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Context : Let us say we had submit a paper in microbiology, received reviews and are discussing changes to be made for better explanation to the reviewers. The authors are a grad student and two professors/PIs, but the answer could be more general than this context..

I want to know if the first author(s) can dominate in the chain of command and can overrule comments from other authors including the last/corresponding author who are likely professors.

I understand that it is ideal for all the authors to come to a consensus on the textual content of the paper. But just in case there is a conflict, is there a etiquette within the field/other fields on how to make the decision? Options I can think of are -

  1. Use a majority vote, considering that all authors are equal. But this will fail when the assumption that all authors are voting independently is violated ;P
  2. The first author(s) get to decide, based on inputs from other authors
  3. The professor overrules the decision, as a natural powerful position outside the hierarchy within the particular paper

I did try looking at a couple sources but this topic was not covered. They focus more on how to decide the author hierarchy -

  • How to handle authorship disputes: a guide for new researchers. COPE report, 2003
  • Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals. ICMJE, 2003

Any brief experience of such a scenario or guidelines on this matter would be useful. Please do cite your sources :)

3 Answers 3

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Such fights, while somewhat common, are foolish in my view, unless the subject is the validity of the research. Everyone should have a say. Everyone should be willing to defer to colleagues.

But "should" isn't always the operative concept here. It is pretty hard for any student, even as "first author" to go against strong opinions of professors, especially those serving as PI. Sometimes you just need to shut-up for self preservation.

Note that anyone with a valid claim for authorship has effective veto power over publication and it is unethical to publish without the consent of all authors. It is also unethical to exclude someone with a valid claim of authorship based on their contributions.

Note, however, that "consensus" sometimes means that some folks just give up the "fight" and defer to others, rather than agreeing.

I don't think that trying to impose some rules such as your numbered suggestions is going to be generally useful. Sometimes, yes, the first author has a lot of impact on decisions if the work is "largely" theirs. Sometimes a PI will dominate for valid or invalid reasons. Valid reasons include things like experience. Invalid ones include personality issues. Voting seems like a non-starter to me, though. Your mileage may differ.

But in general, just talking it out and offering alternatives is the proper way, no matter that it takes a while. If everyone has the attitude that this work is valuable and should be published, then the question is just how we represent it. A willingness to defer is valuable as is a desire to uphold standards. But "my way or the highway" is seldom useful. Avoid groups in which that tends to occur.


Issues related to integrity of the research are different, of course. But for those, the veto is effective in many (most?) cases.

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In my experience, the usual expectation is that all the authors agree to all parts of the paper. Some journals formalize this with a requirement that

All authors approved the submitted version

so a stubborn author can prevent submission just because they do not like a detail.

In large collaborations, there are usually written policies and a committee that decide these disputes. A colleague who was on such a committee said they have many boring discussions of commas.

I would recommend that all professors have a written publication policy that they share before starting a project, but usually they do not.

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It happened to me once: the first author (assistant professors) overruled the decisions of the other authors (full professors and postdocs). We decided to let it go because she was the first author, and the idea for this paper was taken from her doctoral dissertation.

Usually, the first author is the one who takes more "reputational damage" for the decisions about the paper, at least in my group, so we don't really engage in a fight. However, if the paper is important for the career of some of the authors (e.g., to get tenure, to pass the Ph.D. examination, etc.), the full professor might insist on the first author.

I have also witnessed cases in which entire articles were wasted because one of the authors objected to some paragraphs. Because all authors must agree to submit the article, it might occur that a dispute become an obstacle to publication (it is an ethical rule but also a copyright rule, that's why some journal make you declare that you have the consensus).

The answer to your question is highly dependent on the specific group/lab, unfortunately, there is no guideline on how to solve such conflicts.

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