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A journal I handle recently received a paper that looks like a student's project. Reasons to think this include the research conducted, the writing style (e.g. the paper describes things which research-level readers are virtually certain to know well), and the fact that of the paper's two authors, one of them is a professor while the other's LinkedIn profile says they're an undergraduate.

If it is a student's project, then one would expect the student to be listed as the first author, but the professor is listed first. This feels a little concerning on an intuitive level (maybe bullying is involved?). All our communications address both authors, but the professor is the submitting author who also answers our questions, and the student has not told us anything directly.

I'm one of the journal's staff. Should I do anything? If yes, what?

Some of the obvious things I can do are:

  • Nothing. The "evidence" is at best suggestive and very far from conclusive. There could be nothing inappropriate going on at all. Besides, journals usually don't get involved in authorship disputes.
  • Directly bring it up with the authors. (The professor is likely to say the ordering is correct, but they were always going to say that, so this doesn't seem like it achieves anything.)
  • Email the student, and only the student, to ask them about this. (Could be scary for the student, might also offend the professor if they learn about it, which they easily could if the student tells them.)

Edit: to clarify, 1) there is no policy to email every author to get their consent to publish, but there is a policy to include every author in all our communications. I have no reason to think that the email address of the student is wrong. 2) The standard in the field is to list authors by contribution. For this particular manuscript as well, if the author order were alphabetical, the student would come first.

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    You are the the journal employee, but don't the terms and conditions at journals usually specify that the journal has no say in author order? Wouldn't an intervention break this Ts&Cs? Jun 8, 2023 at 6:54
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    @IanSudbery I don't understand. Journals don't usually arbitrate authorship disputes, but I don't see why we can't alert "someone" (maybe the head of department?) if we suspect bullying.
    – Allure
    Jun 8, 2023 at 7:02
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    Is it your journal's policy to contact every author individually to confirm consent to publish, or to just assume the corresponding author speaks for them? This case might be an argument in favor of the former... Jun 8, 2023 at 8:40
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    Perhaps you should include the standard author-order format for the subject/field of the paper, since (as I've learned here the past few years) that standard could be for authors to be listed alphabetically by last/family name, that standard could be for the most-contributing author to be listed first, that standard could be for the most-senior author to be listed first, that standard could be for the most-contributing author to be listed last, that standard could be for the most-senior author to be listed last, etc. (Maybe some of these possibilities don't exist, I don't know.) Jun 8, 2023 at 8:51
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    Think scientifically! What can you support by evidence? what is just a notion? You may be correct but this is a the flaw of systems that depend on ethical behaviour while there will always be those who break it. In th eend it is not your task to try to second guess what is going on, it will be up to the authors to sort that out. This will occassionally fail but can bite the violator in th end in the long run. Jun 10, 2023 at 19:38

9 Answers 9

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I would strongly encourage you to go for Option (1) - do nothing.

You are reading a lot into a very noisy signal. It's possible that something shady is going on, but it is also very possible that the professor did in fact do most of the intellectual work and just got some help from their students (e.g., as part of a research internship). Contrary to popular belief, some professors do in fact still do research on their own. Do not apply your own experience from how things work around you to everybody in the world (remember that academia varies more than you think).

I would argue that with Option (3) you are severely overstepping your boundaries. Nothing good will come out of that. Even if there is something shady going on, what will your email accomplish? The students are already aware of the author order (they receive an email after all, and likely need to confirm their co-authorship). And if there is a brewing conflict because the students are unhappy with the order (which, again, is a pretty substantial if), there is nothing you can do to help them. You cannot force them to change the order of authors based on a hunch. The most severe thing you can do on the journal side is desk-reject the paper, but then the authors can just re-submit elsewhere.

I have multiple papers where I, as the most senior person on the team, did most of the work and was listed first. I would have been extremely miffed if somebody from the journal staff would have asked me to explain myself (or worse, show proof that I did indeed do sufficient work to be first author).

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    I upvoted, but a question about this: The most severe thing you can do on the journal side is desk-reject the paper - if there is something shady going on (which I agree is a big if), presumably I could alert someone at the university?
    – Allure
    Jun 8, 2023 at 10:35
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    @Allure I mean, nobody stops you from doing that, but again - if you have nothing more than a hunch to go by, why would the university take you seriously and is this really a hill you desire to die on? You are putting a lot of professional reputation on the stake here while you don't even know if there is a problem.
    – xLeitix
    Jun 8, 2023 at 13:15
  • @Allure There might also be the issue that you are abusing confidential information - is the journal even ok with you discussing details of an under-review manuscript with outsiders? I would definitely check this, and my assumption is that the answer will be "no".
    – xLeitix
    Jun 8, 2023 at 13:16
  • That's why if I do anything I would presumably confirm if there is a problem first with the student. Sort of like this: edition.cnn.com/2021/01/15/us/… (which would also be what option 3 would be about)
    – Allure
    Jun 8, 2023 at 13:23
  • @Allure interesting case with the CNN news you linked. Although I'd say the situation is quite different in yours. For one, there are more and stronger evidences in the CNN news. Second, the waiter can insert their concern via a normal interaction with the table. If, for example, the waiter had waited until they left and only then felt that they should do something, there wasn't anything the waiter could do. Following them discreetly into the to their home to observe whether there is indeed an abuse is not appropriate. I guess that's what xLeitix is trying to say with your Opt 3.
    – justhalf
    Jun 11, 2023 at 8:44
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I find it very easy to imagine a scenario where the student did most of the writing even if the professor contributed most of the ideas.

