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In 2020, I started to work on a grant proposal for the Austrian Academy Science Fund to fund a two-year postdoc. After two months, I was told by my prospective supervisor that the proposal was so good, that it could become a three-year project and give a grant to a PhD student.

I accepted, allowing my prospective supervisor to act as the principal investigator of the project. Three days before submitting, without my consent, my prospective supervisor put his name as first author of the proposal, in the version "Final 3," but I wrote at least 75% of it. And there are four letters attached to the proposal by external advisors that report my name first.

Is this a case of plagiarism or other misconduct?

I already quit this job, because my supervisor/boss ridiculed a specific study of mine in line with the proposal saying it was non-sense. Honestly, in my next job I want to leave the academy anyway, I just wanted to understand more about the episode. I mean, he may have done it on a mistake, but given the range of acts during the job, I start to think that he actually has a tendency towards appropriation.

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    Do you know the required format of such proposals? Perhaps the nominal PI is supposed to be first 'author'?
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 15 at 19:36
  • Hi @JonCuster, my supervisor/boss tried to argue the episode like that, but in the guidelines there is no paragraph announcing that the PI must be the author, nor that the author must be the PI. Apr 15 at 20:11
  • @TakeMeToTheMoon - fair enough. Now, you need to figure out what outcome you want from this, and what cost that outcome might have.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 15 at 20:19
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    I made some edits to clarify / fix up the English, please check and let me know if you object to any. Apr 15 at 21:13
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    Austria is a small country and the details in your question make it easy for people involved in this "episode" to identify you. Just be aware.
    – henning
    Apr 15 at 22:02

3 Answers 3

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As the title has changed to contain a specific question since I originally wrote this answer, I want to address the title question explicitly as well: no, I do not think it is appropriate to ever change authorship order without agreement among the authors. However, I think grant proposals are not the same as published work, and sometimes grants are governed by rules about who is allowed to be responsible. It's possible this was done as an administrative change, though the correct behavior would have been to discuss this change with the other authors before making it.

Is there any meaning at all to the order of authors in a grant proposal? I really doubt it. Therefore, I can't see any value/benefit your supervisor would get from making this change, and therefore no malice.

I'm of course familiar with designating some individual as a "PI", which often requires them to be a professor or otherwise 'permanent' employee of an institution (or, alternatively, requires them to be a degree-seeking student or postdoctoral trainee), of course. The grants I contribute to have only the PI listed as though they are an "author"; everyone else is listed as some other type of contributor. The PI is responsible for administration of the project (boring admin stuff: budgets and assurances and regulatory compliance); they may not do all or most of the actual work, and very often have a smaller percentage of their salary covered for a project than students and post docs do who are working directly on a project.

My best guess is that, even though no instructions were given about author order, your supervisor assumed that the PI needed to be first, and made that change. I don't see, from the information I have here, a reason to consider this aspect to be any sort of willful violation.

If you were on better terms, I'd recommend simply asking for an explanation (in a non-accusative way), e.g., "I noticed you've changed the order of authors; is it necessary for the PI to be first author? or was there some other reason for the change?" That conversation might also be a good time to raise issues of authorship order for papers that come out of the project, where (field-dependent) that order does matter.

Since it seems like you have other conflicts with this person, well, I can't tell you how to judge them overall, but I would recommend basing that evaluation on everything else you know instead.

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This depends on the grant guidelines, and your question doesn't mention the type of grant you are targeting now, but for some grants, authors other than the PI just have to be listed as co-authors.

The distinction between PI and co-author sounds a lot like this is an FWF (Austrian Science Fund) standalone grant, in which case your PI has to be the "author". To be more precise, the FWF guidelines for standalone projects don't even distinguish between first and subsequent authors (or "authors" and "co-authors"). They only distinguish between the applicant and the co-author(s), if any. So unless you are the applicant (which you and your PI seem to have ruled out), you have to be listed as co-author. This is a necessary formality.

This also means that your PI is not using the correct terminology in the project description, when using the term "author". The FWF only knows "applicants" and "co-authors". However, this is most likely of no practical concern. The application form (unlike the project description where you can write whatever you like) does not even contain a field for the "author", only for "applicants", and "co-authors", as mentioned above.

Quoting the guidelines:

Co-authors form: All persons who have made substantial research-related contributions to the conception and writing of the application should be named as co -authors. A brief description of the nature of each contribution should be included; where there are no co- authors, applicants should state this explicitly on the form.

In case you want to ensure that your contribution is recognizable on your CV, you could add a short explanation of your and your PI's respective roles.

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  • It is an FWF indeed, but nowhere in the guidelines of the stand-alone application it is reported that PIs need to be the authors. If that is not reported in the text, that is not necessary, otherwise it should be reported from a legal perspective. And, by a non legal perspective, knowing that would have made me change my decision. Even in the case of author == PI, in that case I was not properly informed, from my perspective. Apr 15 at 22:04
  • Thank you for quoting the guidelines. That however does not mean that the author must be a Pi. It just says that all contributors must be mentioned. Apr 15 at 22:12
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    The concept of "author" does not really exist for standalone applications. There are only applicants and co-authors, regardless of what your PI wrote on the first page. If you are not the applicant (always a single person, except for certain interinstitutional cooperations) then you are automatically a co-author.
    – henning
    Apr 15 at 22:12
  • That is a nice observation. However the following guideline suggest that the term co-author means somebody in addition to the author. And when the author is only one, author == PI. Guidelines: "2.6 Where there are no coauthors, applicants should state this explicitly on the form." Apr 15 at 22:17
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    Your PI might be under the wrong impression that they are entitled to some fictitious first-authorship, or they might be confused about the terminology, or they might believe that the FWF requires them to act as "first author" by implication of their acting as applicant. I leave that for you to judge, but recall Hanlon's razor. In any case, their first authorship remains fictitious, whatever they write in the project description, since for the FWF, first authors don't exist. Of course, in terms of reputation it might be better to be PI/applicant than co-author, but that seems to be no option.
    – henning
    Apr 15 at 22:32
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I am sorry it happened to you. Unfortunately, I am afraid your experience is shared by many PhD students at some point of their career. It is not uncommon in academia for established researchers to diminish contributions of their collaborators and exaggerate their own contribution. I called some professors out on this and the "justification" they gave me was that even though early career researchers do more work, the smaller part of work done by established professors is still more important, because their expertise and recognition is much higher. An extreme but real example everyone mentioned are "engineering labs" where PIs are always included in all publications because they "contributed the lab" for others to work at.

So basically, their argument is: "yes, I contributed only 25% of effort for this proposal, but because I am 10 times more famous than you, my name should go first". However, it does not feel like a satisfactory argument, neither as a fair practice. This is one of many dark pages of academic culture, which I believe should be turned and changed. To try to answer your specific question, many academics would probably agree that changing order of authors before submission is not completely the "right thing to do". However, depending on rules and regulations in your particular location, this is probably not counted as plagiarism neither as an academic misconduct.

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