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Can a PI decide to submit to a journal a previously agreed manuscript, uploaded to a pre-print server, and swap the first author with someone else after introducing some changes in the writing? Would the first author (student) have some way of defending himself against this?

EDIT: It is a field where author order matters.

  • Did you check any of the other questions with the tag author-order, or the related questions in the sidebar? – cheersmate Dec 5 '19 at 8:25
  • @cheersmate yes, I checked and couldn't find any answer to this question. My question refers to a pre-print paper where the order of authors was already agreed, and unilaterally changes to this order by the last author upon submission to a journal, without modification of the paper's scientific content, only some writing changes. – questing Dec 5 '19 at 8:56
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    The answer to such questions is always the same, if you wrote part of something, you own the copyright, so legally it can't be published anywhere, without your consent. So in theory you could contact the journal and tell them that you will not allow them to publish it. But if you do so, good luck in ever finding someone willing to work with you again... – mlk Dec 5 '19 at 9:09
  • Well, I know I have the nuclear option, I wanted to know if there is other option in this case, as the paper is already published as pre-print. My intention is not for the paper not to be published, but for the first author position to be respected as it is very important in this field and was already agreed (as the pre-print version shows). – questing Dec 5 '19 at 9:10
  • How big are the changes that have been made? Do they warrant a change of the authorship order? – cheersmate Dec 5 '19 at 10:26
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What is right and what is commonly done can be quite different. Both depend somewhat on the field and maybe other things. If a group of authors is large, then a seemingly small change might have a big impact on who is judged first.

You can, and probably should, talk to the PI and ask for the reasoning. You may not be happy with the reasons given, but if you are a student, you may need to accept the decision even if it bothers you. It is even possible, if not exactly right, that the PI is trying to give a boost to someone ready to finish.

If the PI is favoring someone now, maybe it will be yourself when you are close to finishing. Note that the last is pure speculation and may not apply at all, of course.

I'll give two bits of advice, though they apply more to the future than to this particular paper. First, try to work out authorship questions early rather than late. Students may not even have the power to do this in a large group, but those with relatively equal academic standing should always work this out at the start of a collaboration in fields in which it matters.

Second, and more important, the paper in question is not likely to be either the best or last publication under your name. Any authorship is a plus for a beginning academic. Before you escalate and get people upset, think about your long term goals and how best to reach them. Having a supportive PI and a circle of collaborators is a good thing. Avoid being academically abused, of course, and if it is a repeated thing, then you are probably in the wrong group.

But for a student, and maybe a post-doc, what you can do effectively in such situations while preserving and advancing your career is limited. You are (too) dependent on the good will of the PI.

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  • Hi, you make good points. Unfortunately it was already talked and there was no reasoning other than there is no time to explain the changes and the PI knows best. This paper is also supposed to be the big boost for the first author. Authorship was also worked out at a very early stage, and the first author spent months working alone in the paper, and only got feedback when it was close to be done. I consider your answer right, in the sense there is nothing that can be done in such a case. Thanks. – questing Dec 5 '19 at 22:30
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Yes.

Preprints are preprints. They're preliminary versions. It's not surprising if the preprint differs from the version that's submitted to a journal. Author orders can even switch during revisions, during publication, etc.

You also ask about the first author "defending" himself/herself against this, which implies you think the order switch is unethical. In that case, speak to the other authors first, argue why the first author deserves to be the first author, and if they can't be convinced (+ you're equally convinced of your position), that's when you escalate.

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  • Hmmm. Escalate is a dangerous word. It is a sword that cuts two ways. If they can't be convinced something something something. But don't take actions that would destroy your own career. Think long term about the trajectory of your work and the people you need to help you progress it. Short term thinking can be counterproductive. – Buffy Dec 5 '19 at 11:36

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