Reasons for this include:

  1. the professor is likely to be busy with other things;
  2. the paper may well be low priority for the professor but high priority for the student;
  3. there may be a university requirement that the student does almost all the writing in order to get (internal) credit.

These reasons are essentially independent of scientific contribution.

If you had any evidence that the contributions were being misrepresented, perhaps you should act on it. But you don't.

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I agree fully with xLeitix’s answer, that your description of the situation doesn’t sound like such serious cause for concern, and certainly doesn’t justify taking unilateral action.

Here I’ll add one more point: at least in the systems I’m familiar with, any action should initially go through the submission’s handling editor. They are the person who’s in contact with the authors on non-administrative questions, and who is primarily responsible for making sure the paper meets the journal’s policies and standards (including for authorship ordering) — and they should know the conventions of the field well enough to know those standards well. So if they are concerned about this point (either on their own behalf, or because a referee has raised the issue), then it’s completely appropriate for them to raise it with the authors to figure out whether there’s any problem, or (if they’re convinced there is a problem) to take some action in response.

However, from what you write, it sounds like you’re not the handling editor. If that’s the case, you have a clear path of action: mention your concerns to that editor, and leave any further action to them. They, not you, have the responsibility and authority to handle it — and hopefully the experience, integrity, and good sense to handle it well. And hopefully they’ll be able to either reassure you that the current ordering is appropriate, or else keep you updated on whatever further inquiry or actions they take.

(On the other hand, if you are the handling editor, then that’s important information you should add to the question!)

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I want to suggest two things:

(1) - Do nothing. You have far too little evidence. I work on the boundary between maths and computing, and there we often put papers in alphabetical order of author. Also, maybe the professor just isn't an expert in this area, worked on something with a student, then wrote it up badly. Unless you have significantly more evidence, I really don't think any response here is approriate.

Extra: If you want information like this, ask for it! Your journal can ask for a written statement on what each author contributed to the paper, which can either be kept private, or included as part of the paper. Many journals require such things. It might be hard to retroactively apply that to this paper, but it would help with similar future issues -- while it doesn't fix outright lying, in my experience if greatly helps with such problems.

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Please do the last option you have suggested. That is, to write to the student co-author directly and exclusively and find out the co-authors' respective contributions.

In Sri Lanka, I know there is a monetary reward scheme for academic staff called "Research Allowance" (since 2011), which is an additional monthly payment of 33% of the basic salary for one year for research undertaken during the course of a year (it need not be necessarily published). Many academics steal students' undergraduate dissertations (without their knowledge) to claim this Research Allowance. Thus, there is widespread abuse of this incentive scheme. In Sri Lanka, the bulk of the universities are state-owned/funded,

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I don't think that you or the Journal should contact the corresponding author (who, I presume, is the first author listed) and bring this up directly.

I do think you might discuss this with the Editor or the managing editor involved with sending this out to reviewers and determining the publication status.

It might be that the student (who ostensibly wrote the paper) wanted his professor to be the principal author to give the paper more gravitas than it might be worth.

The paper should be reviewed and judged purely on its merits, including writing style and other pedantic issues. An honest and critical review might embarrass the professor enough that he/she gets more deeply involved in the revision of the paper.

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I am a recent graduate of a Japanese university, and while I may not be expected to respond to such a question, I feel compelled to express my thoughts because I myself was taken advantage of as an undegraduate student.

If it's evident that the student did most of the writing, it is very probable that they did most of the intellectual work and deserve to be in the first position. It's not very common for a professor to do most of the intellectual work and let their students write the text about the work done by the professor. Although one of the answers lists possible scenarios in which this could happen, I have never heard about this actually happening.

And I have heard about numerous instances of students being taken advantage of. I know one professor, albeit not in my country, who used to tell his students that a good traditional way to arrange authors is alphabetical. So, all or almost all papers written by his students had the alphabetical order - and the professor's surname starts with B. And I know a professor who used to tell his students and staff that in order to secure good funding for his group, he must have a lot of first-authored papers. He is the first author of a majority of papers published by his research group.

