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I am a postdoc working with the same supervisor who supervised my PhD thesis. During my PhD time, it was tacitly assumed that my work is his work too. It went as far as me doing the entire planning and execution of a paper and writing the first draft, while he later looked over the draft and made suggestions on what to expand and what to change. None of the suggestions were fleshed out. Yet we are the only two authors on this paper and he wrote in the author contributions footnote that he and I both conceived of the study, I did the experiments, and both wrote the paper. Since the paper used some of his data as well as experiments funded by a grant given to him, I obviously cannot publish anything on my own.

However, now, in my postdoc function at the same institution, I find myself in a situation where a PhD student and I are doing a lot of work for a paper and there are two professors involved. My advisor and another professor. The current paper grew out of another study for which I did all the experiments and coding with a lot of input from the other professor (not my advisor), while the advisor wrote the first draft. My advisor ended up as the first author, even though only the initial idea of working on the topic was his, but he barely contributed to the design of the study, nor does he understand the statistics used or the experimental design. In this follow-up paper it is, once more, tacitly understood that my advisor will be first author and the other professor the senior author. The work, meanwhile, is done by the PhD student and me with some input and supervision from the other professor.

Is it possible to somehow broach this inequality in my/our position without destroying one's future?

Additionally, I'm getting more and more messages that sound like I'll be part of more papers where I'm clearly the only person doing all the work. Is it normal to have the lab leader as a senior author even though he doesn't contribute any work, nor any meaningful feedback (simply because the methods are not accessible to him)? And also I've been getting signals that sound like if I publish my own work, not using the data gathered at work, I'd still have to run it by my PI, and possibly have him as a co-author. This last part is particularly disturbing. Has anyone ever been in a similar situation? How do you discuss these things?

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    Get a post doc position somewhere else and publish under your own banner. – Solar Mike Jul 8 at 22:07
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    Before you do something rash: you mentioned that the initial idea came from one of the senior authors. Note that identifying a good question to work on may require years of experience and prior thinking and you may underestimate the effort that went into it prior to your "hands-on" work. I do not say this is the case here, but take that into account as a possibility. Some people on SE say that ideas are cheap and easy to produce. That's perhaps true for mediocre ideas. It's not true for really outstanding ones. Of course, if your work is not properly appreciated, then it's time to leave. – Captain Emacs Aug 8 at 15:00
  • @CaptainEmacs I agree with everything you say, but in my field, even the most amazing idea would not qualify for first authorship if someone else did all the heavy lifting of executing the idea. – lighthouse keeper Aug 10 at 2:17
  • @CaptainEmacs I agree that ideas should get recognized. Here however, it was not the central idea of analysis. It was more along the lines of "it should be on this topic", without a clear idea about how exactly. And as lighthouse keeper says, first authorship for merely having the idea to work on something -- even if it is a great idea -- is a bit much. – story_without_a_title Aug 11 at 8:31
  • @story_without_a_title I am with you on the first authorship. – Captain Emacs Aug 20 at 14:10
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Your supervisor's conduct is blatantly unethical. The current relationship is harming your career. You need to find a new job.

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I agree that having the professor as the first author seems wildly inappropriate. However, this can sometimes be the case in countries with labs that have a "lab head" and many young faculty underneath them. As many countries and schools only consider papers on which faculty are first or corresponding author in advancement and evaluation, it sets up perverse incentives for faculty to insist on first or corresponding authorship where it isn't deserved by most journals' ethical standards. If this is the case and is likely to remain so, then I agree with SolarMike's comments to find a new position if possible.

You don't say in your question what your relationship is like with the main advisor. Could you discuss this situation with them directly? If so, I would take a some time to cool off and make sure you aren't as dismissive of their contributions as you are in your question. Rather acknowledge their advising and support, but suggest that you and the PhD student be the co-first authors, while the professor and the other advisor be the co-corresponding authors. This would be the way we would untangle this Gordian knot in my institution.

Regarding including senior authors who may be distant from the day-to-day of running the experiments (but still qualify for authorship due to setting the directions, securing lab funding, etc.), this depends strongly on the customs in your field. Some fields go alphabetically, some have the "advisor" as the 2nd author, others the advisor is as the last author. However, the advisor is typically always included, even if their contributions were minor. Don't forget their funds paid your salary and the PhD students, got the equipment and whatnot for the lab, and other things without which the research would have remained an idea on a drawing board.

Regarding publishing papers entirely on your own, again this may be field and country-dependent, but I personally don't see anything "disturbing" about the advisor insisting on looking it over. This is standard practice in industry, for example, and your contract with the university may even say something to this effect. All of your intellectual output, even that created "on the side", typically belongs to the employer, who, at their discretion may choose whether or not to exercise their right to ownership if it's truly outside the bounds of your normal duties. As a post-doc you're not hired on a 9-to-5 basis, and as the bulk of the work is intellectual, there's no easy way to disentangle what ideas were developed "on the clock" versus developed on your own time.

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  • I get the inclusion of the advisor on PhD-related papers, even though it is deeply unfair in cases where the advisor hasn't done any of the actual work. Additionally, having the advisor want to go over everything in their particular way often prolongs the process. I am, however, a bit confused about the concept of putting the advisor on my own work as a postdoc. Isn't the postdoc step supposed to be about personal growth as a researcher as well? And in my case I am definitely not downplaying his contributions, as he really isn't informed about the methods that I(we) use in the slightest. – story_without_a_title Jul 10 at 8:27
  • again, this is field-dependent. there are almost no single-author papers in my field, for example. but keep in mind that the professor in question pays your salary, right? and you are using resources they procured for your research. this justifies their co-authorship to some degree. if they truly made very little intellectual contribution to your work, push to be listed as the corresponding author. this shows your academic growth. – roger-reject Jul 10 at 9:30
  • Well, it's not like my salary is paid by my advisor, but I get the point. – story_without_a_title Jul 10 at 19:26
  • Yes, there are hardly any single author papers in my field as well. It's more about the image projected. Being the corresponding author is a good step, I guess. It's happened in conferences that my advisor and a colleague's advisor had to admit that they don't quite know the answer during the q&a session of a paper lead by us "underlings". Yet they still have no qualms about presenting our work in their invited papers and saying "we" work on that. It's just that I've seen others say something along the line this research was done by my PhD student XY, while our advisors don' always do that. – story_without_a_title Jul 10 at 19:27
  • if that's true, try and address it with your advisor. in a perfect world they would be highlighting your contributions in talks, and introducing you around to build your network. if they're not open or hostile to that kind of promotion, then you definitely need a new gig with a more supportive mentor. – roger-reject Jul 11 at 0:11

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