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Two years ago I sent to my advisor and + 3 collaborators the paper that resulted from my dissertation. Two of them returned it within the deadline I set (30 days). An important collaborator who helped conceptualize the research and has a lot of experience in the field asked for more time to review it because he was working on a project that would take longer.

My advisor got back to me 4 months later, asking for basic information, such as data and script of analysis, which he revised and edited over the following 4 months and sent back to everyone.

Everyone gave input (except the important collaborator). The important collaborator was contacted by my supervisor without my knowledge. They discussed it in a meeting and the collaborator suggested changing in the analysis. I found out about all this later in the following way:

A few weeks after my advisor had sent the email, I asked him about any news regarding feedback and the submission process. After many attempts were ignored, he told me what I said in the last paragraph and said he would work on the suggestions he had received from the important collaborator. I offered to redo whatever was necessary, as I had the time (and I believe it's an important learning stage), but again I was ignored.

I insisted in various ways and was still ignored.

Several thoughts went through my head: Why wasn't I involved in the meetings? Why couldn't I work on my own manuscript? Did I do something wrong? Why wasn't I told? Was the paper fit to be published? Was it going to be submitted or had they given up? For what reason?

I recently asked my advisor the last question above and he told me that it would be submitted, but so far there has been no news.

Is that normal? A supervisor taking over the manuscript and excluding the student from a stage? Does that mean anything?

More importantly, is there anything I can do? Can I contact this important collaborator to ask him about his suggestions and do the work myself?

Do you have any suggestions, words or advice for me?

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    Do I understand correctly that this is about a research paper that eventually will have five authors, you, your supervisor, and the three collaborators? Without wanting to say that their behaviour is "normal" or "OK", my question is: Assuming that your advisor and the "important collaborator" change the paper, the resulting paper is of good quality, and it is finally published with all five authors as planned, how much of a problem would that be for you and why? Aug 24, 2023 at 10:01
  • There will be five authors and I wouldn't bother with that assumption. In fact, what's bothering me most is the fact that: - I didn't receive feedback from the IC together with my advisor at the meeting; - I wasn't informed about the suggestions and future changes to the paper; - I couldn't have re-analyzed the input from my advisor and the IC and reworked the manuscript; and - The delay in submitting the article. I sent the article almost two years ago. My advisor's meeting with the IC was a year ago. I know they're busy, and I think that's why I could have been working on the paper. Aug 24, 2023 at 12:13

1 Answer 1

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There are a number of aspects to be separated here:

  • the quality of the resulting paper,
  • formal aspects of the publication, i.e., choice of journal where this is submitted, listed authors, order of authors, declaration of who did what and maybe percentage contributions in case it applies here,
  • how your advisor treated you and how the communication went between you,
  • how things such as contracts, payments, supervisor-student relationship are formally organised in your specific place; it may not be the same everywhere, and I won't comment on this, but it may play a role.

I'm assuming that this is about a paper to be submitted with five authors, you, your advisor, and the three collaborators. In that case it wouldn't be "your manuscript" in the sense of personal ownership. Ultimately all authors should agree on the content, and if you advisor and the "important collaborator" (IC) think that something should be changed, you don't have an automatic right to do the required changes yourself.

Regarding the quality of the resulting paper, of course we can't know about what quality your contribution had and whether the changes done by advisor and IC will improve on that. But from the point of view of science in general, it should be in everyone's interest that the resulting paper is as good as it can be. It is at least conceivable that IC and advisor not only have a good idea on how to improve the paper, but that they also believe it will be better that they do analyses and write it down themselves rather than letting you doing it.

In fact, if I were in a situation like this as the person having a strong idea how the paper should be improved, it could well happen that I insist that I do it myself, because normally I'm the best person to present my idea. Also it may have to do with the perception of them what you can do well and what maybe you are not so good at what they could do better, but of course here we have no basis for commenting on this. It is however not so unlikely, given that you are (apparently) young and have less experience, that they think they can do it better, and they may well be right about this. That'd be pretty "normal" in my view, and you should surely give yourself the chance to be convinced that what they do actually improves the overall paper, and if this is so, it is a good thing that it happens.

