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I am a postdoc at the lab of, say, Prof. Johnson. Together with a few students and external collaborators, we performed a research study and sent a manuscript for publication, where I am the leading and corresponding author. Prof. Johnson and I verbally agreed on the author's order and role before first submission. All other coauthors agreed as well (but this is not documented).

The manuscript has been accepted. After acceptance, Prof. Johnson asked me to e-mail the editor requesting changes to the author list. He wants me to remove one of the students (say, Jane) from the author's list because he (quote) "does not clearly see her contribution." I also know that Prof. Johnson and Jane recently got into a personal fight with each other. Apparently Jane borrowed money from Prof. Johnson and has not paid Prof. Johnson back. Jane has now left the lab.

I worked together with Jane, and I know she contributed with data analysis and creation of some figures. This is something I believe can be documented. I also believe that removing Jane could lead to an accusation of unacknowledged appropriation of her work. Additionally, if Jane's contribution is not enough for co-authorship, we would have to remove another co-author as well (which is not under discussion).

For this reason, I manifested my disagreement to Prof. Johnson, but he maintained his position. I asked if I could get written permission from Jane, but he said "this is not necessary." Finally, Prof. Johnson said that he would request manuscript withdraw or retraction, if I don't agree to remove Jane from the author's list. The institution where I work has a publicly known history of ethics violations, so I would not trust the internal committees to reach a fair decision.

What would you advise me to do? I would like to avoid a confrontation with Prof. Johnson, but I am afraid that such a request to the journal would cause the paper's acceptance to be rescinded. Also, recent ethics violations in our institution have been reported by international media.

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  • Does your institution have an INDEPENDENT Ethics board?
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Nov 19, 2022 at 12:18
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Commented Dec 18, 2022 at 18:50

7 Answers 7

48

Oh my. I suspect there is no good answer to your question. Here are several ideas to consider. Whether any of them is feasible in your situation depends on information only you have.

  • Prepare a rough draft of the paper that removes Jane's figures and data analysis and ask Prof Johnson if he thinks the paper without her contribution is still good.
  • Find someone at your institution you can ask about this matter.(They would not be the official channel for resolving this, since you don't trust the official channel.)
  • Consider involving (or threatening to involve) the journal editor in the controversy. Since the paper is in its second round of reviews there, this change might (should) influence whether they will publish.

Good luck. Please report back on this site with what happens.


Edit in response to update in the question.

Since the paper has now been accepted, I suspect and hope that the editor would not allow you to remove an author without that author's permission. That might not sway Professor Johnson, who seems willing to withdraw the paper if Jane's name must be on it.

If Jane has not only left the lab but permanently left the field then she could agree to have her name omitted at no cost to her. That would still be somewhat unethical, since she did the work, but she might be willing so that you are not denied the publication.

You could still try rewriting the paper omitting everything Jane contributed.

This is still a quandary.

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  • 36
    Most journals will state that cannot and will not involve themselves in authorship disputes. However, some journals will not allow an author to be removed after review unless the author themselves consents. Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 17:55
  • 6
    That sounds like a potential avenue for resolution. OP can blame the journal for not letting him remove her. Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 3:11
  • 6
    Bullet point one does not seem fair to Jane, unless she can publish her work separately.
    – Kimball
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 7:49
  • 17
    @Kimball There is no resolution fair to Jane other than including her as an author. My hope in suggesting the first bullet point was that the professor would not want to exclude that material, so would see the error of his ways. Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 12:06
  • 4
    I get it, but I wouldn't encourage the OP to actively remove Jane's contribution (do the unethical part) and see what the already hostile professor's reaction is. Clearly communicating Jane's contribution to the professor seems a better approach to me, though I'm not optimistic about success.
    – Kimball
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 13:32
9

Some opinions sure to be extremely unpopular so downvote away.

First: is Dr. Johnson right? It's possible. His INSISTENCE makes it sound like he's seeking personal revenge, but maybe he's right. I'd love to ask him why he approved the authorship in the first place, but that's the kind of discussion that probably won't help anyone.

But let's say he's wrong, and this is only his personal vendetta.

How are you going to be if you force the issue? Are you going to lose your position? Will you be able to advance your career? Will you be able to work in the field further? That's the potential cost. What's the potential benefit? Is there ANY amount of stink you can raise that will get Jane and the other smaller contributor's name on the paper, and if so, how much of a help will that be in their careers? It's good that other answers are conspicuously "virtue-signalling," advising taking the moral high ground, when it's not their career that could be affected. In fact, that's normally my personal play even at risk to myself. But if the potential benefit is zero, there's going to be SOME cost which it is not a smart decision to incur for said zero benefit.

