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A is a corresponding author for a paper (PhD work) that has been submitted to a journal. I am the main and the first author, while he is the second author. Recently, he has withdrawn a paper after it has been reviewed for 8 months and recently accepted in the journal without notifying me or getting my acceptance because of a personal conflict. He contributed to the paper only through his comments and revisions. I have many emails showing his minimal contribution to the paper and his satisfaction about the work in the paper. The paper is part of my PhD and I am recently graduated. I would like to know if the journal can simply accept his request despite that he contributes to the work only through his revisions. What is your advice?

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    Can they? Or should they? It is probably possible, but likely unethical.
    – Buffy
    May 1, 2023 at 17:15
  • @Buffy I mean should they? Can I publish the paper after removing his contribution?
    – Engineer
    May 1, 2023 at 17:33
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    Was any reason given for the withdrawal? You say "because of a personal conflict." I can imagine many things that might mean, some of which would cause sympathy for the other person, some of which would not. Has there been any meaningful communication since? If they agreed to let you publish alone that would be very different.
    – Boba Fit
    May 1, 2023 at 19:21

5 Answers 5

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It seems unethical to me for your coauthor to remove a publication without the agreement of all authors. The journal won't know there is a problem, however, unless you tell them.

If the other person is/was your advisor then think hard before you make a move, balancing the value of a single paper against the future good will of the other person.

But, ideally, you should be able to contact the editor of the journal and lodge a complaint that the withdrawal was done without your permission (or knowledge, if that is the case).

But it is also difficult, at this stage, to "remove" their contributions, since they are/were more than just words on the page of the paper. Those conversations (oral or written) contributed to the content of the paper. Doing so would seem to require their permission, just as withdrawing it requires (or should) yours. Good luck.

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    Thanks. I contacted the journal and made complaint about that. They asked about the contribution specifics between me and the corresponding author. The editor escalated the case to the editor manager for handling. Just to get your point about the corresponding author was being my advisor, do you mean this can affect his future career? or you mean he can take action against me. I have already graduated!
    – Engineer
    May 1, 2023 at 17:49
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    Future career, but only in the case you would want future recommendations. Not many people will go out of their way to sabotage a former student, but it happens.
    – Buffy
    May 1, 2023 at 17:51
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    I don't think there is anything unethical on the side of the journal. It isn't their job to sort out author conflicts for papers that haven't actually been published. May 2, 2023 at 2:58
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    @Buffy, it sounds like the advisor already retracted a paper of the OP "because of a personal conflict". If that is really true I don't think the OP can trust him to write a good recommendation letter anyway. At that point is probably better to make it clear that there is a personal conflict and to try to get a recommendation letter from someone else (who perhaps will comment on why a letter from the advisor is missing). Of course this assumes the OP can find someone else who is willing to stand up for them.
    – Kvothe
    May 2, 2023 at 10:38
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    @WolfgangBangerth, no, it is the advisor being unethical, not the journal.
    – Buffy
    May 2, 2023 at 10:54
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A paper shouldn't be published without agreement of all the authors, so any author raising a problem with the paper should be sufficient to halt its progress through the publication process.

The level of contribution is irrelevant here. Either the corresponding author contributed sufficiently to the work to be an author, or they didn't. If they did, they must be an author, and must agree for the paper to be published. If they didn't, they should never have been an author. Those lines are not always clear and certainly conventions differ between fields/locations/labs, but here it seems like the decision was made that this person should be an author, and it's not appropriate to remove someone as author without their agreement.

The issue here is instead the reason for withdrawing. If, for example, the corresponding author, or any other author, recognized some time after the submission that the first author contributed fraudulent data to the manuscript, clearly the right and ethical thing for them to do would be to inform the journal and withdraw the paper.

You only vaguely mention a "personal conflict". If any author requests withdrawal of a paper for reasons unrelated to the content of the paper itself, that seems to be clearly unethical, but can be somewhat difficult to argue without evidence. If you do not know what reason was given to the journal for withdrawal, I'd recommend asking them. Only then will you know how to proceed. In the meantime, I'd consider whether there is anything you can do to mend this relationship. If the paper is good quality, preventing its publication hurts both of you.

