
  • C) complain to the corresponding author (you may want suggest that it was oversight rather than out of malice... it is possible that, with the distance of time, your contribution was forgotten unintentionally) -- possible outcomes as per §A, although if any changes are made to the author list, the corresponding author will then have to convince the editor/publisher that the changes should be made (editors do not permit changes without justification, in order to prevent "gift authorship");
  • D) engage legal counsel and complain through the courts: IANAL, but a likely argument would be that your moral rights (specifically, the "right of paternity": that is, to be recognised as the creator of a work) were not recognised properly (if, moreover, you have not assigned copyright to the university, you may be able to sue for copyright infringement).
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    Second co-first author usually means an author list "Author A*, Author B*, Author C, etc." with a footnote stating something to the effect that the authors marked * contributed equally. – Anyon Aug 18 '19 at 15:59
  • If your post doc is at a different location, then all these options should be considered. Hopefully your PhD has been accepted and passed through all the university hoops and your previous supervisor can not postpone it as punishment. – Poidah Aug 19 '19 at 8:54
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Let's focus on the "Is this going to affect my future career?" question, and set aside any issues of whether having your authorship changed from first to co- is fair or not.

This probably is not going to affect your career significantly. In the fields in biology that I'm familiar with, the difference in prestige between a first authorship and a co-first authorship is not huge. That's not to say there's no difference; if everything else is exactly equal, a first authorship is preferable. But a search committee will almost certainly still consider a co-first-authorship to be "your work", which is what matters most to them.

(The slight loss in prestige between sole and co- first authorship may be partially balanced by the suggestion that you are a good team member and collaborator, too, so it's not all negative.)

What I've seen done, and what I've done myself, is for letters of recommendation to try to disambiguate co-first authorships. I'll write something like "In this work, two people worked extensively on the paper and justified co-authorship, but person X conceived and planned these parts that are relevant to your department" -- In other words, explain to the search committee why this co-authorship should count as a first authorship as far as they are concerned.

In the list of things search committees weigh, an enthusiastic reference letter from a former supervisor carries much, much more weight than does the tiny difference between sole and co- first authorship, so keeping your former supervisor happy with you is, pragmatically, a smart move.

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Assuming that you continue to publish in your field, I predict that this will have only minor and short-term effect. You already have moved on and secured a position from which you can advance.

Don't assume that your doctoral work will be the best work you will ever do. It is only the first. Your later work will determine your career far more than the specific authorship of this paper.

But you have a warning that you need to consider and negotiate authorship in future work, especially collaborative work. I also assume you will have more control in the future, though some PIs also play tricky games. Watch out for that and protect yourself as needed.

  • Specially, you should always negotiate, upfront, who "owns" a project. Don't assume that just because you worked on it, a PI is going to allow you to own it. In this case, the PI clearly believes that the project belongs to them and they just "allowed" you to work on it, and so what happens after you leave is up to them. Its not uncommon for a PI to convince a student to finish up someones old work by promising a good authorship position. Be aware of this going in. – Ian Sudbery Aug 19 '19 at 15:25

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