I‘ve been told (by a PI who is a co-author of the paper) that I cannot submit a jointly authored paper to any journal in my field except Frontiers because anything else is “politically incorrect” or “too slow”.

We have a new method developed with a colleague in a different (more quantitative) field, the results are new, answer an open question and are replicated in two languages.

I found out this week that the PI saying we cannot submit to a regular journal has just had another paper accepted on part of the same topic at a good journal in our field. The findings we have in this paper go against the findings of the paper he wrote five years ago with that group (and I’m guessing maybe against this paper then too, but I have not read this paper).

Is there anything I can do?

At the moment, I have suggested PLOS One as a better alternative to Frontiers, but honestly this is just such a waste - the results are really cool, it took us a year and travelling to get them, and they come from a really good interdisciplinary collaboration. I’m really angry and upset about this - I’m in the third year of a postdoc with no publications, and we finished this data collection over two years ago. Do I have to accept the decision of the PI even though I am first-author and the decision has explicitly not been made on the content, quality or potential readership of our paper?

Note: The paper isn’t a particularly confrontational paper: it just presents previous conflicting results and then shows how the new method is more sensitive and so validates most previous experimental results whilst showing that the theoretical implications people were drawing from them. I‘m sure it’s solid, and I know the co-authors think so too - we had checks worked into the method, replicated it in two languages and again in one of the languages. This type of paper is usually published in a good discipline-specific journal (and it is very rare to have data like this in our field). Both professors are retiring - one already is and wants to use the data in a course he’s teaching - the other retires soon, and is very politically engaged (I have been told to turn down invited talks because they would have involved plane travel). The question is whether as first-author I have any say in where the paper goes.

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    Wait - you're writing a paper on a topic similar to one your PI has just had accepted and you haven't even read that paper? That seems like a very deep level of dysfunction. Anyways, post docs are typically quite brief - why are you still in the same one after 3 years?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 20:18
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    I very much do not understand the "political correctness" argument. Maybe this is meant to be about open access? But I would not call that "political correctness". Unfortunately, without your advisor's own explanation I'm guessing that guessing is all we can do for you on that point.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 21:21
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    @Nworb If possible, I'd recommend asking someone whom you trust, who knows (or has at least heard of) your PI, and who is broadly familiar with the subject matter. Your Ph.D. advisor, for example (if you have a good relationship with them). Your situation seems too particular to be able to give good advice here.
    – academic
    Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 22:22
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    Is the PI your supervisor? I'm confused as to why you refer to him as "a PI"; the more relevant questions are whether he is a co-author (apparently yes) and whether he is your supervisor. Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 8:15
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    For non-academics who come here from the HNQ section: Frontiers is a highly controversial publisher of scientific journals. They previously appeared on Jeffrey Beall's list of predatory publishers and their journals have been criticized for accepting too many low quality papers with fundamental errors. They have even removed editors from their journal for rejecting too many papers.
    – Nzall
    Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 13:54

3 Answers 3


Jointly authored papers require permission from all authors. If he is a co-author and you can't convince him, then you are pretty much stuck. Editors will expect it.

And fighting with your PI is probably not the wisest career move.

It is a different story if the PI isn't one of the authors, but that only applies to the first point above, not the second. The "we" in your question wasn't completely clear about who is included.

It may not be too strong to say that a good letter of recommendation from your PI is one of the most valuable things you get out of a post doc. It lets you move on and get away from improper behavior. Winning a battle, but losing a war is sub-optimal.