Life is about learning experiences and we've learned a bunch here already:

  • vet institution before joining
  • commit decisions to ink (email) not do informally, no matter how friendly or good the people are; even morally-upright friends can have huge misunderstandings
  • do not fight with bosses, as apparently Jane did. No fight SHOULD result in this retribution, but we have to acknowledge that there are abusive people who will engage in this retribution. Jane did so, and you have to be selfish for a second and note that she's put YOU in a bit of a dangerous position with that, along with anyone else in her clique in the department. Don't hold it against her (or at least I wouldn't) but it's an important angle to understand.
  • it's too late now, but don't take action (such as your approach to Johnson) until you've figured out that this is your best move. In my career I've made this mistake several times.
  • as another commenter mentioned, don't be Prof. Johnson when you get into such a position. Seeing such revenge first hand actually could help you be a better person than you would have been otherwise.

So what to do? You haven't shared all the potential costs and benefits and its probably impossible to summarize in a short note anyway. But:

  1. Verify with the journal whether authors can even be edited at this point, and if possible talk with the editor verbally and imply you're looking for a no, if there's not a written policy. This no will avoid all future discussion.
  2. I wouldn't get the more minor contributor axed as well. Leave the poor guy out of it.
  3. Jane obviously is going to find out if she's removed, and the more likely that is, the more likely you should let her know the situation. She might have good information, such as a trustable party in the institute you can talk with. Or, she may confide that she was wrong to fight with Johnson and was going to apologize anyway. Or that she's not concerned about this minor authorship as she's onto something bigger, or that she's decided to leave academia. Or something. I might try to present this as "we've got a problem" (you and Jane) and ask to brainstorm solutions on you two's mutual problem.
  4. You're a good person to want to help Jane out with trouble she apparently has landed herself in, but just as you can't take home all the kitties and puppies in the pound, this might not be YOUR fight to fight. Maybe the solution is for Jane to fight this, if she wants to fight it, and you two connive for you to give maximum aid commensurate with not damaging your own career?
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    Personally I think this is good advice. Not the moral high ground, but very pragmatic.
    – Andrew
    Commented Nov 20, 2022 at 0:35
  • 2
    It would be OK to advocate for a moral compromise on practical grounds if you were honest about it: "Cave in to the abuser because standing up for the innocent victim will be costly while doing no good". However, you are not honest: she's put YOU in a bit of a dangerous position and help Jane out with trouble she apparently has landed herself in is practically a definition of victim blaming, something that's simply not true: no-one has put OP in a dangerous position but prof. Johnson.
    – Kostya_I
    Commented Nov 20, 2022 at 14:09
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    If removing her from the authors list, should we also remove all the data and figures she contributed to? Commented Nov 20, 2022 at 21:15
  • 1
    Not the moral high ground, but very pragmatic. Imagine if Schindler, of Schindler's List fame, made a public speech that the Jews shouldn't be rounded up and killed. He wouldn't have saved ANY Jews in that case, agreed? In life you have to play the "long game." Trying to maximize instantaneous level of moral-high-groundedness probably won't maximize area under the curve. Commented Nov 21, 2022 at 6:38
  • practically a definition of victim blaming -- Sometimes people do things that increase their chances of getting unfair and unmoral consequences visited upon them. We're left to choose whether to point this out to people, allowing them to make an informed decision to avoid those consequences, or not. Say a tourist is standing too close to the cliff edge. You can victim-blame, saying that other people who do this tend to fall to their deaths, and reduce the chances this sightseer dies in turn. Or you could scoff that to do so would be victim-blaming and let the guy die a splattery death. Commented Nov 21, 2022 at 7:00
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I would advise you to try to avoid a direct confrontation with Pr. Johnson but to refuse (very politely) to remove Jane.

You could e.g. say that unfortunately this is not possible because you believe the journal doesn't allow the list of authors to change between submissions (which is probably at least kind of true). Or you could say that you understand if he wants to contact the editors directly but that you don't feel comfortable doing that yourself. If possible, say all this by email so that there is a written record. If you are willing to compromise a little bit, offer him to become the corresponding author instead of you and let him take responsibility with the editors; or tell him that unless Jane herself agrees to renounce authorship, your hands are tied.

In any case, even if you take a risk by confronting Pr. Johnson, you also take a risk (possibly greater) if you agree to do something clearly unethical such as removing Jane, unless you have proof that you were coerced to do so.

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    Op should find out if it's possible or not to remove authors --just saying you don't think it is possible (or worse lie and saying it isn't when you haven't checked) is weak and will just piss off the pi, who most likely already knows the journals policies
    – eps
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 17:39
  • Unfortunately, based on the description in the question, I don't think it's possible to refuse to remove Jane, without being in a direct confrontation with Prof. Johnson, no matter how politely this is done.
    – Andrew
    Commented Nov 20, 2022 at 0:32
0

I would suggest involving the chair of the department or lab (assuming it is not Prof. Johnson), because the upcoming harassment suit is going to be very, very painful. Even, I might add, if that isn't the cause of the personal dispute, because that's how it will be framed. If this is Prof. Johnson, I would move on up to the dean. Jane is going to notice the absence of deserved credit, and it won't get better from there.

The last journal my wife submitted to required repeated certification that all researchers had received appropriate credit.

-3

It depends on how much of your own benefits will become void If you keep your ethics.

