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Prior to starting my Ph.D., I initiated a project with my former boss. We both wrote proposals and secured funding from an international foundation for a two-year period. The following year, I began my Ph.D. program (continuing with the project), during which I dedicated four years to collecting data, selecting sites, managing and verifying expenses, obtaining permissions from landowners (basically all logistics), and, of course, drafting reports for donors.

We also received an additional grant from a government agency during this period. Essentially, I coordinated and executed all the fieldwork. During this time, I had the idea to gather supplementary data that could potentially be used for other publications. However, they recently published a paper utilizing this data without acknowledging my contributions and efforts.

I reached out to all the authors via email, and their response implied that I lacked interest in publishing because I still had pending papers from my dissertation (although I have already published two). It's worth noting that they submitted two papers using data derived from my project without sending me the manuscripts for review, yet I am still listed as an author.

Furthermore, one of the authors, in the current paper falsely claims to have overseen logistics and handled data collection. In reality, this individual only assisted with data collection at less than 5% of the sites and was not involved in any logistical aspects. Additionally, they omitted acknowledging funding from one of the donors in their article.

My former boss suggested that I could be included as an author in other papers as a partial resolution, but personally, I don't believe this is an ethical solution. I understand that situations like these are common in academia, and it often feels like the person with less power has more to lose (and that's me). What options do I have?

Update: They sent me an email telling me they have requested my inclusion and also the inclusion of the other funding source. However, they haven't replied to my request to send me the email that they supposedly sent to the journal. So I am kind of worried that they are trying to do the minimum possible. I was relieved for a couple of hours after their email, but then I remembered that I shouldn't be so trusting. It's only been four days since I found out and I already feel the toll on my physical and mental health

Update 2: I am now listed as an author, and I would like to express my gratitude to all of you for your insights. I also wanted to share what I have learned:

Keep evidence: Whenever you send databases or any type of information, do it via email. I searched for any evidence I had regarding my contributions and found a substantial amount, including pictures, documents, emails, and text messages. Although I did not need to use it, I knew that if I wanted to contact the journal, I had important evidence to support my case.

Journals do not typically prioritize authorship issues. However, if all authors agree to add or remove an author (including the one being added or removed), the necessary adjustments will be made. This applies even if the paper has already been published, as they can publish a note of correction. In my case, the correction was handled in a very "polite" manner.

Many journals adhere to the authorship criteria outlined by The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), which consists of four criteria. In my situation, I did not meet two of these criteria. However, I discovered through other papers, such as "Authorship: Credit those who deserve it" by Ashish Kumar, that if you fulfill the first criterion: "substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work," you should have had the opportunity to meet either criterion #2 or #3. Therefore, if you find yourself in a similar situation where you are told you cannot be an author due to these criteria, remember that...

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    Which country? I am not a lawyer, but please save all the efforts you did wrt to logistics (i.e. obtaining permissions from landowners = you should have emails, ticket, refunds for the trip to visit them). Finish your PhD, get a job or another position, then It's going to be ugly, harden up with a lawyer and start the process of making them retract or at least amend the article, by contacting your uni at the higher levels (please note: your uni is not your friend and they will try to stop you).
    – EarlGrey
    May 11, 2023 at 6:39
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    Seemly, the environment is unethical ... It's worth noting that they submitted two papers using data derived from my project without sending me the manuscripts for review, yet I am still listed as an author. May 11, 2023 at 10:49
  • I am in latinoamerica. I have much evidence of everything I did, how involved I was in the project, and also how the first author wasn't. I already finished my Ph.D. even with an honorary mention, which really proves that people will respect you only until they feel they got what they needed from you. Sorry for being so negative but I am very disappointed of all. I appreciate your comments and support. May 13, 2023 at 1:54

2 Answers 2

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I think the ethical answer is obvious, your name should be included on the paper if you believe that you contributed substantially enough to warrant authorship. At the very least your contributions must be acknowledged if they did not amount to authorship.

In practice, this is probably not the easy answer. You could ask the existing authors to contact the journal and request a correction. If they agree, this would be best. The situation can be called a miscommunication and everyone walks away happy (or at least unharmed). This course of action depends heavily on your relationship with your former boss and the other authors. In a perfect world, this is the solution.

