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Dear Academia Community,

I am a young PhD candidate biostatistician and the lead data analyzer for a particular medical group's project. For context, the project is led by two medical students, who are under the guidance of MD physician professors. The two students came to me directly to statistically analyze all of their data. Happy to help, I eagerly dove straight in and churned out all of the data analysis, key figures, and graphs for these students. Normally, this project would take at least a month of analyses and work, but I was excited to help them finish in only 2 weeks because of their time request. Throughout their project, I helped consult with them on data interpretation as well.

After giving all my data analysis and interpretation, the two medical students never consulted for my help again and felt no need for me to contribute to the writing of the paper, even though I explicitly said that I want to help write the statistics portion of their paper. There was a period of silence after the last email, in which the two students said they were busy with their clinical work, and said they will reach back to me soon. As the naive trustworthy lad I am, I waited for them patiently. Later down the beeline, they get back to me to tell me their research paper was published. I was very shocked by this sudden announcement. They never even told me about this. Going into the paper, I find that 100% of their data graphs and figures were made by me. I am simply acknowledged in the Acknowledgments section, and I am very disappointed that I was not even added as an Author. I understand that 1st and 2nd author would be unreasonable, but still feel that my contributions should at least be rewarded with some authorship. I feel very misled by these two medical students, as they didn't even communicate with me that they were already writing the research paper. I am feeling a mix of emotions right now - mostly, frustration and sadness that all this work went into nothing. I also feel disrespected as a statistician - statistics consultation and data analysis are not easy - these students and many whom I've worked with believe that these data/figures/charts can be churned out quickly, with just a plug and chug after writing some 'code' or analyzing data. Little do they know, there is a lot of work going behind the scenes with creating the code, data management and cleaning, and analytics.

I would like to ask for your guys' advice. I know that I was not able to contribute to the writing of the paper because of the nature of the situation, but I still feel that my many data analysis contributions (and ALL OF THEIR GRAPHS/FIGURES) should at least be acknowledged with authorship, rather than an acknowledgment. How should I approach this situation? Also, in the future, how should I go about asking that I be included for "authorship" before accepting a project? I've become very jaded from this experience. I thank you for your time everyone.

New Update: Thank you everyone, for your answers, advice, and feedback. I decided to contact my supervisor and the med students' physician supervisor for a group meeting. We're still in the midst of the talks of possibly retracting the paper to include my name and resubmit. It also turns out that the physician supervisor did not know the extent of my work when the med students submitted the paper. Only that they "acknolwedged SW's contributions of statistical analysis." Apparently, the students had only told him that someone was helping the statistics and that was all; perhaps, the supervising professor was just very busy and did not think of this very much (of the absence of my authorship) before submission. During prior interactions with the 2 students, I also realize how stupid of me to just take the 2 students' verbal word that the physician knew about my contributions - they also never copied in the supervisor's name during our email exchanges. Nevertheless, I would like to remain positive that they were not doing this out of any malice, but rather the students do not know very much of the etiquette and norms of academic research. This was also their first research project, and the group has apologized to me.

Anyhow, the possibility of my authorship is still up in the air in terms of talking to the journal, etc. But I have certainly learned several lessons, including discussing authorship before I contribute anything. I would like to thank everyone again for their thoughts, advice, and words of comfort as well.

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    Yes, you should discuss authorship before you contribute. Did you talk to the students' supervisor about this? – Anonymous Physicist Jun 8 at 5:21
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    Your frustration is fully understandable, and this kind of treatment of theoretical collaborators are not necessarily rare. What kind of communication/arrangement you have with this group? What does being a lead data analyzer mean? What kind of agreement you have about the collaborations with the project leader or with the supervisor of these students? – Greg Jun 8 at 6:25
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    Lesson: agree on authorship status ahead of time if the work you do is beyond "a simple favour". 2 weeks is more than "a simple favour". – Captain Emacs Jun 8 at 17:18
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    Note that from a legal standpoint, it sounds like you have a copyright claim to the material which was directly used in the paper, or where the paper made use of derivative works of what the you created. So, you are an author of the paper, not just from a academic point of view, but from a legal point of view. Unless you explicitly gave the other students the right to publish your work, or derivatives of that work, they did not have the right to do so. – Makyen Jun 8 at 18:03
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    You may be interested in When does a statistical consultant become a co-author or collaborator? Or your collaborators may (should?) be. – Stephan Kolassa Jun 9 at 6:32
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I'm sorry this happened to you. It is, unfortunately, all too common for those of us that have vital skills that are asked to contribute to research initated by others.

What can be done at this stage? There are only realistically three options:

  1. The paper is retracted. Its possible it could be submitted for publication again with you as an author, but this would be a long an uncertain processes.
  2. A correction is issued. This would be associated with the paper, but the authorship line in many databases would not change. See this case here: https://publicationethics.org/case/late-introduction-omitted-author-after-online-publishing
  3. You can accept the situation as it is, perhaps with an appology, learn from the situation, and try to prevent it happening again.

I would start by contacting the corresponsding author of the paper, whether that is one of the students, or their supervisor. Explain that you did all the analysis, every graph in the paper is one you created. More than that, you should explain what your intellectual contribution was. State what your desired outcome is.

If writing to the corresponding author fails you could try their superior, be that the supervisor, or the chair of the department.

