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Apologies for the length, but all this context might matter. In 2019, I collaborated with an MD at a local hospital to write my thesis for a postgraduate degree. In my field, there is an expectation to publish the thesis as a paper after graduating, which I was keen on doing.

I collected data alongside another student, with each of us reviewing around 150 medical records each. The clinician and one of her colleagues would match patients to specific clinical criteria we were looking for. I would then write the paper and run the statistical tests.

Despite moving to another city and getting a job at a private company quickly after my degree, I reached out to my co-authors by e-mail to express interest in publishing the work as a journal article. The MDs agreed, though the other student dropped out. I shared my dataset, produced several different stats analyses, and wrote up a draft over the first few months of 2020.

After a couple of Zoom meetings, my co-authors expressed concern about the quality of the dataset which hadn't come up previously, citing missing data. I no longer had access to the medical records, but assured them I collected the data as thoroughly as possible. Some data they assumed were there simply weren't present in the systems I had access to.

They said they would check over records to verify these datapoints, but I am doubtful they really did so. Then, in the following months, we got into a cycle of their reviewing a draft, sending over comments, and me amending the paper accordingly. I created several redundant tables and figures which were later removed. By summer of 2020, I thought that we were unnecessarily repeating work and felt that I was being used as a workhorse. I wrote to them that I considered the paper about as "complete" as it possibly could be, and that we needed to edit it down to meet journal requirements to submit it.

One co-author then unexpectedly said she wanted to redo the analysis with a statistician she personally knew. I said I was fine with this, since my analyses were fairly straight-forward and I wanted my findings verified. After a period of no communication at all, excuses were made throughout all of 2021 (e.g. the statistician is currently overworked). My own job was also extremely busy now, and I suspected they had actually just lost interest.

Finally, I moved into a more relaxed role in 2022 and wrote to them to ask whether they wanted me to hire a statistical consultant, and that I had worked with a good one on a previous study. E-mails and voicemails went unanswered.

In 2023, I simply went ahead and hired someone who helped assuage all my own concerns about the analyses, and produced very clear methods and figures which turned out to verify my original findings. I wrote my co-authors a message as a heads-up that I intended to submit it to the journal we had discussed previously.

All of a sudden they sprang to life again and urged me not to before they could review. By this stage, I was really confused about their motivations; what issues could they have with the paper? What work would they do now that they hadn't done in the previous three years?

Still, I at least had a response from them and said that I would happily continue to work on the paper on the condition that we set a deadline by e-mail to submit the paper. One of my co-authors suggested week 6, 2024. I agreed, but did not want to discuss over Zoom and said I had no time for further calls. This was partially so they would be forced to address specific issues, but also because I wanted everything in writing.

They rose around eight points, one of which was a suggestion for tables and references that took us over the limit of the target journal, several of which were based on their misunderstanding of the paper, and a minor error in one of the tables. I addressed them all anyway.

In the meantime, I had entered an academic role and ran the paper by a couple of colleagues, both recognised global experts on the topic. Both told me that the paper was crystal clear, could not understand my co-authors concerns, and thought something else was going on.

On week 6, I sent a courtesy e-mail about submitting the paper, edited down to journal requirements, and sent it in. To my surprise, I received e-mails from both shortly after expressing their disappointment, how important it is for co-authors to agree (especially my co-author as "primary scientist"), that this conduct was highly unprofessional and urged me to discuss with them over Zoom. At no point do they say what they need to discuss, what their concerns are, or why they did not raise them in the timeline that they set.

I have considered writing back, but I have already decided I don't intend to work with either of them again. With all that, I write to you with three questions:

  1. This journal allows co-authors to retract their co-authorship if they so choose, but do they have any other recourse to prevent me from publishing the paper?
  2. What could they have possibly been so coy about? Primary authorship? Data quality?
  3. Have I been subject to an elaborate five-year-long practical joke?
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  • This is far too long.
    – Sursula
    Mar 2 at 16:56
  • Your posting is so long that the questions get completely lost in the detail. I think you're essentially saying that you collaborated with another person in producing a paper/research, and now you find that that person is unresponsive to requests to agree to submit a paper. ... but, that summary might be wrong. On the other hand, if it's right, you might consider trimming your question down to < 100 words. Mar 6 at 3:54

1 Answer 1

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One part of the issue is simple:

You musn't submit an article for publication without the consent of all coauthors. The charge that you acted highly unprofessionally is valid. If your coauthors inform the journal that you submitted the paper without their consent, I would expect the journal to immediately withdraw the submission.

Now for the other part of the issue, I am no better mindreader than you. It makes little sense to me that this would be an authorship order dispute, if no-one ever mentioned that. It could be a personal vendetta if they really hate you. But the most plausible explanation to me is that they have some concerns about the scientific validity of the paper, and never prioritizes it enough to either dispell these or identify concrete issues.

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  • At each stage I have been receptive to the issues they wanted to raise and made all corrections they requested. They have gone through periods of silence long enough for me to think the paper might not be submitted at all. They could have raised issues of scientific validity at any point, but did not. I also worked to the dates which they themselves set. All my communication with them has been polite and transparent. I'm not sure what more I could do for the paper -- but even then, professionalism isn't the issue as much as potentially abandoning a paper for non-specific issues.
    – jserv
    Mar 2 at 12:03
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    Another thing to consider is that they themselves suggested the submission date, which I followed. They are now telling me that this is unprofessional, retrospectively.
    – jserv
    Mar 2 at 12:12
  • @jserv Nothing you write in your first comment has any bearing on my answer. The second comment would be relevant if and only if you had a clear agreement that you'd submit the paper by the deadline unless you hear from them otherwise. What you've written so far didn't sound like it.
    – Arno
    Mar 2 at 14:03
  • "One of my co-authors suggested week 6, 2024. I agreed" is in my question. It has been extremely difficult to pin down any kind of timeline with them for the entire five years, which is why I made a point to have an agreed date recorded in e-mail.
    – jserv
    Mar 2 at 14:19
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    @jserv Your frustration is completely understandable and your co-authors have also behaved unprofessionally, but unfortunately for you Arno's point still stands. What you wrote does not at all imply that all the co-authors agreed that you are entitled to submit the paper on week 6 of 2024 without notifying them beforehand. Unless they explicitly said "yes, jserv, you can unilaterally submit the paper on week 6 on 2024 unless you hear back from us by then". Which I bet they didn't. Mar 3 at 14:32

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