If that does not pan out, it would not be unreasonable to contact the journal directly. I would expect this to sour whatever relationship remains with your former boss and would-be co-authors.

Alternatively, your university may have someone able to help mediate these sorts of disputes. Or at least may be interested in this sort of academic bad behavior and could apply needed pressure. This would also likely sour the relationship and would depend on department dynamics.

The unethical (or at least less ethical) answer is to take your former boss's offer and accept (possibly questionable) authorship on other papers. This is not necessarily something I would suggest from an ethics standpoint but practically may be the only solution.

One important point, in my experience, it is at a minimum necessary to allow all authors a chance to revise and approve a manuscript - even if their main contribution was outside of writing. Combined with your improper exclusion and the exclusion of a funding source from this paper, I suspect there are loose ethical/academic standards at play. Or at least there is a level of sloppiness. If possible, it may be in your best interest to move away from this group in the long term.

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    +1 ... at a minimum necessary to allow all authors a chance to revise (and approve) a manuscript ... May 11, 2023 at 15:43
  • I appreciate your comments. I am not in that group anymore or at that university (I don't think they would be of any help; on the contrary, they would back them up). I completely agree that they should have given me an opportunity to review the paper, not only because it was the right thing to do, but also because just by seeing the abstract and acknowledgments section, I immediately spotted a couple of mistakes (like the funding source). May 13, 2023 at 1:45
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You should make an ethics complaint for research misconduct

Assuming your description is accurate, your omission as an author from the first paper you describe seems to me like textbook research misconduct. In regard to this paper, it sounds like these academics intentionally misrepresented the authorship during the submission and publication process, knowing that you had made a substantial contribution to the research. (I won't speak to the latter papers where you are listed as an author, because the issue there sounds more complex.) You should bear in mind that logistical support and contribution to the acquisition of funding is not usually considered to be a research contribution warranting coauthorship, but fieldwork, data collection and contribution to experimental design (e.g., selecting sites for the work) are clear research contributions that are likely to warrant coauthorship.

The fact that they did not contact you prior to submission to advise you of the submission and how they were proceeding shows that they were attempting to exclude you without your knowledge and without an opportunity for you to object. The fact that you have email evidence showing their excuse that you had chosen not to publish other papers (which is quite irrelevant) sounds like it will confirm that they knowingly excluded you without good reason. The misconduct here is partially mitigated by the fact that they are now cooperating with you to try to correct the authorship, but this is only slight mitigation --- they tried to get away with excluding you but now are trying to correct this only after you have found out about the publication and complained.

This is highly unethical (and I would say fraudulent) behaviour. In this circumstance, I recommend you immediately make a formal complaint of research misconduct to all the relevant universities where these academics hold positions. You should continue to pursue a change in authorship on the paper concurrently with this, and you can note in your complaint that successful change of authorship would mitigate (though not eliminate) the research misconduct at issue. This kind of thing happens in academia because people let it happen, by failing to pursue the ethics processes in place to prevent and punish this unethical behaviour.

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  • Thank you for your comments. I don't believe that making a formal complaint about research misconduct to their universities is a good idea. I know how my former university has always protected its own people, even in more severe cases. Honestly, even speaking up to them was hard because I knew that it would consequently bring bad references from them that could compromise my future. But I was very disappointed and angry, and I knew that if I didn't speak up, I would eventually regret it. May 13, 2023 at 5:32
  • If you feel that you are in a system that is sufficiently dysfunctional that raising legitimate complaints will lead to retaliation and further damage to you then I would encourage you to consider getting out of that system entirely (and I understand your username in that circumstance). I am not in a position to judge the quality of university complaint systems in Latin America, but if your description of your university is accurate then that reflects very poorly on them.
    – Ben
    May 13, 2023 at 5:39
  • Yes, actually, I already left. I don't need to be in that system to do research, so doing a postdoc was not even an option for me. However, the project was important to me, and I put too much effort into it to just let them walk all over me. Thanks, Ben May 13, 2023 at 6:13

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