The formal aspects of the publication such as author order need to be negotiated then. You don't write about this, so I can't say much, but it is well conceivable that (a) originally the plan was that you are first author, and you can ultimately still be first author (no problem there) or (b) that originally the plan was that you are first author, but because of the changes now they think you shouldn't be, which of course is not so nice. (And (c) other possibilities that I don't comment on here.)

Keep in mind that ultimately all authors of a paper submitted for publication need to consent to publication, so ultimately there needs to be agreement, and you can have a different opinion on author order, in which case you need to negotiate. It is possible for you, in principle, to withdraw consent, i.e., to say that you do not agree to submit the paper as it is with the author order as suggested by, say, your advisor, but of course it may be hard or impossible to convince them otherwise, and you may think at the end of the day that blocking your paper is not in your best interest even if you are not fully happy with it (be it the content, the author order, or any other aspect). Depending on what kind of people they are, this may have consequences such as them discarding your contribution completely and publishing without your name altogether (which is well within their rights as long as they manage to kick your contribution out of the paper well enough that there is nothing in there left that would justify your claim of authorship - I'm not sure whether that's possible in this case of course). So you have a right to be heard and a right to withdraw consent, but for various reasons, power relations etc., it may be very hard to impose changes that advisor and IC (at least initially) don't want.

The third aspect is communication, and here I'd say (probably in agreement with you) that this doesn't look so good or "normal". It would look better if they kept you "in the loop" and informed about what is going on, and for sure they should make a good attempt to explain the reasons for the changes to you and try to convince you why what they want to do will improve the paper, and is therefore in your own interest, as a better paper can be published at a higher level and will look better in your CV (if they want to relegate you in the author order it's a more complicated matter, see above).

Sadly it won't help you that much if we here just say "they should communicate better with you", because we can't make them do that.

Also there may be some reasons why they don't involve you more. They may be very busy, and organising meetings with more people is more difficult than just with two of them. Also if somebody like the IC has strong ideas how to change analyses and writing, it may (rightly or wrongly) seem inefficient and tedious to talk details over with you or even delegate work to you if they could just do it themselves in the way they want to do it. Maybe your advisor at some point even simply forgot to tell you something even though he may have had the intention to do so.

This doesn't justify their behaviour, but can explain it to some extent.

As advice for you I'd say:

  • Try your best to understand the changes and why they want to do them; give yourself a chance to accept that what they do actually improves the paper (or doesn't do harm to it - note that I don't say that this actually is the case; of course I can't know).
  • Don't "insist" that you redo things yourself. It's not "your" manuscript in the sense that you have the right to do yourself everything that needs to be done.
  • In the communication with your advisor, maybe focus on the aspect that you'd like to understand what they want to do and why, and that you'd like to convince yourself that this improves the paper. This puts a more positive spin on the communication from your side rather than insisting or demanding something. (Although it is certainly sensible to ask to be properly informed of what is going on.)
  • Keep in mind that as key contributor you should agree to the final version to be submitted, and to aspects such as author order. These are, so to say, your rights. Be constructive and positive executing these rights, i.e., try your best to understand and accept what they ultimately come up with, however discuss scientific aspects with which you are not happy, be clear that if your name is on this you want to be properly convinced that this is good, and in case they change aspects such as author order to your disadvantage, ask yourself whether and why this may be justified, but fight for your right if it isn't (which could mean that if negotiations really don't go well, you could threaten to withdraw consent, but this is not without its risks and may make communication even worse).
  • Think about other people whose thoughts may help, for example experts in the field who you know regarding understanding the changes, or maybe a co-supervisor or a departmental PhD tutor regarding the communication aspect.

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