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    So you would accept your PI telling you that none of your papers can be submitted to any field-specific journal? Isn’t this harassment?
    – Nworb
    Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 19:45
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    @Nworb, if he is co-author then you need to - or convince him. If not, then you are setting up a fight that you might win at the expense of your job and career. Tough working with someone unreasonable, but if they have the power and are willing to use it....
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 19:47
  • Yes - the PI is an author. I also didn’t mean submitting it somewhere without his permission. I mean is a PI allowed to stop a postdoc submitting any paper to a field specific journal because it is „politically incorrect“?
    – Nworb
    Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 19:48
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    If you are asking about the ethical issue, then likely no. But that doesn't get you out of your dilemma.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 19:50
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    @Buffy What you say is right but at the same time makes me fume. I hate when people exploit others for their own objectives. Very likely that this PI has some arrangement with an editor of Frontier. The politicians and salesmen have been ruining academia.
    – kosmos
    Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 8:40

I'd suggest you analyze your options in a more strategic way rather than going heads-on against the PI:

  • First, is there a way to clarify things with the PI, maybe reach some kind of compromise? Ask them to clarify exactly what they mean by "politically incorrect" or "too slow". They might actually have reasonable conditions, in which case you could try to find a good journal which suits both of you.
  • If this doesn't work, you need to identify exactly the obstacle. Normally the PI should tell you, but apparently this might involve this other paper that they published. If so, is there a way to smooth things up? Maybe by re-writing some parts of your paper in some kind of diplomatic way, like acknowledging previous findings and presenting the present work as a contribution which goes beyond them, as opposed to bluntly confronting them. Scientific progress often involves healthy debate of ideas, it shouldn't involve conflict of egos.
  • You mentioned another colleague and also "a good interdisciplinary collaboration", so it seems that the work involves multiple co-authors right? Where do these co-authors stand on the issue? Could they be convinced to support your cause? Would some of them be in a better position than you to convince the PI, or at least to put a bit of pressure on them? If the work is really good, I would expect the other colleagues to also be eager to publish it in a good journal. And if your PI is blocking the paper for selfish reasons, their position is going to be weak in front of the other colleagues.
  • Thanks, this is the type of advice I was looking for. It sounds like you‘re agreeing that the PI decides where the paper goes, even if it’s clear that they’re not basing the decision on the paper?
    – Nworb
    Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 6:41
  • I was thinking in the same lines. If you could talk to the other collaborator and arrange a discussion on this topic it could solve your problem.
    – kosmos
    Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 8:42
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    @Nworb it's not the PI who decides, it's all the co-authors who have to decide together. There needs to be a consensus, but this can give you an advantage if the PI is obstructing publication against all the other co-authors. But as I said it's important to understand precisely what is their problem in order to find a solution they can agree to.
    – Erwan
    Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 10:23
  • @Nworb: In some jurisdictions, where there is a situation like yours (multiple people have joint copyright, and all but one agree on something), it is possible to go to court for an injunction that forces the "lone holdout" to consent to the others, provided you get a judge to agree that the lone holdout is maliciously preventing a benefit for all participants. That brings you back to the question raised on the other answer, though about being strategic about whether you would rather win the battle or the war: do you think it is a good idea to sue the person whose LoR will likely significantly Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 15:17
  • … decide how the next phase(s) of your career go(es)? Commented Jul 29, 2020 at 15:17

Here the resolution/answer:

I spoke to the second PI/co-author alone. He agreed that he thought the data were excellent, and suggested he speak to the other co-author alone, recommending I choose which journal to submit to. This was definitely the right move.

Unfortunately, it turned out that there was a different motive: the first PI wanted to switch to a different project and so needed to show that he had one publication out from our project. He gave comments on the paper to change straight away although on holiday, and I was told that he would not accept any discipline-specific journal because they would not be out in time for his application.

I replied again to the second PI saying this was not right, and he apologised for the situation again and said the first PI would not change his mind so I would have to choose whether to make a formal complaint or accept the compromise of journal (not Frontiers but not a discipline-specific journal). I’ve accepted the compromise of journal.

Essentially: I spoke to the second PI alone, he agreed I could decide where to submit and agreed with what I had suggested, he spoke to the first PI, the first PI changed his position from Frontiers but wouldn’t accept a discipline-specific journal. We are proceeding with this. The next step would have been to make a formal complaint.

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