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I work in a multidisciplinary center, where a neighboring group started working on a topic I am an expert in. This group lacks relevant expertise, so the postdocs approached me to perform some work. I have documentation of my contribution through data and code shared via e-mail, meeting minutes, and detailed logs of my own hours spent working on the project.

The PI of the group leading the project was aware of my contributions for the past few months and has clearly being pushing his team to become self-sufficient to the point where they do not need me (they're nowhere close!). Although I have the support of the postdocs, the PI has announced publicly that I have not contributed anything. This is due to internal politics, and is a clear sign that he wants he off the project and will not credit me for any published work.

My question is as follows: Let's say I can document a significant contribution to the project, worthy of authorship, and have the support of the postdocs. If the PI decides to go ahead with publication without crediting me, what are my options? I assume what remains is the possibility of contacting the journal. I've seen some journals saying that they stay out of authorship disputes, but it's not clear what that means in this case.

I've seen other answers on similar topics, which while helpful, do not fully answer my question:

  1. PI asked me to remove a student from author's list, but I disagree
  2. My former advisor wants to publish a paper that relies on code that I worked on without giving me any credit. What should I do?
  3. I was excluded from an article - what can I do?
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  • What does your boss think? Does your boss agree with the time you're spending on the project? Who/what pays your salary?
    – mkennedy
    Commented Mar 21 at 14:01
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    "perform some work" can mean a whole bunch of different things, from washing glassware to designing experiments and more. You give a cursory description of what you did, but nowhere nearly detailed enough to allow us to get a feel for your intellectual contribution, which would have impact on your authorship claim. Commented Mar 21 at 15:37
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    My boss is aware of the work, but is not involved directly. I have no worries about my current/future salary. As for what I mean by "perform some work", I'm certain that the work I've done warrants authorship (and experienced enough to evaluate this). Thanks for the comment, although the question is not whether my contribution deserves authorship, but what options do I have in the scenario outlined above. I'd made edits to make this more clear.
    – jomimc
    Commented Mar 26 at 5:02

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I would start by suggesting having a meeting with the PI. Even if he really wants to push you away from the project, the meeting will be useful in order to understand his line of reasoning (or lack thereof). Don't beat around the corner, ask him directly questions like: "Why do you believe I don't deserve to be part of this project?"; "Given the considerable amount of work I put into it, how much is enough to deserve authorship?"; "Why do you try to train people in order to learn a procedure I am an expert at, instead of using my skills?". Just remember humans are very broken and inefficient machines in general, and sometimes the way someone answers a question (tone of voice, movements, eye contact) are more important than the answer itself, especially when we're dealing with very proud and dismissive people. Straightforward discussions are the best way to solve any problem in life, especially in science, but one has to learn what to look for during this type of interactions. It is likely that you will be able to infer that this PI simply doesn't like you (happens a lot), or thinks your work is of low quality, or maybe he/she will even be honest and give you a full answer. No matter what happens, this is the first thing to try IMHO.

Now, assuming that not much was gained from a direct approach and given that you have the support of other postdocs involved in the project, you can always invoke the fact that all authors in a paper have to agree about who should be listed as an author. In practice the final word either falls on the PI or on his boss (a director, a professor, etc), but it is rare to see a paper in which e.g. 3 out of 4 authors claimed X should be a coauthor, and in the end this person wasn't listed. There should be a consensus here. Unfortunately sometimes the other postdocs will agree that you should be an author but will not be willing to place themselves in the PI's line of fire by trying to insist on this. In this case you might try to talk to the PI's boss, especially if you now know the PI doesn't like you. There's a chance the PI will be reprehended and somehow forced to list you as an author, but what is certain is that from now on the PI won't simply dislike you... He/she will very likely hate your guts.

If talking to the PI directly, gathering public support or even talking to the PI's boss don't work, as you mentioned there is sometimes the possibility of contacting the journal directly. I would very much advocate that this is a very, very bad idea. You would be messing up the lives of all authors, not only the PI. You would also cause problems to the journal's editorial board, who have zero to gain in being involved in authorship disputes. This could lead the journal to include the authors (and you as well, and sometimes even your institute!) in some sort of "these people are trouble" list, and this is the last thing you want - especially in the beginning of your scientific career. Honestly, do not include the journal in this matter, unless you want to really start a war that has a huge probability of downing you in its end.

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  • Thanks for your answer. I can add that the PI is a manipulative bully who doesn't like me, so direct contact will certainly be uncomfortable, and is unlikely to achieve much. The direct contact would have to be between the PI and my boss.
    – jomimc
    Commented Mar 21 at 7:18
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    It might achieve something in the sense that everyone will know that you tried. Try to render your meeting very public, so that everyone can get a grasp of the situation. I had a boss once who treated me extremely well in front of other people, but once I was in his office with the door closed he called me an "idiot", "retard" (sic), "autistic", etc. He knew extremely well when and where to be himself after 50 years of bullying. Maybe your PI will let some of it out and someone will notice (hopefully his boss). Commented Mar 21 at 8:24

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