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I finished my master's degree several years ago, where I was responsible for developing/programming algorithms for a biochemistry lab. I have since successfully transitioned into industry and have been working ever since. I also have a very good relationship with my former PI.

Some time ago, my former PI contacted me and I did some work for him, pro-bono, and he was interested in publishing the results. I personally had no interest in the actual publication, but I did this work more so because it allowed me to explore an area of mathematics in which I had limited experience.

Lo and behold, I receive the manuscript for edits, and a student completely unrelated to this work was listed as the first author!

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't care. Academia was only a stepping stone in my life and a publication doesn't benefit me in any way. However, something feels "wrong" about just listing someone who has not contributed to this work in any way as the first author. I would like to be listed as the first author. At the same time, I want to keep a good relationship with my former PI. What are my next steps? How do I go about this?

Edit: Based on the feedback so far, I think the next best step would be to follow up with the PI and determine what the student's contribution was. Perhaps the student did indeed use the results I obtained to actually write the manuscript, in which case I would have no problem letting the student take first authorship. Again, as of right now, I only see work that my former PI has done, so I want to clarify.

Edit 2: I think there is some confusion about how many authors there are in this paper. There is me, who wrote the algorithm and there is my PI, who wrote the paper based on my results. Would I deserve first authorship if this a multi-author publication? Absolutely not. But by default, since myself and my PI are the only persons who have worked on this, either one of us can take first author role.

I received an update from the PI. The student was placed on the paper because the student was "supposed to contribute" but they did not want to learn how to use git (which is how I initially decided to version any manuscripts I worked on). The PI has made a promise to make sure the student takes the lead in terms of writing the paper and learning how to use git.

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    I would consider removing the part where you describe your dislike of the student who is now first author. This is irrelevant to your main question, and it doesn't look good.
    – JHare
    Mar 14 at 9:49
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    Ask the PI. Maybe that student contributed something important to it, and you don't know about it.
    – GEdgar
    Mar 14 at 11:18
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    So, you are an author, actually, just not first. But i don't really see how programming algorithms for a biochem lab earns first authorship on a biochem paper, unless it was specifically about support algorithms.
    – Buffy
    Mar 14 at 13:55
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    If your description is accurate, consider you are helping out your former PI rather than that student. It's likely the PI isn't very happy about him, and used your help to get him graduated (and eventually get rid of him) without much joy. Maybe you helped the PI in a desperate situation. The situation isn't ethically perfect, but at least your PI found someone who presumably didn't care about authors' precedence. It could have been worse. Mar 14 at 16:56
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    This is vaguely similar to this other question. The similarity being that someone who feels they "did all the work" but who did not write the paper feels they deserve more authorship credit than they are getting.
    – Matt
    Mar 15 at 13:59
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Before you get upset, I think it would be important to learn more about the actual circumstances of the publication. I say this because, based on your description of the situation in your post you haven't been acting like a first author.

You may indeed have done all of the initial work on which the manuscript was based, but based on what you have written, you don't seem to have been particularly involved in interpreting the results or writing them up (beyond the methods section).

The first author of a paper, in typical usage for the field, should be involved in every stage of the project and the production of the manuscript. From what you have written, it appears that you haven't been, and so you may not even be properly aware of what the other student may or may not have done for the project. Maybe your speculation is correct; maybe it is not. Ultimately, however, authorship order isn't really your call, because you have chosen not to lead work on the paper. If you want to be first author on a paper, you need to involve yourself more deeply with the project, including the actual scientific interpretation of the results.

Now, if you are concerned that your former PI may be acting unethically, you can ask for a description of the work that the other student has done. Do this from a perspective of curiosity and surprise, rather than accusation. Once their work has been described, if you disagree with your former PI's judgement, then voice your concerns. If your PI doesn't make a change after that, you can withdraw yourself from the paper --- you should not lend your name to something that you consider unethical. But based on what you described, it's not really your paper, and in the end your choice is primarily about whether or not to be associated with it.

