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I was recruited by a university to work on a research project as a research fellow and have dedicated over 8 months to it. I have maintained a schedule of fortnightly presentations with another senior research fellow and professor to update them with the progress of the research. After I shared the first draft of the paper with them, the senior fellow rewrote the introduction and added his and professor's name to the author list. He alphabetized the list by our last names stating that's the convention they are beginning t follow, which effectively puts my name at the very last. I have done all the research and I feel shortchanged. I did not like the fact that this was not even discussed with me before changing and the senior fellow will be presenting my paper, I was informed. Again, I am upset about this.

Yet, I have been in the system for 8 months, 4 more months to go before my contract is over with the institute. It matters a lot to me that my name appear first in the list of authors as I am planning to do my PhD soon and having a list of publications with my lead authorship will help me get work with the university of my choice.

What should I do? Should I let this go and not be bothered or should I discuss my concerns with the professor? The senior fellow and professor are very good friends and have been working together for over 6 years and I do not want them to gang up against me as I am new to the field. Please advise.,

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    What discipline? – Anonymous Physicist Nov 24 '20 at 7:18
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    I know of an IEEE Fellow who does exactly what you said. His surname starts with B. So he has many 'first' authored papers. – Prof. Santa Claus Nov 24 '20 at 7:58
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    I think the key question is whether alphabetic author ordering is the standard convention in your field (in which case the seniors helped you learn the rules and conventions) or whether it is just something they like to do for their papers (which makes this a lot more tricky for you). – quarague Nov 24 '20 at 14:40
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    Immediately change your name from Allison Zymurgy to Allison Aardvark. – A. I. Breveleri Nov 24 '20 at 15:44
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    In fields that do not use the alphabetic order - such as biomedical sciences - the last position often indicates the most senior PI. So either your employers / applications committee will understand that the order is alphabetical, or assume that you were the PI, which is fine as well :) – juod Nov 24 '20 at 20:11
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Speaking from a field where author lists are always alphabetical: This will do you good in the long run! If you follow this convention, you will never have to argue over authorship order - take a look at the amount of questions on this site dealing with exactly this question, and be thrilled that you have the option to simply exclude that from your life.

Since I am in such a field, I also know what people do on their CV: they explain what they did for the study. You can write that you did the experiment, the analysis and wrote the first draft of the paper. This will be more informative for a hiring committee than any amount or author-list ordering principle you can come up with.

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    Doing so would be good for the field in general, but it's very likely to harm the OP's career. If their field doesn't order authors alphabetically/require first-author papers, their CV will take a massive hit. Making conventions more fair is definitively laudable, but its a bit unreasonable to ask OP to sacrifice their future for it... It's a bit of a catch-22. – JS Lavertu Nov 24 '20 at 15:40
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    @JSLavertu Makes no sense. Why would that prof have removed himself from the nice spot at the end of the list, if it wasn't the norm for the given journal, or the university had put up some new rule that forced him? – Karl Nov 24 '20 at 21:26
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    @Karl (Assuming OPs field orders names accordingly) the best spot is the first, not the last. If OPs name is last, their (apparent) contribution is minimized and will thus harm their CV. The professor's motives don't matter as far as OPs future career is concerned: they might be well intentioned, but unless the whole field switches at once, OP is penalized through no fault of their own. – JS Lavertu Nov 24 '20 at 21:39
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    @JSLavertu for senior people, the best spot is definitely the last, especially if students or more junior researchers are involved. – ZeroTheHero Nov 25 '20 at 4:29
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    What @ZeroTheHero says. In such systems, the first spot is the person who did the actual work. The last spot is the person who provided guidance and direction. If an established professor appeared first in the author list, this would not be good at all. It would look very strange indeed. Did the professor himself actually stand at the lab bench day in, day out? Tape electrodes to subjects' skulls? Not good optics at all. (I am not discussing review papers and similar special circumstances. Which underlines why we can't really answer the question without more info.) – Stephan Kolassa Nov 25 '20 at 7:53
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In the first instance, I recommend talking to the professor and respectfully asking the reason why they changed the author ordering. However, unfortunately it is completely conventional in some fields to always list authors alphabetically, meaning that if your name is at the end of the alphabet you're unlikely to ever have a first author paper (note that if it is conventional in your field, the professors you apply to do your PhD with will also know this and hence not be surprised or worried by your lack of first authorship).

You can mitigate this somewhat when you list your publications in your CV. Consider writing a small description or footnote after the paper, saying that it was signed alphabetically and giving a brief explanation of your contribution. For example:

Publications

"Your paper title here", A. Aardvark, B. Bear, Y. Yourlastname1, Journal of Things, 2020.


