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I’m working on a paper with two colleagues. It all started out with a broad idea that they had. They were coming to me, asking me to do the data analysis (survey data). At the beginning I had the lead authorship and I started to work on it completely on my own and was adding my own ideas to the research design etc. The whole data analysis was very time consuming and I was spending months on it. It all worked out, the results are great and both of them were excited about what I did with the data.

They wanted me to write the draft and finish the paper. At that time though, I was also in the middle of my PhD. I didn’t want to stop the process of the paper. So I decided to give one of them the lead authorship, so that he could finish the paper by writing the rest of the manuscript and I got the 2. authorship. I already wrote the methods and results section of the article.

That was a year ago. However, I’ve finished my PhD now and the paper has still not been written by the lead author. He only wrote a draft of the theory which did not fit the results of my data analysis very well. Therefore, I suggested that I could take over the lead authorship again and finish this paper. Since I already published a very similar paper during my PhD, I was already experienced and knew the underlying theory, state of research etc.

Unfortunately, at first they were ignoring my request and after I asked again, they suggested that the lead authorship should be decided based on how much time/work capacity the person has.

Since the lead author is my boss, he can decide if I should do other work instead. So far, he took the lead of another paper where I did the data analysis and formulated the research questions etc. as well. For this paper as well, I already wrote the methods and result parts and prepared the figures, regression tables etc.

I feel like I’m not treated very fairly. Although they depend on me regarding the research papers, I’m also in a bad position because both of them are above me in the hierarchy. How should I proceed?

Update:

Thank you both for your very helpful response! Your arguments support me in the decision that it's probably best to just let it go to avoid conflict.

I still work with both of them, and there is still pending work from the time when I was still working on my PhD. However, both of them were not my supervisors (my supervisors treated me very fairly and did not insist on co-authorship).

In sociology the author order generally indicates the amount of contribution. The last authorship is often given to someone who is usually the group leader.

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    It seems odd to me that writing the intro and discussion would entitle someone to first authorship? What field/country is this? Jan 19 at 2:57
  • Sociology and I’m from Germany but this article is intended to be submitted to an international journal.
    – Maja
    Jan 19 at 8:04

2 Answers 2

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This seems to be one of your first collaboration and authorship experiences. Let me try to give some pragmatic advice.

Authorship order for academic publications is a very sensitive and controversial issue, mainly because it is hard to objectively determine what merits the order. There have been several attempts to make this process more objective (for example, here is a particularly rigorous attempt), but it remains subjective and standards vary widely across disciplines. (Some academic disciplines make it very simple, even simplistic: authorship order is always alphabetical, except in exceptional circumstances.)

You should realize that, unfortunately, students are in low-power relationships and they often have little choice but to accept what more powerful professor coauthors impose on them. Here's my pragmatic advice: if you're a PhD student, that's life; you unfortunately have to sometimes accept that. (But if you're a professor: I strongly consider it unethical to take advantage of students in authorship order; whenever I am personally involved, I fight for students' rights. But I am advising you here on how to go forward when you have no one to fight for you.)

So, first, whether you like the situation or not, I recommend that you objectively consider the long-term consequences of not being the first author of an article in which you placed the most effort. The consequences are usually almost zero. Other than perhaps your pride being somewhat hurt that someone else gets the primary credit that you deserve, there are generally no negative professional consequences. If it really matters to you, then you can privately very briefly mention to people that you did the most work, but your professor took the lead authorship because they are the professor. (I would never say anything more than that--people who dislike such behaviour will fully understand the situation; complaining further than that looks bad.)

Going forward, if you don't like the way your coauthors have treated you, then never coauthor with them again. It's that simple. This is often the difference between students who publish with their professors only during their doctoral program and those who continue to collaborate with them long after they have graduated. And it doesn't end there. In your professional publishing career, you will occasionally encounter collaborators whose practices you very much dislike. If they refuse to change even after you have politely explained your concerns, then as long as they are not compelling you to do anything unethical yourself, very often the best resolution is to humbly say nothing more, complete the project with them, and then never work with them again.

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  • Thank you for this very helpful advice, which supports me in the decision that it's not a sign of weakness to just let it go. Yes, it's particularly painful for me to observe how they take credit for the work in professional settings like conferences. Although I'm a Post-Doc now, it's probably still best to let it go to avoid conflict and perhaps consider looking for a new workplace.
    – Maja
    Jan 19 at 10:40
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Are you still at the same place after the PhD? Or are you only still in touch with these people because of this pending work? If you are out of that place, just let the work be published in whichever way. I think you already have an idea that the chances of you getting the lead authorship are low. I suggest avoiding confrontation at this stage. For the future, discuss things like this during the early stages of the project and decide on a plausible author order.

I think, at least in computer science, the lead authors are generally the lead of the project work as well. They contribute to planning the experiments, delegating the work to suitable team members, making sense of the results and finally writing and editing the draft. Accordingly, the order of the authors is decided. The senior professors are always listed at the end of the author list as they were mainly helping with discussions and refining our ideas, correcting along the way. I am not sure how is it in sociology.

In my view, these issues can be sorted out amicably. There is no point fighting it out. I do not think it's worth it. For future, better avoid working with such people who do not play fair.

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  • Thank you for your helpful response, I'm also considering now to let it go to avoid conflict. I still work with both of them and probably have to work on new papers with them in the future if I don't quit this job.
    – Maja
    Jan 19 at 10:31

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