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    You raise an important point - the paper hasn't been published. But permission was originally given and now an unannounced withdrawal. That is problematic.
    – Buffy
    May 1, 2023 at 18:01
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    @Buffy Agree it's problematic, but it's important to get to the reasons, because changing ones mind on whether they agree to publish is not itself wrong. On the other hand, not agreeing for a paper to be published to penalize or get revenge on someone is wrong whether it occurs before or after the initial submission.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 1, 2023 at 18:04
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    What is the nature of your personal conflict?
    – Bryan Krause
    May 1, 2023 at 18:08
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    @BryanKrause Yes, he was my supervisor. Actually, he needs to put his name as first author because of his promotion this year.
    – Engineer
    May 1, 2023 at 19:00
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    @RefaatGalal Got it. Well, actually he doesn't, but it seems the institution has decided that he does, which puts both of you in a terrible position. I'm sorry for both of you.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 1, 2023 at 19:01
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You are asking too much of journals.

A journal isn't obligated to publish your paper. If it is good, they will want to publish it, but it isn't their job to sort out disagreements between authors: If one author does not want the paper to go through the publishing process, then it is not the job of the editors to figure out why that is, who of the authors is right, what the correct approach to resolving the issue is, and so on. From an editorial perspective, the right thing to do is say "Look, folks, this is your job to sort out. Come back when you're in agreement and we can reconsider the paper. Until then, take your paper and talk about what you want to do."

The situation is different once the paper is actually published. At that point, journals have to consider that they have an obligation to the public to be an archive of knowledge, and the bar for retracting a paper is substantially higher. But before the paper is actually published (even if it has been accepted) it's not the editors' job to resolve interpersonal conflicts -- and as a consequence, I don't think that the journal acted unethically in your case.

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  • Just thinking out loud. Could the editor not have sought comment from all author? By comment, I mean not necessarily approval. <br>Just to be clear though, my understanding is the journal/editor is not a mediator. The comments would be for accountability and/or transparency. May 3, 2023 at 7:04
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    @semmyk-research If there is only one possible outcome, why ask for comments? What would you do with these comments? May 3, 2023 at 12:47
  • An interesting view you've got there @Wolfgang-Bangerth. Comments in this instance or in other scenarios should assist with #transparency. No wonder the reasons for & meta-data for retraction is ongoing discourse. | RetractionWatch Transparency Index | Marasović et al. (2018) on transparency of retracting | Vuong (2020, p. 149) on 'more transparency' ... taxonomy or four info: initiation; cause; consensus; post-pub review May 4, 2023 at 15:46
  • @semmyk-research There's no retraction here. The paper hasn't been published, it was still in the pipeline. May 4, 2023 at 21:05
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This answer builds on Wolfgang Bangerth's answer, which I agree with.

The journal basically has two options: they can let your co-author withdraw the manuscript, or they refuse. If they let your co-author withdraw the manuscript, then we're basically where you are at.

If they don't let your co-author withdraw the manuscript, then what do they do next? They again have two choices: they can publish, or they can not publish. If they publish, then there's a serious ethical violation - they cannot publish a paper without the consent of all authors. If they don't publish, then the paper basically sits in the system collecting dust, which does not help anyone.

Since all the other options are bad, the journal is left with letting your co-author withdraw the manuscript.

It sounds like you are hoping the journal will arbitrate the authorship dispute. That's not the journal's role. Firstly they don't have a close-up view of every authors' contribution (they can scarcely send someone to visit your university to check), and secondly, they have no authority over the authors. It's something you will have to hash out with the co-author, if necessary involving other members of your department, but not the journal.

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To add another minor detail to the already good answers: The journal may not have the right to publish.

Usually the journal asks you for waiving your copyright shortly before publication, not during review. When the authors want to retract the paper before, there is nothing the journal can do against it.

Normally then the first author or corresponding author needs to sign the waiver on behalf of the others and your co-author will probably not let you sign it, so the dispute isn't even the problem of the journal anyway as they won't get a legal signature on the waiver and thus will not publish the paper.

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