1 Paper signed alphabetically. My contribution was completing X experiments, Y analysis and writing the first draft of the manuscript.

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    I would drop the word "unfortunately"; if alphabetical ordering is the convention, nobody makes any assumptions about your contribution to the paper based on your position in the list. – chepner Nov 24 '20 at 16:06
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    @chepner I suppose you could say "unfortunately" if it was a paper in an adjacent field where the OP's usual field is non-alphabetical. – Azor Ahai -him- Nov 24 '20 at 17:06
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    Exactly; as a cosmologist I myself straddle this awkward boundary. Astronomers generally sign papers according to contribution, whereas our more theoretical colleagues (i.e. hep-th) tend to do it alphabetically. One's CV can look strange if you've collaborated with people from both sides of the fence. – astronat Nov 24 '20 at 17:09
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    @astronat and others, like you my spouse's research interests span fields with alphabetic and by-contribution authorship conventions. She (and others) have addressed the confused optics of this on their CV by underlining the lead author in each publication listed. (Bold seems to be semi-conventional for just making your own name visible in the list, so use -- and explain -- something else.) – Houska Nov 24 '20 at 22:40
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    @chepner Let's drop the "political correctness" here. It is unfortunate when the co-authors, most of the times your research advisors, do almost nothing yet shamelessly demand a spot in the authors list (and this is prevalent in academia) even if you did 100% of the work alone and funnily they will be the same defending the rationale behind alphabetical ordering, but won't acknowledge that they defend it only because it doesn't expose that their contribution is near to zero. It is also unfortunate when you want to work in industrial R&D and people there never see you as first author. – BS. Nov 25 '20 at 20:22
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I had a similar experience a very long time ago: I was working with what would be my Ph.D. advisor's group and this work and I did a long and involved calculation which was the major part of a paper. After I handed in the results and helped write up the paper I found out that my name was nowhere in the paper, and only got a thanks in the aknowledgement. I first went and found a new advisor on a different field. Next, I emailed the journal saying exactly the truth: that this was my work. I was next summoned by the head of the department, who on the one hand rightly chastized me for not coming to him first, but then held a hearing commitee with 3 faculty members, to whom the former professor admitted that his contribution was basically 0 and my work was ingenious. The commitee forced them to put my name on the paper. It was the last author, but I had what I needed and had happily moved to an advisor more in tune with my ethics.

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  • Non really pertinent but plus one for the happy end :) – Alchimista Nov 27 '20 at 16:13
  • It is very pertinent: The point is that because of this behavior, right or wrong, relations are quite likely broken and as a result continuing to work with that group is likely to give rise to more issues. So, when the next paper comes along, do you wish to possibly go through the same issues with possibly the name put last or ommitted altogether? SO have a plan B before severing ties. In fact if ties look irreparably destroyed, get a new plan A. – cfelix cfelix Nov 30 '20 at 7:36
  • Being ignored as an author has little to do with the authors list. Say, if the OP group adopts the alphabetical order for real and for all papers, there is little to be offended of. – Alchimista Nov 30 '20 at 8:11
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As others have noted there are some fields (and subfields) where alphabetical ordering is the standard and everyone understands, expects, and respects that. A paper with a different ordering will stand out in some way.

But the solution in such a situation is to provide a short section in the paper itself, detailing the main contributions of each author. For the PI, it might just be providing the lab and guiding the research. For yourself it might say that you were the main driver of the research.

Such a section can come early in the paper or at the very end.

And, since you seem to imply that this professor, at least, is moving to an "alphabetical order" standard, it might be to head off such disputes in the future. But it would be hard for an individual, even a powerful one, to do this on their own. Usually it is the consensus of the majority of researchers in a field. Pure Math and Theoretical CS seem to have such a standard.

Some lab sciences do not. Especially those in which a paper could possibly have hundreds of "co-authors".


Let me add a bit about fairness. Yes, you can ask the professor for the reasoning, but it might be a mistake to try to argue the case, because of the power imbalance if nothing else.

But, if there are unequal contributions that can be clearly identified, then fairness suggests that they be recognized somehow, even if not in author order. Hence, the suggestion of a contributions section.

But it is a bit subtle. Sometimes people contribute to a bit of research in different enough, but essential, ways so that any notion of "priority" is meaningless. Other times it is clear. In mathematics, for example, it can be devilishly difficult to work out priority when people are contributing insights into a problem. A person who spends little time on a problem might just provide the key insight that makes the solution possible.

In some fields there is a clear "driver" of the intellectual content of a piece of research and other contribute, perhaps with a lot of time and effort, but the ideas and insights come from on person or a small group. There it is a bit clearer how priority is assigned and it should be recognized.