It is possible that you could make a formal complaint of research misconduct agains the students if you wished. You would probably start by contacting the journal editor, but they would likely reffer it to the institution for a misconduct investigation. I would think carefully before doing this, and certainly not do it until all other avenues have been explored.

In future, the lesson to learn is that however unpleasent it feels at the time, you must make sure you agree authorship before you embark on any analysis for someone else. If someone is reluctant, it probably means they don't understand your skills, and thus these are people you don't want to work with.

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On the basis of what you have described, you should have been included as an author on the paper. Regardless of the amount of time you spent on the project, you produced some of the figures that directly appeared in the paper. Leaving you off the author list is particularly egregious as you are yourself a student dependent on fair acknowledgement of your work, not a company or core facility providing a service.

However, sometimes junior researchers (in this case the medical students) are ignorant or careless when it comes to issues of authorship, rather than deliberately malicious. Therefore I would recommend against directly contacting the journal or trying to have the paper retracted (these are nuclear options).

If I was in your situation, I would:

  • Discuss the the issue with your supervisor, who may be able to give a more accurate appraisal of your level of contribution etc., or even to resolve the issue informally.
  • Contact the corresponding author on the paper (either directly or via your supervisor) describing your contribution to the paper, and why you believe you should have been included on the author list. Include a list or annotated manuscript showing all your figures and analyses that appear in the paper.
  • Say that you realise this was probably an oversight, but that you would like them to issue a correction adding you to the author list. Such corrections are not uncommon, and would not in any way damage the paper.

In future, it is of course ideal to discuss authorship in advance of doing work - but in reality this is not always possible. Projects change, and your contribution may end up being more or less than what you originally planned.

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    I'd strongly second this regarding a likely lack of malice; in my experience (part of my job is sometimes to consult as a statistician for projects led by physicians, exactly like OP's situation though I am not a student), a lot of people (even senior) doing research in the medical field don't have a whole lot of scientific training or experience, including around norms for authorship and such. Their expertise is in the subject, not the process. Definitely doesn't excuse it, but it's something to be aware of when collaborating with physicians, they might need a bit of your scientific training. – Bryan Krause Jun 8 at 20:37
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I would feel cheated in your shoes as well. But note that your contribution may not entirely satisfy what eg. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors define as qualifying for authorship 1:

Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND

Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND

Final approval of the version to be published; AND

Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

Your contribution fits the first bullet, and that is not enough. But this should not have been. On the same link, it is explicitly stated that

...all individuals who meet the first criterion should have the opportunity to participate in the review, drafting, and final approval of the manuscript.

I would recommend that you write a polite, yet firm, email to the corresponding author - and their supervisor, if it is one of the students - saying that you don't think you have had a fair chance to obtain authorship. You can refer to your previous correspondence with the students. There are two things you could obtain from this, make it clear what you want:

  1. An apology, and if sincere, an opportunity for future collaboration.

  2. The nuclear option: A retraction of the manuscript, and a re-submission with your name on it which, all things said, is quite unrealistic. If this fails, contact their institution (as also stated in the guidelines), rather than the journal. The journal will rightly say that sorting out authorship issues is not their responsibility. The question then becomes whether the authors would rather deal with a retraction and re-submission, or an internal case regarding academic dishonesty. With this route, you can forget about ever collaborating with these people again.

The lesson to learn, is to never touch another persons' analysis until you have an explicit agreement regarding either a) authorship, or b) payment as a consultant. This may sound harsh, but it is the only way to make sure your skills are valued. The world is full of people who would like you to do their work for them for free.

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    I think this answer neglects to mention that intellectual property of the OP was used without his consent. This is clearly illegal and the journal will surely respect his intellectual property and retract the paper once the OP proves the graphs were his which should be possible by showing earlier versions and correspondence. (Unless the OP gave explicit permission in writing to use his work and figures, but this does not seem to be the case.) The very fact that the OP still has this option should help motivate the other authors to try to fix this to the OPs liking. – Kvothe Jun 8 at 15:42
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    This case is not just a matter of academic misconduct since not just an idea/work was stolen. The OP's intellectual property was used without his consent which is a matter of law. – Kvothe Jun 8 at 15:43
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    I did not mention IP on purpose. Such a case would be difficult to lift, I think (depending on location etc). If the figures are produced with a normal plotting package, the authors can very well claim that they ran it themselves, and I am in no way equipped to guide someone about the intricacies of such a case, except for one crucial piece of advise: If you consider going any kind of legal route, ask a lawyer, and not people on the internet. – nabla Jun 8 at 17:27
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    Okay I understand that it complicates things. But I do think that the fact that explicit figures were used gives the OP more leverage if the discussion turns ugly. The journal will care more about the IP theft than about the academic issues. Yes the other authors can claim that they reproduced the figures, but it does not sound like they did and thus it would be a very risky thing to claim if things ever got to court. (They would risk additional fraud charges.) Of course if things ever get that far a lawyer needs to be consulted. – Kvothe Jun 8 at 18:21
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    As a biologist myself, I can attest that the rule of thumb is that if you made a figure used in the paper, you are an author. Period. The person who did all of the statistical analysis and generated the figures should be an author, no question about it whatsoever. – terdon Jun 8 at 18:58

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