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This answer will be hard to accept, I know. And I sympathize.

But I think your best choice is to just let it go. This is based on your statement that you want to keep good relations with your old PI, which can be important in anyone's career.

The comment stream suggests this may well be a case of "gift authorship" which is generally treated as unethical in such cases. I can't say for sure, not having seen the paper and what contributions the third party might have made, but it has that sense.

But, even second authorship is worth something and keeping good relations with the PI is worth more, even if they are willing to do such things.

But making a formal ethical complaint or a complaint to the journal could well give you a headache dealing with the fallout and lacking a possible career advocate in future. Worse, if they have poor ethical standards, who can predict they won't retaliate for any pushback.

Sad to have to advise it, but let it go.

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    I don't believe it's appropriate to advise simply letting ethical abuses stand (if it actually is unethical behavior), because that supports the unethical behavior. For a person in a vulnerable position, avoiding conflict can still sometimes be appropriate, but in this case, the OP is in a good position to act, if needed, since they are not pursuing an academic career.
    – jakebeal
    Mar 15 at 0:03
  • @jakebeal, I was responding to the OPs desire to keep up good relations. I agree in principle, but I think people need to protect themselves. The OP might need the old PI's support for other than an academic career. If you are going to carry a pitchfork against the king, don't go alone.
    – Buffy
    Mar 15 at 0:11
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I get the sense that you are more discontent with the specific student being made the first author, rather than about yourself not getting adequate credit. I infer this because your initial objective was curiosity, which was (presumably) met.

If this is the case, then I would urge you to focus on what you gained from this exercise and consider that the student just benefitted collaterally. You could, of course, ask the former PI about the situation, although that is likely to cause some awkwardness and friction (it would amount to questioning their decision).

On the other hand, if your objection is not to the student but to your own placement on the author list, you should immediately convey your justification to the PI and seek redressal.

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  • That would be correct, yes. At the end of the day this publication doesn't benefit me in any way as I am no longer tied to academia.
    – James
    Mar 15 at 3:59
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I think the answer from @jakebeal is great and should be accepted, but I just wanted to add some more explicit thoughts as to why I think @jakebeal is right.

"Some time ago, my former PI contacted me and I did some work for him..."

-This suggests that the ideas behind the work were conceived ahead of time, without you, and by others on the author list. This is an important step in the process and is work too before whatever work you did for him.

"Lo and behold, I receive the manuscript for edits..."

-This suggests (as previous answers point out) that much interpretation and writing (including reading other papers and weaving that literature into this paper for context) were done without you. This is a huge amount of work, and isn't to be ignored in deciding authorship. Often in my field, if you pick up an old data set / analysis and write it up, you are pretty much guaranteed first authorship.

"Edit: Based on the feedback so far, I think the next best step would be to follow up with the PI and determine what the student's contribution was. Perhaps the student did indeed use the results I obtained to actually write the manuscript, in which case I would have no problem letting the student take first authorship."

-This sounds like a very sensible solution.

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I think we have all been in this situation at some point in our academic careers and I think it's best to just let it go. For example, let's say someone I know published a paper with two co-authors at the beginning of their career. The third author contributed decisively and deserved co-authorship on the work whereas the second author is well-known and has been around a while but contributed nothing at all to the paper apart from occasional confused email messages. For a while, the person was annoyed about this and felt that it was very unfair, and it is somewhat unfair, but in the end it was better for their career to just accept it and move on as there would be nothing achieved by arguing about it.

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    I don't believe it's appropriate to advise simply letting ethical abuses stand (if it actually is unethical behavior), because that supports the unethical behavior. For a person in a vulnerable position, avoiding conflict can still sometimes be appropriate, but in this case, the OP is in a good position to act, if needed, since they are not pursuing an academic career.
    – jakebeal
    Mar 15 at 0:03

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