In your particular case, you may be able to argue for that recognition in a way that everyone is comfortable with.

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    I've never seen such a statement early in the paper. It has always been at the end for the journals I've submitted to. – WetlabStudent Nov 26 '20 at 0:44
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    @WetlabStudent I've seen it in a footnote on the first page sometimes. More broadly, it's worth pointing out that such a section or footnote will not be visible on a list of publications and won't be accounted for in any bibliometrics - if alphabetical ordering is not the norm in the OP's field then such a section wouldn't really be a good compromise - they should just be listed first. – Nathaniel Nov 27 '20 at 12:48
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Ask the group if you can be the "corresponding author"

In most disciplines, the corresponding author is either the lead author who did most of the writing/work or the PI on the project. They handle the submission and are in direct contact with the journal. If you are marked as the corresponding author on the publication, it will be assumed that you were a major contributor to the work, even if your position in the author list is close to the back. This convention generally holds more across fields than author order - for example some applied math journals have alphabetical author lists, but they still mark a corresponding author.

Note at the end of the paper you can put a section called "Author contributions" where you summarise what everyone did. Many journals require such a statement. For journals that don't require such a statement, I have never had a journal ask I remove it [mostly general science, applied math, biology, and environmental science journals].

On a CV you can put an asterisk in front of all papers where you are the lead/corresponding author. And explain this at the top of your publication list.

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    100% agree. This should be marked in the paper with a footnote or a remark next to your affiliation (or by the fact that only your email address is present) – Pronte Nov 26 '20 at 11:00
  • This is also pretty field dependent I think. I've heard there are some fields where the "corresponding author" is understood to be the one who made the biggest contribution, but there are others where it means nothing more than the person who uploaded the paper to the journal's submission system. – Nathaniel Nov 28 '20 at 5:24
  • @Nathaniel very rarely would a minor author be the one to upload the paper and handle all correspondence with the journal's submission system (I've never seen this before in my entire career across 5 universities and 3 disciplines, one of which goes by alphabetical order). This is even true in fields where the corresponding author is not guaranteed to be the head of the lab or the person who did the most work. In such fields its merely a piece of evidence that will be suggestive that you were a major contributor to the work, if anyone ever questions it. – WetlabStudent Nov 29 '20 at 1:06
  • Fair enough. I just think that being able to provide suggestive evidence if someone asks isn't really what the OP should be aiming for. If the OP's field doesn't list authors alphabetically then the OP should be first author, and it's absolutely improper for their senior colleague to change that. Being corresponding author just won't have the same impact on a CV that being first author would. (On the other hand, if authors are usually listed alphabetically in the OP's field then your suggestion is a very reasonable one - we unfortunately don't know that.) – Nathaniel Nov 29 '20 at 1:39
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    @Nathaniel agreed. This is mainly if the field is alphabetical or the PI has refused to switch the author order back and other amicable actions have failed. – WetlabStudent Nov 29 '20 at 2:54
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  • Please check if the journal actually has a detailing section of the contributions (i think in nature or science this was in the end of the paper)
  • Check the Rules of the Journal, could be that they ask for alphabetical order
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This is very field dependent, and also can depend a lot on sub-fields within a field. I don't know what your (sub)field is, but since you say the justification is that "that's the convention they are beginning to follow", I am guessing it is not universal in your sub-field.

If that is the case then you are right to be upset. This will harm you as a young researcher, while only marginally benefitting the more senior people who have been shuffled to the front. You are also right to be upset that this was not discussed with you.

In this situation, I would send a reply to both the senior fellow and the professor, stating politely but very clearly that this wasn't discussed with you, and that you are not happy with it, giving exactly the reasons you gave in your SE post. It's quite likely that they haven't really thought about it from your point of view, and the professor may or may not be unaware that it hasn't been discussed with you. In that case I would expect that such a mail would result in a swift change.

It's important to be polite, so as not to be seen as being difficult about it, but this is a situation where you do have every right to make your view known. If the authors aren't usually listed alphabetically in your field then you absolutely should be the first author.

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  • I'm a bit less sure about this point, so I didn't include it in my answer, but I think generally the fields where authors are listed alphabetically are ones where the barrier to being an author is very high. In maths, for example, it would not be acceptable to add a professor's name to a paper if they didn't actively contribute to the main ideas of the work. In fields where authors can make only minor contributions the order of authors tends to be used to indicate this - if they were listed alphabetically nobody would know who actually did the work. – Nathaniel Nov 27 '20 at 12:44
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Name change (Yes seriously)

My immediate thought was a name-change. I see that this has already been suggested (perhaps jokingly) in a comment @A. I. Breveleri


Personal anecdote

Some years ago I changed my surname (by deed poll - I live in Britain). My original surname was "Smith". I wasn't ashamed of this but got fed up with people complaining they couldn't find me in company lists. I changed my name to something distinctive that I liked - I wasn't worried about alphabetical order. It is remarkable how people react differently to you when they hear a cool sounding surname! People even perceive me as more intelligent now! (Hint: Look up nominative determinism - it doesn't just work on oneself).

