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(note I work in a field were author ordering is important and is meant to reflect relative contributions). The situation is the following:

Me and a colleague (who I will call C from now on) independently conceived of a research idea. I joined C and two other colleagues who had just started working on the idea. In the months that followed, I ran the majority of the experiments and wrote most of the code; C wrote some code in the first 2 days and was active in discussions / planning afterwards, and also ran two experiments (i.e. ran the code written by me and colleagues).

When we decided to write up a paper, C proposed that we be co-first authors, with him being listed first. I agreed. He wrote most of the related work and discussion section, and I wrote most of the rest of the paper (in both cases 'most' meaning roughly 'everything apart from ~2-3 paragraphs').

The paper was rejected from a conference. A new person joined the project; we ran a number of new experiments and re-wrote most of the text of the paper, including most of what C originally wrote. C contributed in small ways to the second iteration (e.g. making a figure from data that I collected). ETA: To clarify, C agreed to the addition of the new person as author, and he was actively supportive of the idea of re-submitting the paper, doing new experiments, and re-drafting sections. Unfortunately we did not discuss a new author ordering before submitting the revised paper (this was obviously a mistake).

The updated paper has now been accepted to a conference. I and all authors apart from C think we should probably change the author ordering (currently me and C are co-first, with C listed first; personally, I believe that I and another author both contributed more than C). ETA: The other author who I think contributed more was involved from the very beginning (and proposed the flagship experiment), not the new person.

There are a few complications:

  • We already publicly posted the first (rejected) version of the paper on arxiv, with C listed first.
  • C vehemently disagrees with changing the author order
  • C also does not want to discuss this or talk to an external mediator
  • C may be having mental health issues

What is the best way to proceed here? The ideal would have been to find consensus, but that seems unlikely. We are considering getting an external mediator involved even though C may not be willing to talk to them, as they may be able to provide a somewhat objective opinion and I want to avoid taking a decision unilaterally. Is there anything else we can do?

A key point here is that I am worried that C cannot currently represent his case as fully as he could otherwise due to mental health issues.

Some possible outcomes:

  • We leave the author order as-is.
  • We leave C as co-first author, but make my other colleague co-first author as well and change the listing order.
  • We make the strongest change, making me sole first author and C third
  • Something else?
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  • 2
    Do you hope to continue collaboration in the future on other projects?
    – Buffy
    Jun 13, 2022 at 19:14
  • 1
    Does the conference really matter? In some fields, conferences are not important enough to pick fights over author ordering (although it could mean a difference in funding). Jun 13, 2022 at 19:55
  • 9
    reading this type of questions, I'm so glad that in math the ordering is alphabetical
    – Mihail
    Jun 14, 2022 at 3:33
  • 3
    There is a new person X in the process - is C fine with X being added to the author list (as long as C remains co-first) or does he want the original author list without X? If he doesn't want X at all this is a huge issue. Jun 14, 2022 at 7:52
  • 2
    @Mihail I find that the strongest supporters of alphabetic ordering are people whose surname starts with A, B, C or D. Jun 14, 2022 at 16:50

2 Answers 2

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There's a bit of a gap in your narrative around:

A new person joined the project; we ran a number of new experiments and re-wrote most of the text of the paper, including most of what C originally wrote.

From my perspective outside your group of authors, it sure sounds like C got pushed out of the way and you expected them to be okay with not having the same role in the paper anymore. It seems like you did this without C's blessing or agreement. Even if they were moving slowly or someone else was itching to get things done, your original agreement with C holds until you renegotiate.

The better time to negotiate this change would have been before the new person came in and did a bunch of work.

You have to reach an author order that everyone agrees with, so you don't get to choose from the possible options you've listed, you only get to come to agreement with your coauthors about one of them.

I'd be careful about referring to C's mental health in any of this. I don't know if you mean to imply that their mental health is somehow making them stubborn or unwilling to cooperate, or that the reason you pushed them aside is because of their mental health, but neither argument looks good for you.

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    There is a third possibility regarding mental health, which is strongly hinted at: C is having a hard time, and the OP wants to treat them fairly during negotiations that C would struggle with
    – Chris H
    Jun 14, 2022 at 9:37
  • To clarify: C agreed to the addition of the new person as author, and he was actively supportive of the idea of re-submitting the paper, doing new experiments, and re-drafting sections.
    – atlas
    Jun 14, 2022 at 16:11
  • @atlas And was okay with the new person doing all that work and taking over authorship?
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 14, 2022 at 16:12
  • @BryanKrause With the work, yes; unfortunately we didn't discuss changing author ordering at the time. Another clarification: the person who might take over authorship (in addition to me) is one of the people who was involved from the beginning, not the new person.
    – atlas
    Jun 14, 2022 at 16:15
  • re mental health: I hesitated to mention it in the post, but it seems like a crucial part of the problem; I think C would be able to better present his case under different circumstances. I also think he usually would not refuse to discuss the issue with the rest of us, even given an outside mediator.
    – atlas
    Jun 14, 2022 at 16:20
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Generally you have to resolve author order co-operatively since any author can refuse to let the paper be published. In reality, however, power relationships come in to play and subordinates often yield to superiors, whether fairly or not. And, since any one can stop publication, one jerk can foul up the process if they like.

Trying to drop an author can leave you with plagiarism issues.

You had an agreement originally. I'd guess that the best, certainly easiest, solution is to just maintain that. It gets you over the hump and you get a publication as does everyone else. Copacetic. A publication is a good thing even if you aren't as high in the author order as you think proper.

Very few careers depend on author order of a single publication.

And, in future, discuss these things early on and probably avoid working with C, at least.

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