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I’m Nick, a postdoc currently working on publication of my PhD work. There are several authors on the paper - two former graduate students as co-first authors (myself and Aubrey), followed by five undergraduates (all of who have graduated now) and another younger current graduate student as the last author (Pax, who overlapped with Aubrey and me during our PhD years) before the PI's name (i.e. PI is senior/corresponding author).

We are preparing a submission to a journal after three failed submissions. In this version, our advisor moved up the position of Pax to be second author, after myself and Aubrey. We only noticed from looking at the manuscript version she sent to us with comments. In other words, she didn't discuss the change with us.

After several days of contemplation and looking through the manuscript to see if Pax really added so much to the changes in the manuscript, both Aubrey and I decided that Pax didn’t deserve to be second author - and the answer is pretty obvious because all the remaining authors contributed intellectually and experimentally to the paper. Pax, on the other hand, has never added much to manuscript meetings and doesn’t know the data from the paper as well either. Despite that, my advisor decided to move up the position of Pax to be second author.

When we questioned my advisor on this, she said that Pax contributed intellectually to the current layout of the paper (which didn’t change significantly from the last version) and gave another unconvincing answer about how intellectual contribution is difficult to assess (which in this case, I feel the answer is pretty black and white).

Aubrey and I really think there is a hidden reason that my PI is unwilling to admit, but what bothers us is that our PI is being non-transparent. I figured this is academia and the PI gets the final say in what she does.

Neither my or Aubrey’s authorship position is affected. But I know that since I am the first author on this paper, I can fight for the authorship positions of undergraduate authors all of who have really contributed a significant amount of work to the paper. This way I can learn to fight for fairness within academia.

What shall I do? Pursue this issue further with my PI or resign myself to the situation?

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    Please consider splitting the question into paragraphs to make it easier to read. – GoodDeeds Sep 15 at 22:28
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    This question is really disorganized. Is there reason to think this authorship dispute will have actual consequences? – Anonymous Physicist Sep 16 at 3:38
  • Uh, you did change all of the names involved, right? – knzhou Sep 16 at 17:20
  • Hi, welcome to Ac.SE. Long winded posts tend to attract down- and close-votes, so I edited your question to make it more readable for our community. Apologies if you think I left out anything important, you can always edit again with the links at the bottom of your question. – Azor Ahai -- he him Sep 16 at 18:24
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    Also, I noticed you don't list your PI as an author? Is this the case? – Azor Ahai -- he him Sep 16 at 18:24
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Let it go. Maybe decide to not publish with this PI in the future. But this particular hill is not important enough for you to die on.

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This question's answer depends strongly on field, which isn't in the question. In my fields (physics & telecoms) any positions other than first or last are largely irrelevant, and last author is actually a prestigious position.

The last part is obviously not true for you, but in general detailed order matters more for the morals of those involved than it does to the wider world.

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