Because my surname is unusual now - I share it with a famous film actor - people remember me.


But it's too late for this paper!

Your name seems to indicate that you are female. Just tell them that you are engaged to be married and that you want to change your name ahead of time in order to have consistency with your future publications. Get a friend to pose as John Aardvark. Aardvark is perhaps a little extreme and people will cotton on, however there are plenty of "A" names out there. Personally I would go for it - academics will love or hate you for it but you can bet they will remember you!

If making the change immediately would arouse suspicions, you could change your name after publication and see it as a future investment. If you have the necessary aplomb though, there isn't much they can do.

Long term

Having a memorable (not to say exceptional and cool-sounding name) will be a good career move on its own merit. Having a cool name that is also early in the alphabet will double your credibility - it will be the first thing that people see. So would having a name starting with "Z" by the way. You might like to consider this - it would arouse less suspicion. The effectiveness of always being at the and of a list relates to the well-established Serial Position Effect.


Incidentally, I'll bet that, with the new alphabetic trend, and the acceptability of pseudonyms in academic publications, people will all start doing this and eventually papers will be written by authors all beginning with "A". It's called the law of unintended consequences.

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    Changing your name is completely overkill for this situation. If OPs field is alphabetically sorted, changing their name will accomplish nothing. If it is, the issue is with the supervisor, not with OPs name. – JS Lavertu Nov 27 '20 at 15:26
  • I disagree that it will accomplish nothing. If you read the question carefully, the OP's major concern is about appearing first in the list of authors. In this situation, changing one's name prior to submission of a paper will change the order in which authors are credited. No amount of complaining or pleading will get anyone to change the "industry standard" for the benefit of one person. – chasly - supports Monica Nov 27 '20 at 15:58
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    Unless OP specifies their field, we have no way of knowing if it's the industry standard or not. It will accomplish nothing in the sense that being first in a field that sorts names alphabetically is irrelevant. OP would gain nothing by changing their name. Changing your name has two main advantages: Less confusion (as in your case), and bypassing the professor's intent to disregard a non-alphabetical standard. – JS Lavertu Nov 27 '20 at 16:12
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    We'll have to agree to disagree. IMO, the prof's behavior is the problem. The solution is to adress the behavior directly, not to game around it with drastic decisions like changing your name (all assuming OP is in a non-alphabetical field). – JS Lavertu Nov 27 '20 at 16:43
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    No problem. I agree to disagree. :-) – chasly - supports Monica Nov 27 '20 at 16:48
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This sucks big time. As a start, if you haven't submit the paper yet, it may not be published in 4 months, due to peer review taking usually some time, so adjust accordingly if you want to apply for a PhD soon.

I am afraid there's not much I would do in your current situation rather than talk with the professor and explain what you said here. There are probably legal and journal policy things you can do, but it's probably not worth the pain. If he's still holding on the order, he's most likely an asshole and better to let him be. These people can hurt very hard when they want and have the power to do so. When applying for the PhD, you can tell this things in confidence during the interview; it's good to let know what you did and that you tried to solve it diplomatically.

Importantly, don't loose your hope. Not all people are like this, most are actually very decent :)

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    I don't think it's a good plan to assume why the authors ordering is alphabetical. In some fields this is the standard thing to do for good reasons. – Tom R Nov 24 '20 at 10:56
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    I down voted as this ignores the strong possibility that the subject of the paper is one where author order is alphabetical. The OP is strangely silent on what the standards are in their field. – Terry Loring Nov 24 '20 at 17:15
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    Perhaps it's a good reason to tone down the unprofessional language too. – Mast Nov 24 '20 at 19:29
  • @Mast agreed. One should refrain from calling names until the full story is heard (from both sides). – ZeroTheHero Nov 25 '20 at 4:32
  • "you can tell this things in confidence during the interview" No-o-o, that's a really bad idea. Don't make sneaky remarks in an interview - they won't want you on their team - for fear you might do it to them later. It's enough to say that you already have research under your belt and describe your role if they ask. You can say positive things like, "I collected the data", "I did the statistics", "I wrote the first draft", etc. – chasly - supports Monica Nov 27 '20 at 16:54

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