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I am a final year PhD student, in the process of writing the thesis and submitting the manuscripts of my work done. Unfortunately, the work-environment in my lab was quite toxic, with several bullying- issues, personal (verbal) attacks and condescending behaviour (particularly towards students like me, female foreigners). Soon I am going to submit my first first-author manuscript, including one of my previous co-worker who was condescending towards me. I had forwarded this issue to our PI several times, but he did not care. Right now I am thinking of actually not adding this person as a co-author, as his bad behaviour also cost me a lot of time.

Is that legal? Is discriminative behaviour of your co-authors a reason to exclude them? I would put his name in the acknowledgements, but I think as a co-author his behaviour was too bad. What do you think about it?

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    For answering the question whether this is legal, you would need to tells us the country. Otherwise, any answer is plain speculation. Dec 19, 2022 at 13:44
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    The co-author's behaviour might be unpleasant, but I'm afraid it's not bad enough to warrant removal from authorship. Ludwig Bieberbach was a literal Nazi and we still call one of his ideas in mathematics the Bieberbach conjecture. More or less, there is no level of behaviour that warrants erasure from the written record. Dec 20, 2022 at 11:31

8 Answers 8

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In case the person in question contributed substantially enough to the paper, you cannot exclude them as an author due to personal differences. These two things have nothing to do with each other.

If the other person did not contribute substantially to the paper, then they shouldn't be an author in the first place.

Even though being treated badly, sexist or bullied is unarguably shitty and I am sorry that you had to go through that, denying someone (justified) authorship because of that is not the proper way to handle such a situation and might (if you go through with it) lead to problems afterwards, as it is their "intellectual achievements" that you are selling as your own if you exclude them as author.

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I am so sorry for that, but I cannot support your action.

If the coworker did contribute significantly to your work, excluding him from the list of authors would be unethical, and it may lead to other problems. Academic contribution should be the only criterion to determine who should be included in the list of authors.

Is that legal?

I don't know as it is dependent on where you are doing your PhD; however, I doubt that it is legal.

Regarding your relationship with other coworkers, unfortunately, you have to deal with it seperately.

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    Issues of authorship are primarily judged at the level of professional ethics, so it isn't legality that's of key importance but rather how it will be perceived professionally - by editors of a journal, by OP's university, by colleagues, by people that making hiring and firing decisions.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 19, 2022 at 21:56
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To give a slightly different take from the current answers: It is not ethical to publish a paper with the contribution of a person without crediting them properly as author. However, there might be situations in which you are able to cut out that contribution and publish the paper without it. Either because the paper is good and understandable without it or because the part can be re-done by somebody else. In the latter case, be sure to avoid plagiarising the removed parts, e.g., by having a new person do that who has no knowledge of the original text. Both approaches only work in cases where the authorship is not too intertwined, of course.

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    That's not how ideas work, surely? If X had a bunch of ideas and they helped solve the problem, you cannot remove those ideas, go up to someone else and say "hey, can you have these ideas so I can pretend they were yours?" I can see no way that this could work unless the person's contribution was so minimal as to not warrant authorship in the first place. If it's a statistical analysis, for example, if it gets the same answer, and it hopefully should, X will, definitely, raise an issue with the editorial board of the journal and you will lose that one. Dec 20, 2022 at 11:25
  • You do not do repair wrongdoings by doing another wrongoding.
    – EarlGrey
    Dec 20, 2022 at 13:53
  • "In the latter case, be sure to avoid plagiarising the removed parts, e.g., by having a new person do that who has no knowledge of the original text." Funny and dangerous way of thinking. However, I suggest you a way to protect yourself from legal proceedings. Provide the original text to the new person and make them swear in writing that they read the original text and that if they do replicate it in their work, the replication is purely coincidental. I am sure it will work :D
    – EarlGrey
    Dec 20, 2022 at 14:34
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Credit/coauthorship is a function of contribution independent of behavior, so just because you don't like someone doesn't mean you should deny them co-authorship IF they contributed.

Include this person as co-author but do not work with them any further. Getting into a credit dispute with a toxic person is not worth your time and energy and could blow up into something worse. Remember toxic people are much better at being toxic than non-toxic people, so assuming you have represented all parties and yourself fairly in this question do you really want to get into a dispute/shit-fight with this person? You're basically playing them on their home turf.

Let's call the problematic co-author "Q".

You are (and I don't recommend this at all) even free to say things like "F-- Q" anytime someone talks to you in person about your paper, but the minute you drop "Q" from the co-authorship list, you now have a stain on your reputation/psyche of "denying credit where it was due" and that's (my opinion here so take with salt) an entirely different level of bridge that you have crossed compared to just announcing "F--- Q" at every opportunity you get. I wouldn't want that reputation, I wouldn't want that on my conscience, I just would want to "warlessly" get away from "Q" as fast as possible if I was in your position.

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I'm sorry you're going through that, and while excluding this person from the list of authors is probably not the right call, I hope you can find resources at your university to help you get through this experience and take disciplinary action against this person if that's what you want to do.