In your question, you make it clear that the writing style and the research conducted say it all. So, if the research looks like a student project, AND the manuscript looks like written by a student, this is a huge red flag. And you know this, because otherwise you would not have asked this question, in the first place.

It's very easy to play the Devil's advocate and say that nothing wrong might be taking place, but you know what the odds are.

So, please, don't be a silent accomplice to potential wrongdoing. You cannot imagine how grateful the student could be if you stand up for what's right.

I suggest writing to the authors with a message of the following kind and CCing the student:

Dear Prof. XXX and Mr. XXX,

Thank you for submitting your manuscript to the Journal of XXX.

Unfortunately, there's an issue that presents a challenge in accepting your manuscript for publication in our journal. The concern pertains to the author order on the author list. While I understand that you may have valid reasons for the chosen arrangement, it is potentially harmful to the reputation of the journal to accept papers that don't look like conforming to common conventions. This includes papers that are first-authored by an experienced researcher, but look like mostly written and contributed to by a student guided by that researcher.

Therefore, if you have strong reasons for the chosen arrangement, I suggest adding a statement of the authors' individual contributions in order to dispel any concerns our readers may have. Alternatively, you could discuss the possibility of swapping your positions in the author list.

I sincerely apologize for any inconvenience caused and appreciate your understanding in this matter.

Yours sincerely, XXX

I think that sending such a message is pretty safe because it doesn't say the student is being bullied or wronged. In fact, the message says that you understand the authors may have valid reasons for the chosen arrangement, and you offer them the option of explaining their individual contributions.

I hope that my answer will be at least helpful in understanding what the student might want you to do.

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    I upvoted, but are you sure doing this is a good idea? I don't actually know if the student is being bullied; it's suggestive but very far from conclusive. It feels like I ought to confirm that first before taking any drastic action.
    – Allure
    Jun 8, 2023 at 9:44
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    @Allure I think that sending such a message is pretty safe because it doesn't say the student is being bullied. In fact, the message says that you understand the authors may have valid reasons for the chosen arrangement. The only argument the message contains is the concern about the reputation of the journal. I don't think that the professor will have any valid reason to complain upon receiving such a message. At most, he might try to persuade you.
    – Mitsuko
    Jun 8, 2023 at 9:55
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    @Allure Also, many students do not even realize that something wrong is going on. I know one professor, albeit not in my country, who used to tell his students that a good way to arrange authors is alphabetical. So, all or almost all papers written by his students had the alphabetical order - and the professor's surname starts with B. And I know a professor who used to tell his students and staff that in order to secure good funding for his group, he must have a lot of first-authored papers.
    – Mitsuko
    Jun 8, 2023 at 9:57
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    Downvoted. Providing a fake reason for rejecting the paper is a terrible idea, as is approaching the situation with the attitude that your speculation is reality and the only options the authors have are to either admit that your speculation is correct or submit elsewhere. All around bad idea. Jun 8, 2023 at 10:02
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    @Mitsuko This is not at all how actual communication works and, irrespective of the question at hand here, it makes me worried that you will get into some very unpleasant professional situations if you think you can just throw serious accusations around while imagining that you "are in the clear" because you used the words "apparently' and "seemingly". For example: "Mitsuko SEEMINGLY does not know how academic communication works, APPARENTLY as a consequence of her lack of experience." Did the two words really change the message? No, not really, it's still insulting and obnoxious. Jun 8, 2023 at 10:25
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One more vote for Option 1 - "do nothing".

Besides all the other things mentioned in the other answers, there might have been some kind of agreement between the authors. During my time as a PhD student, I once worked on a paper with a maths professor, and (to me) it felt like our contributions were roughly the same.

When it came to actually submitting, the professor asked me, if I needed a "first author paper" in order to graduate (this was the case in the maths department). Since I didn't (there was no such requirement in the engineering department) and at the time was already planning to leave the university after my PhD, I happily gave up the spot as first author. To me, being first or second author made no difference, but for her, it meant having to write another paper or not that year, in order to fulfill her agreement with the university.

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    I'm sorry to say this, but if author ordering in your case exclusively relied on the described agreement between the authors and was totally decoupled from contribution to the paper (and that amount of contribution was indeed noticeably different), it sounds like you may have engaged in a scientifically unethical scheme together with your professor. This is not to say that I think the "agreement with the university" for your professor is a good thing (after all, it gives rise to exactly the described case where the metric is gamed), but it may not be desirable to use your case as a ... Jun 10, 2023 at 21:37
  • ... precedent for deciding on a course of action in the question at hand. Jun 10, 2023 at 21:38
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Given the current state of deception and fraud in scientific research, I would have a hard time ignoring it and choosing option 1. Doing nothing really just contributes to breaking the system further.

The letter outline by Mitsuko seems like a good option.

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