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I worked at an institution on a project for 5 years. The type of project I worked on usually results in a single published paper at the end of it. However, I left the institution before the project's end.

I now find out the PI has published the paper (2 years after my departure) with a long list of authors who have spent far less time working on the project than myself.

Upon contacting the PI (lead author), they said that I was out of contact after I left the institution and:

Since publication requires the agreement of all co-authors, we could not add on anyone who we could not contact. As we were preparing the paper, the project manager tried to contact you in various ways, all without success. As a result, we could not add you as a co-author.

  • Note1: It appears they do not dispute my contribution or authorship!

  • Note2: I have an email exchange with the project manager 1.5 years before paper submission, and an email exchange with the PI 1 month after paper acceptance which is 7 months before paper publication. In neither of those exchanges the paper submission is mentioned. Nor did I receive any emails regarding the paper from them. I suspect they did not try to contact me at all regarding the paper!

My questions are,

  1. Can lack of contact be a valid reason not to include the name of an author during submission?
  2. Can the list of authors be amended now, after publication, to include myself? And how can this be done?
  3. Is omitting an author considered a 'Scientific misconduct' or 'plagiarism'?

Edit:

  • I am not in academica anymore
  • I want my name on the paper as I have spent five years of my life on this project.
  • Before I leave I sent every one my gmail account as a forwarding address. And all my subsequent exchanges was and is with the same gmail address.
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    Are you still in academia? What do you want to happen? Is your institutional email still active? (i.e. what email did you use to talk to the PI after the paper acceptance?) Jul 14 at 15:34
  • 1
    Did they have your email after you left? Maybe they tried to reach you and were unable? Since journals demand all named authors to actively agree on a publication, a named author having gone off-grid might block a publication. Jul 15 at 0:58
  • I beleive I have met the criteria for authorship as the PIs email does not dispute authorship but lack of contact. Jul 15 at 7:53
  • What gets me is a month after paper acceptance, I contacted the PI and he replied to my email without mentioning the paper nor his efforts of trying to contact me. This is still 7 months before publication!!! Jul 15 at 7:55
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If someone has done enough work to qualify as an author if they would only complete some late-stage steps like helping to draft the manuscript/review the final manuscript, then their coauthors have a duty to offer that person to be included in those steps. It's not fair to purposefully prevent someone from fulfilling a key criteria for authorship in order to leave them off the list.

However, I do not think it's reasonable to expect that coauthors not publish work because they cannot reach a colleague who has completed some but not all requirements for authorship. They should possibly be acknowledged instead, though some are also concerned about acknowledging people without their permission.

It's not clear what exactly has happened here. It seems you did not receive any contact, but it's hard to judge the scope of the effort that was made to contact you. Given you did have contact with the person who supposedly reached out to you both before the acceptance and with the PI afterwards, it seems they were aware of contact information that could reach you. I agree that makes things suspicious, but maybe less so if, for example, the latter exchange was initiated by you rather than the PI, and if the former exchange was over an email address you no longer use.

It's unlikely the list of authors can be amended except by some serious steps likely involving retracting the original paper. Yes, it would be academic misconduct to leave an author off, but you should think carefully about what your goals are in pursuing this serious accusation. I'd start by asking what methods were used to contact you, given your previous email contacts with the project manager.

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  • Papers are digital now a days, why would you say its unlickly that a name can not be added to the list of authors? Jul 15 at 8:23
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    @SpaceSailor That's just not how most journals work, once something is published it's published, they don't keep making edits and tracking versions.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 15 at 14:15
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  1. Not in and of itself. However, if you're hard to contact, it might motivate people to change the paper so that it no longer contains any contributions from you, and ship that paper, without you on it. That's reasonable, if none of your work went into the modified paper. What they shouldn't do is write papers that involve your contributions without your say-so and without including you as an author - that's misconduct.

  2. Doubtful, even if the paper does include your contributions. If it does, and you're willing to pursue the nuclear option, you could in principle write to the editor of the journal and ask them to retract the paper. That may or may not work, but will make the PI hate you, if you still care. It also still won't get you on the paper (that ship has likely sailed).

  3. Not giving authorship to someone whose contributions have met the threshold for authorship (assuming yours have) is scientific misconduct. It's not plagiarism - they didn't copy text you'd published in another paper.

For what it's worth, I would have some sympathy for your former lab in at least the following situations:

  1. The paper depends at least somewhat on your contributions (you meet the threshold for co-authorship). They try repeatedly to contact you, but you don't bother to reply to them. They have no prior reason to think you wouldn't want the paper published, and it's to your benefit if it is published. They publish the paper, giving you appropriate credit for your contributions. This isn't great behaviour as far as the wider community is concerned (*), because it misrepresents your involvement in the paper and willingness to take responsibility for it, but I would have some sympathy for them - they were at least trying to do the right thing by you, even though you caused them a problem.

  2. A paper can be written that doesn't rely on your contributions. Having not heard back from you, they publish it, without you as a co-author. You feel annoyed because you did a lot of work that could have gone into the paper and made it better, but it didn't. In this situation, they haven't done anything formally wrong. Maybe you could have replied, maybe they didn't try hard enough to contact you, whatever, but they're in the clear. You and they might need to work out some issues, but it's not a problem for the wider community to solve.

(*) Which is to say, you should avoid doing this yourself. It's particularly egregious in certain fields, e.g. medical ones, but bad behaviour in any field. That said, I would personally feel a bit sorry for them because of the situation you'd put them in.

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  • My main motivation is to for my name to get included and not the nuclear option as you put it. And why would you say that, that ship has sailed, surley papers are digital now a days and adding a name cannot be that dificult. Jul 15 at 8:25
  • @SpaceSailor: Yes, it makes sense to want that - but unfortunately most journals (as a matter of policy) refuse to add authors after the paper has been published, and most editors are less than keen to take sides in disputes like these. If you really kick up a stink, they might retract the paper, but that doesn't do much for you personally sadly. Jul 15 at 21:10
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Inclusion as an author of a paper is field- and research-group-dependent. Here is one example from Oceanography, which suggests a "2 out of 3" rule, where you are expected to contribute to two out of three of (1) ideas, (2) analyses, and (3) writing to be considered for authorship.

Although you don't provide enough detail to understand the circumstances of your case, it sounds like there was an expectation but no official written policy for what level of contribution was expected to be included as an author. It also sounds like you didn't know in advance what would happen if you left the project before it was finished. If you're still in academia, I would suggest this is a lesson for the future, and you should always know what is the publication policy for your research group. Without having a clear policy, it is difficult to answer your questions (1) or (3), but in general it is not reasonable to expect that research would remain unpublished if somebody who contributed just drops out of the face of the earth (I'm not saying you did, but they are saying you did). The show must go on, etc.

For the specifics of your case, and if you wanted to press the case further, you could ask the PI for the evidence that they tried to contact you about the paper (surely they'd have an email), and/or you could contact the editor of the journal with this grievance, but I suspect it is highly unlikely your name could be added to the paper once published.

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  • It's not reasonable to expect that the research would remain unpublished, but it is reasonable to expect to be given co-authorship of the publication if the paper makes use of your contributions to the extent that you've met the usual threshold for co-authorship. It's not clear whether that test has been met in this case or not. Jul 14 at 16:05
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    @StuartGolodetz, yes, that's what I wrote.
    – Carlos
    Jul 14 at 16:40

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