It seems to me a lot of the answers are saying that discrimination is something "between you and said co-author", which makes it sound like a personal conflict with both sides at fault. Instead, I think people are forgetting that discrimination is a serious and pervasive issue in academia. A PhD is demanding enough on its own, but dealing with systemic issues like that must add even more burden and be extremely frustrating. You are not alone in this and hopefully (I don't know where you go), there are people and resources dedicated to such situations.

(edit: rephrased as answer)

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    This does not really answer the question. It appears to be a comment on other answers. Dec 20, 2022 at 14:30
  • Yes, you may want to rephrase to make the "answer" part of this answer clearer. That said, I think your second paragraph does contain an answer: don't remove this person from the author list, but consider taking disciplinary action through your university.
    – cag51
    Dec 20, 2022 at 18:27
  • I tried to post it as a comment first but it was too long. You're right, I can definitely rephrase Dec 20, 2022 at 21:14
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Academia and research is quite tricky environment to handle. There are three layers of hierarchy and three layers of relationships.

  1. Institutional hierarchy
    The head is Rector (or director), his subordinates are deans etc. Your position in Chain-of-Command is Rector-Dean-Department Head-Advisor-You. You are the least significant bit here.

  2. Project hierarchy (or Research hierarchy)
    The head is the Project Leader of the project. It can be your advisor or any member of the faculty. The Chain-of-Command can be Project Leader-You or Project Leader - Your Advosor - You.

  3. Article hierarchy
    Here the head is the First Author (You) and the Chain-of-Command is You-other contributors.

The problem is that different issues are to be resolved in appropriate hierarchies.

The problem you describe is not to be resolved within Article hierarchy. Those who contribute are to be in the author list; those who don't contribute are not to be in the list. Period. Actually, it could have been resolved by expelling them from the team before they contributed. But this is task for the other hierarchies and it may result in change of Article hierarchy.

The issue is to be resolved within the first type of hierarchy because it is workplace misbehaviour. Talk to your advisor, because they are your superior in the tree. If it fails raise the issue to the Department Head and/or the student's unions. Keep it factual and keep it assertively active.

The only misbehaviour you can punnish by leaving someone from the author list is author misbehaviour: Not providing texts, providing false data etc. And the result is not using their inputs at all so their contribution is none or negligible so you can defend the omission. Bully, verbal assaults and simillar are a serious problem, but not to be resolved this way.

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"as a co-author his behaviour was too bad."

His authorship is not about how he behaved, but reflects his contribution. So, as others have said, you should not remove him based on that.

I am really sorry for you, I can somehow relate as I have experienced a similar situation. But may I tell you that I do not support your "solution" at all. By excluding him you are confronting (it is also a form of communication) your colleague and begging for more conflict! Ask yourself what do you want to achieve by doing that? Do you want the conflict to escalate? Or are you open to resolve it? And if the situation is so that you cannot solve it, then accept that, try to move on and do not waste more energy.

I would suggest you try to talk to her/him. I know, also from my experience, that this is not always working, but at least you can say you have tried everything from your side. Good luck!

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I am sorry you are facing this issue and you had an unpleasant, abusive working environment.

One may argue we are hearing only one side of the story: in my humble (and arrogant) opinion, behavioral abuses are fully subjective (like sexual abuses), which means that if you felt you were abused, you were. No need to hear the other side of the story. You are the victim, the co-author is the perpetrator. Unfortuntely there were no mechanisms in place to have your feelings listened, so I would go as far as saying that the system was perpetring abuse on you, so there are personal and systemic responsibility.

Now, back to your question. The paper is a different system than your lab/department. The authors on a paper are not judged on their efficiency, nor on their behavior. When you say "his bad behaviour also cost me a lot of time.", well, also tutoring a student costs a lot of time, often unnecessarily, however if said student contribute enough to a certain paper, they deserve autorship.

So, on one hand the paper is a different "entity" than your work. I even know of authors lists that carry in themselves couples and lovers, or authors coming from countries being on different side of a war, with all the involved emotional strains.

On the other hand, if you feel really confident, you can think about venting out in the acknowledgements [1], thanking for an unhealthy working environment. It is an extreme measure, but hey, at least your paper is forever linked to the co-authors you do not want but also to a strong sentence regarding their "soft skills". Regarding future consequences for your career: there are few people that read the acknowledgments in the papers from candidates to postdoc&co.

I personally would consider such an acknowledgment as a plus from your side (however I have bad news for you: I am out of the academia, mostly because I hate that universities&co. should set the example, regarding personal respect and freedom, instead they are as bad as they were decades ago and they sacrifice everything in the name of "scientific progress"[2])

[1] be strong, and think about yourself, we are all very brave at typing on a keyboard, but as they say in the Netherlands "the high trees get all the wind" ...

[2] I know, publishing a paper with the co-author is kind of sacrificing all your suffering on the altar of progress, but it is done to set a rule about co-authorship. Every one that contributed deserve authorship, because good or bad judgement is personal (what if your PI decides you behaved badly by putting strain in the working environments by expressing your opinions and exclude you from the paper?)

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