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I have a three-part question:

First, if I am the first author of a research manuscript, as previously discussed with, and agreed by, both the second author and corresponding author(s), then due to some concerns about the paper content, am I legally allowed to unilaterally decide to delay publication (to edit the results presented in the paper), or in the worst case scenario, to not publish if I am not satisfied with the new results obtained?
This question arises when both the second author and the principal investigator hope to rush with the publication, despite my objection to the current manuscript. For this specific paper, my contribution is in running simulations and obtaining the data, while the second author's contribution lies in part of the paper-writing, including explaining the graphs and data I've obtained. This essentially means the research cannot be split in half, where the second author publishes his/her part and I publish mine separately.

Secondly, in response to my attempt to delay the publication until the manuscript is edited to a satisfactory standard, the principal investigator, my professor, asked/threatened to have me removed from the position of the first author, and instead make me the second author, if I delay publication. In doing so, both my professor and second author plan to bypass me in the publication process. Is this legally allowed? My professor's official reasoning is that, after a thorough examination, he found my contribution to be insufficient to be the first author. My problem with this explanation is that three months ago, I still hold the position of the first author, but three months later, when the second author presses for publication, somehow my work is deemed insufficient.

Lastly, any suggestions on my course of action when both aforementioned situations arise?

Update/further questions: My principal investigator has tried to remove me from the position of the first author (as previously agreed to) to simply "acknowledging" my effort. Is this allowed, and just research malpractice? My guess is the PI really wants to have the paper published, and if I get to veto as an author, then I can't be an author anymore. What should I do in this case?

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    I'm aware that this is not your question, but I think it's crucial for you and your career to urgently seek advice with a neutral third-party person in your institution, for example ombudsman or neutral colleague. The ideal outcome would be to find a way out which satisfies all the co-authors. Currently the way you present it looks more like a worst-case scenario: whatever happens, your relationship with the co-authors would be permanently damage, and if accusations are thrown publicly on either side it could get really ugly. Is this paper really worth the cost?
    – Erwan
    Mar 4 at 1:50
  • @Erwan Good comment. SE should have a category for archivable non-answers relevant to the question. Mar 4 at 2:26
  • @Erwan Unfortunately yes. I have spent a tremendous amount of time in data collecting and designing the experiment for this paper, at least more than triple the time of the rest of the authors combined. Because of this, I find retreating civilly, giving my contribution away for free, and allowing myself to be bullied as seriously unacceptable. (I have tried to discuss with them to find a middle ground, but the attempt was ultimately unsuccessful.)
    – Harry Wang
    Mar 4 at 11:43
  • I truly sympathize with your situation, but if the paper is worth so much to you then I really think that you need a kind of mediator to help disentangle the conflict. Currently the only two options are pretty bad even for the work: either it's published in a way that you don't want or it's cancelled with little chance to republish it. And it's certainly hard for you to get some perspective in this mess, but it's also important to think about your future. Involving a neutral person would be a step in de-escalating the conflict and try to find a solution, and if it could even help your case ...
    – Erwan
    Mar 4 at 12:03
  • ... since you would be seen by other people as the one who does the effort to try to solve the problem.
    – Erwan
    Mar 4 at 12:05
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All authors must agree to publication; any co-author may delay publication, or withdraw, if they aren't satisfied by the results. (Intellectual property law prohibits publication without consent of all authors, in many jurisdictions.)

Author ordering should be agreed early to avoid disputes. Renegotiation is possible, especially when circumstances change.

No author may strip another of authorship. Any author may push for renegotiation of author ordering. Although an author delaying publication isn't reasonable grounds for reordering, it may be reasonable for reordering if delay is being introduced so that author duties change, e.g., when an author is going to do more work than initially considered.

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    @HarryWang It's up to the authors.
    – user2768
    Mar 2 at 14:41
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    @HarryWang To clarify - the authorship order will be determined by the submitter, your choices at that point are to either agree or disagree with publication. The editor is not there to mediate your authorship dispute.
    – user133933
    Mar 2 at 14:50
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    @HarryWang You'll have to agree as an author with publication (usually after it's accepted). If you disagree it won't be published - the journal will return the manuscript. You can reasonably expect your relationship with the other authors to deteriorate significantly at this point.
    – user133933
    Mar 2 at 15:01
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    The implication is that every "author" gets a veto, not a vote. But you are encouraged to act as a colleague, not a jerk. And fighting with your doctoral advisor or other PI is not a good path to success.
    – Buffy
    Mar 2 at 15:50
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    The PI closing you out may not violate any legal code, but it is certainly research malpractice and should be condemned.
    – Buffy
    Mar 2 at 15:53
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This is not really a legal question, but one of academic standards and it would never be decided on a legal level. That's as far as the legality issue goes.

However, there is a good chance that at least one side here is likely to be acting unethically or at least questionably, but this is outside of the realm of the legal.

  1. Either your co-authors wish to publish a premature result and you are rightly unhappy that the work is not carried out to satisfaction.

  2. Or you are unreasonably perfectionistic or perhaps even overpedantic and you wish to block your co-authors from publishing a perfectly acceptable result.

We are not able to judge that. Basically, from a purely formal academic integrity point of view, you can sabotage your fellow authors by blocking them from publication. Your contribution is such that they cannot remove you from the author list without violating a core contract of academic authorship. In other words, strictly spoken, you can - at least as concerns academic rules - prevent them from publishing. They can not circumvent that without breaking academic integrity.

That being said, if you would be sabotaging a publication without very good reason (as I say, we have no grounds to determine either way), this could be considered a violation if not of the letter of academic conduct, but of its spirit.

A supervisor of such a student who is scrupulous in matters of academic integrity (the supervisor) would probably not force the issue on that paper and just cut their losses. However, they would be perfect in their right to cut off the student from any promising critical project in the future and might also bring the case to the academic misconduct case if they think the blocking was unreasonable. If indeed the prospective author would be found sabotaging the paper, this would not bode well for them; nobody likes to see their departments' PhD supervisions and/or research funding wasted. Of course, the OP might consider appealing to the academic integrity board on their own side to prevent publication of the paper without their authorship or consent. Alternatively, OP might contact the journal it was submitted to, but that is already an escalation beyond the institution, and probably should be only considered as next step.

Note in all of that that the judgement of what would constitute a reasonable result is highly subjective and thus there is a considerable grey area of what would constitute a reasonable refusal to publish vs. an act of sabotage. I repeat: we have not enough information to come to either assumption, but I wanted to make sure OP has the full picture.

It may therefore be a wiser decision to contemplate whether an appropriately moderate honest presentation of the - not so impressive - results would make a publication acceptable, rather than trying to block it in its entirety; after all, that's the result, honestly presented. Other scientists then know they do not need to walk down this path.

To be honest, none of the above is really satisfactory; the best of all outcomes would be to entreat your coauthors with a convincing case as to what work needs to be done to bring the paper up to the standard that one would like to see it in rather than go into confrontation. If the results are not as desired, what alternative experiments/simulations could be done to achieve that.

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