My Ph.D. study focused on the development of a screening platform (animal-based) to screen for interesting targets that show a certain disease phenotype, and based on this I also developed a drug screening pipeline, and lastly, to validate the results, I developed stable transgenic adults as validation for my screening method. I intended to submit this study as a small methodology paper, it is simple on paper but it still took my whole PhD to come up with the screening ideas, identification of the targets, and finally the development of the stable transgenic adult lines to validate my results.

However, my PI is known to postpone publication in the hope of submitting to high IF journal (He is close to retirement age and has always dreamt of publishing big)...so he wasn't letting me just publishing it in a small journal. He insisted that I need more work before this paper can be published.

At the end of my PhD due to some reasons I wasn't able to stay in that country, so I made a mutual verbal agreement with the PI that I will agree to let another new student to complete the project, but I can remain the first author and the student can be a co-first author. I thought it was fair.

Anyway, some time has passed, and I just received an email from my old team that the paper is ready to publish, but I was not even listed as a co-first but was listed as the 3rd author...

I found out that because the phenotypes from the stable lines that I developed were very obvious and consistent, so they have decided to ditch all my initial screening/ method development parts, but just focused solely on the adult lines and re-did the experiments that I have done, and also added some new experiments. So instead of a methodology paper, it became more like a functional characterization kind of paper with the transgenic adult lines that I developed.

Do I even have a case here? :( I realize there might not be much that I can do since I have left that lab...

2 Answers 2


I think you have a case in that you've convinced me that you've gotten screwed over, but I don't know that you have a case in that there's much to be done about it.

Authorship is something that should be agreed upon among all authors on a project, so you can certainly protest your position in the list, but you don't have much to negotiate with. The "nuclear option" would be to put your foot in the ground and say that you won't agree to the paper being published without you being first author, but this is more likely to burn bridges than actually get you a first-author paper. Other options might include trading relative positions on different papers (i.e., if authors A and B have a current project and a future project, agreeing that if the order is A,B on this one it will be B,A on the second), but that doesn't really work as well if you're not still working with the people involved on other projects.

While you were promised a first authorship here, probably the new student was also promised that slot based on the work they put in, and may have spent just as many hours as you did, so while in any "battle" over authorship it should really be your advisor that loses, because they're the one making promises they can't possibly fill, instead in the event you become first author the other student loses out. They'd probably find that very unfair if they collected all the data ultimately used in the paper, anyways.

Probably you should have pushed harder to get some sort of paper out while you were actively working on things; it's really hard to do afterwards, when other people are needed to take your work across the finish. As a first author, you really need to be the one doing those steps.

I think in your position I'd suggest that you request to be made a "co first-author", as originally promised, but offer the other student that your name will be listed second. You can appropriately claim it on your CV as a (co-)first author paper, and the other student probably will be more open to that arrangement since even with the co-first statement, their name appears first anyways. Your advisor likely won't care too much as long as all the other authors (especially the two first authors) are on board.

They may deny this suggestion based on the long time in which you haven't contributed to the paper, and this really isn't fair overall, but it's also better than not having a publication at all (which likely is what would have happened if no one picked up the project after you left), and you won't really gain much by protesting further.

You certainly have my sympathy in that method development work in biology is often very underappreciated. It's difficult to publish good methods-only work at a level corresponding to the effort and intellectual quality involved. I understand your advisor's publishing strategy here, though it came at your expense. I would advise PhD students starting out that they make sure their thesis project is not limited to only method development, it can be too risky at that point in a career (not just for the reasons you've experienced, but also because it can simply fail, through no one's fault).

  • Thank you Bryan, I agree with everything that you said, and thank you for providing suggestions. “I think in your position I'd suggest that you request to be made a "co first-author", as originally promised, but offer the other student that your name will be listed second.” I came to the same conclusion here In fact, I wrote a very long email to my PI explaining how I am grateful for the work that others have put in, and that I am happy to let the new student be the first author.
    – Kelly
    Jun 15, 2022 at 4:57
  • I also explained to my PI saying that the initial development of screening methods etc which came to my decision to focus on these targets and hence the development of these transgenic animal models that formed the basis of the whole manuscript that they now wish to submit, I believe I deserve at least a 2nd place co-first. But the new student refused…I guess I am most saddened by this part. As when I handed over the project, I taught her everything without reservation, and at the time we agreed that this will be “our project”.
    – Kelly
    Jun 15, 2022 at 4:58
  • I think the fact that I have already left the lab and showed no intention of joining the lab again (After I moved to another country, the PI actually asked me several times whether I will go back and work for him, and I said no), while the new student is still a current lab member and is likely to stay in this lab. The PI has more incentive to keep her happy than to keep me happy. :'[
    – Kelly
    Jun 15, 2022 at 5:01
  • I guess there isn't much I can do without burning bridges as you have pointed out...I guess I will just have to swallow it and let it go... somehow. Thank you for showing empathy in my situation and acknowledging how underappreciated method development is, I really appreciate this.
    – Kelly
    Jun 15, 2022 at 5:07

It sounds to me as if there are two papers. The one that you and your advisor were planning to write, and the one that got actually written after the new student got on board. That you get the third place in the list of the authors could be justified for the latter, depending on the details that I do not know and cannot judge.

The problem for your advisor and you is that the first paper can no longer be written. Your advisor could argue that after the second student came on board, a reconsideration showed lack of novelty in the work that was discarded.

You need to contact your advisor and ask them about the promised first paper. Maybe they have something in mind.

  • Thank you tschwarz, I agree with you, there should have been two papers. The situation is, initially, I was happy just to publish the method development as a protocol kind of paper, but my PI insisted that I needed to create adult transgenic lines to "validate" my screening results, it took time but I did manage to create the lines eventually and also validated my screening results. So the data from these transgenic lines with the screening method development form a complete paper.
    – Kelly
    Jun 15, 2022 at 15:03
  • But the PI still wanted a little more, and he wanted me to pass on the project to a new student to "finish it up" after knowing that I cannot stay, we agreed on the authorship arrangement. But after I left, I have no control over the direction of the project. From what I've heard, the new student wasn't able to initiate other successful projects, and she found that the lines I created showed consistent results, so she redid my experiments but with more "n", and also did some new experiments, and also remove the majority of my data from the paper...:(
    – Kelly
    Jun 15, 2022 at 15:09
  • so now she is saying I haven't contributed enough to the final paper to be qualified as a co-first. I was kept in the dark about this until the manuscript submission. So yes, now with them publishing my "validation" part, I can no longer publish my work. Becoz my whole project revolved around the development of a screening method that led to these targets, and eventually the creation of the stable lines to validate my method.
    – Kelly
    Jun 15, 2022 at 15:13

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