I will feel really sorry for her if I were at your position, but I would be more worried about my consequence if I support her.

I probably will let her know that the professor is kicking her out anonymously, and it's up to her to fight against the professor. I might give her some anonymous evidence too but it depends.

Either way, I strongly suggest you to keep some evidence of your professors kicking Jane out, in case you will be in the same boat later.

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    ... or in case Jane manages to defend her right to be on the author's list and Prof. Johnson makes the OP the scapegoat by claiming that removing Jane was their idea. Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 12:55
-6

For the neutral part: You are being the victim of a weird system. Please note that Prof. Johnson is as much an active actor in this system as a victim.

Prof. Johnson is strongly entrenched in their request to remove Jane. If you are completely expelled from the academia because of this friction with Prof. Johnson, you will leave your place to someone that may or may not be as good as you at advocating for fair authorship.

So do whatever you have to do. if the paper is 100% necessary for your career, make an half-assed attempt at changing the authors list, write to the lowest editor of the journal an email with your prof Johnson in cc, asking the removal of Jane from the authors list.

Now, assuming your side of the story is the right one.

Keep in mind a couple of things for the future:

  • If you have strong arguments with your subordinates, do not be revengeful and avoid resentment (well, this is true even if Professor Johnson was the right one in the big argument with Jane);
  • do not be Prof. Johnson.

For the present keep in mind this: becoming a professor is like winnning a lottery. You need a lot of stars to alignate for that to become reality. The small star being the +1 paper with famous/influential prof. Johnson is negligble. And the other co-authors may find you a jerk for blocking the publication of the paper on this conflict, but even if they are in absolute need of that paper for their PhD, they are at risk of a much bigger jerk, so I suggest you to clearly explain your concerns privately to them.

On the other hand, as a postdoc you do not fully realize your potential of finding a satisfying job outside the academia. Do not forget that.

Good luck!

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    Can you please clarify what you mean that the professor is a victim in your opening paragraph? Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 14:11
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    1/2 @infinitezero it is against the human nature to be mean to close people. Students are close to professor. Prof. Jonson had at least a minimum of interest (maybe dictated by their ego, who knows) to have a model role. I wonder (not really) how come that a smart person is so shortsighted to be mean and so irrational. It cannot be their own fault only. It must be (past) ambient influence, too.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 16:31
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    2/2 However, nowadays prof Jonson is an actor in this ambient. How to break the vicious circle? How to stop becoming prof Jonson? 1st: realizing that hard working is just the other side of the exploitation medal ---> stop celebrating that. 2nd: stop believing in suffering and hardship as a learning tool.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 16:31
  • 2
    I might see your point, but the way you present it suggests you're excusing the actions of prof. Johnson. He is an independent person, and from what the OP writes, is not actively influenced by any external factors. He is not a part of any vicious circle. Maybe he was exposed to some bad role models in the past, but certainly, as a professor, he had a chance to meet good role models. It is entirely up to him to make right and ethical decisions. Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 19:14
  • @user1079505 It's 2022 and we are still discussing issues that are present since the late 80s (and probably before, I limit to my personal experience). I have enough of this crap, and enough of seeing people trying hard to find the bad guys (and quite often being deceived by the moral fighters apparently fighting for the good of everyone else). Let's fight the future the prof Johnsons, not the many prof Johnsons being around
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Nov 21, 2022 at 8:55
-7

It's not entirely clear from your description the following two things:

  1. How closely reliant are you on this PI? i.e. is he your primary/sole sponsor, or one of several you work with?
  2. What was the nature of this "fight" between Jane and PI, and is she a grad student with him as advisor?

Also let me add broader question (3) What are your priorities, between 'doing what seems just/fair' and 'grease a few wheels to advance'?

If he is your primary sponsor AND he is not Jane's advisor, then side with him. If he IS her advisor, maybe what he really wants is to get her to quit or switch advisors. Even if you convince him to keep her on this paper it really just drags things out for both people who don't want to be in the relationship.

If you are not reliant on him for support and on merit things should go with Jane in terms of the fight, well, propose withdrawing your further work with him and he can have fun with sub-par students like Jane. If such action is too adversarial, suck it up and remove Jane.

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    If he is your primary sponsor AND he is not Jane's advisor, then side with him. - While this makes sense from a self-preservation perspective, this is not necessarily the ethical choice.
    – Kimball
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 7:51
  • 26
    sub-par students like Jane - I didn't see anywhere in the post that suggests she's a sub-par student. Where did this come from?
    – Kimball
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 7:52
  • @Kimball it depends on your ethics. I am sure prof. Johnson's ethics will find personal survival is the ethical choice.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 8:35
  • 4
    I like how this answer candidly exposes the power games inside academia. A long time ago, they were power games only for the sake of own's ego, luckily in the past 20 years with the fundings becoming scarcier and closer to a competitive system, also money are involved.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 8:37
  • @Kimball Indeed. The present response is as relevant as Jane was sub-par; sub-par enough to utilize material she made for the publication. If this was ironic by the responder, they should have put it in quotes. Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 13:54

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