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I am currently submitting a paper for Nature Structural & Molecular Biology. I worked on this project for the last four years and was the only one working on this project. I had everything going very well. In order to get the crystallization, I gave the plasmid construct to another laboratory which has expertise in crystallization. Fortunately, they got the crystals.

After the crystallization got successful, one researcher (say, A) from their lab came to my lab and my professor told me to teach him all the methods. I happily agreed to do so. After A went back to his lab, I got the draft of the paper from my professor, where, my name appeared as first co-author! I almost fainted. There were 20 figures in the paper. 13 were contributed by me, 4 by A and rest by 2 other people. The paper was mostly about my work. But in the contribution section, my prof and the prof of A mentioned that I and A had equal contribution. In fact it is mentioned that A was solely contributor of crystals and he equally contributed in all other results.

I discussed this issue with my prof, but he tells that he is getting pressure from A's prof to make A the first author. And my prof does not want to estrange relationship with A's prof. I am heart-broken and I don't know what to do. Please suggest me what to do.

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    If the contribution section says something incorrect, you ought to be able to at least get that part changed to something more accurate. (Especially if you're willing to compromise on the authorship point.) – Noah Snyder Oct 8 '14 at 4:09
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    Crystallization and structure determination can be a rather large amount of work, enough for a paper alone. Depending on how difficult this case was and how much of the paper's conclusions are based on the structure, shared first-author might be a defensible choice. If the crystallization is simple and the structure not novel, and the paper is mostly about non-structural aspects, it is far more dubious. – Mad Scientist Oct 8 '14 at 6:45
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    "I got the draft of the paper from my professor", does this mean you did not write the paper? A first author is expected to have worked on the paper itself, not just on the research described in it. – terdon Oct 8 '14 at 9:36
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    @user146290 that's an extremely odd arrangement. when are you supposed to learn how to write a paper? as a postdoc? who will write your thesis? – Sasho Nikolov Oct 9 '14 at 1:30
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    @SashoNikolov It seems then you may have bigger problems than whether you are first author or co-first author. For instance, that nobody will hire a graduate (as a postdoc, as a assistant prof.. etc.) who didn't write his own papers. – xLeitix Oct 9 '14 at 10:48
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First, try to calm down and don't react hastily.

Your situation is very frustrating, but it is not horrible. Let's say that the current author ordering would be the final one. You would be what's known as a co-first author. While it would be slightly more advantageous to be the sole first author, in my experience being co-first practically will not have a significant negative effect on your CV (BTW - are you a grad student or postdoc?). This is important for you to realize - the worst-case scenario that you mention is upsetting, but definitely not a disaster.

Some additional points:

  1. You can try explaining your perspective to your professor. If you originally decided that you would be the sole first author, you should definitely remind him/her of that. Do this politely, of course, but show your professor this is a big deal for you. This could cause the professor to reconsider, depending on his/her personality.
  2. Instead of being the sole first author, you can consider being co-first but listed first. This doesn't make a big difference, but people might associate you with the paper more easily (Whatshername et al.).
  3. Consider that regardless of the number of figures, the other author might deserve being co-first. For example, in many papers an experimentalist produces the data and a computational person analyzes the data and produces most of the figures - and they would often be equal co-first authors (even though each of them could think of themselves doing "most of the work"). So I do not know all the details of who did what, but it does not sound completely implausible that the other person did work which justifies being co-first.
  4. Regardless of what happens, I suggest you talk with your professor about how to get a more satisfactory outcome next time (if this is relevant for you). Discuss authorship in advance and what happens when things change.

Good luck!

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    I am a PhD student and going to defend my dissertation in November this year. A has just joined PhD program this year in his lab. – user146290 Oct 8 '14 at 1:18
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    In your position, I think you should try to get things right for you inside the lines of academia ethics, and this probably means not to fight too hard on this; but for the record, let me add something. Assuming the first coauthorship of A is undeserved, one important reason why what your advisor, A and his advisor are doing is wrong is that it misrepresents A's work even more than yours. They are therefore cheating on all A's eventual competitors for postdocs and faculty positions. – Benoît Kloeckner Oct 9 '14 at 19:46
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Disclaimer: My Ph.D. is in Theoretical Comp Sci, so I am speaking from a very different kind of experience.

Some Meta suggestions and notes

  • I'd say don't calm down - but still, don't react hastily. Especially since there are about a zillion different ways for you to act.

  • The whole name ordering and who-contributed-more haggling and intrigues are quite unbecoming. In some fields, authors are listed in alphabetical order, period. Maybe one guy/girl did almost everything, maybe it was a real team effort, maybe someone was simply the higher-ranking person - it doesn't matter. Or rather, maybe it matters, but it doesn't matter to the promotion of science, so it's not part of the paper. It would be extremely rude for an article to include a sentence such as "person X contributed more than person Y".

  • Unfortunately, academia is not living up to its ideals, and your Professor is playing politics too much at your expense. You need to consider whether it's more important to you to try and make a stand and try changing these norms of behavior - at least locally and to some extent - or rather endeavor not to cause a scene, maintain good working relations and move on to doing more actual science. I can't entirely fault the second alternative, and in fact it looks like the vast majority of people choose it, but I suggest the first. Of course, there's a third option...

  • Maybe this is all dirty politics. Maybe your Professor is not really your friend. Maybe you're surrounded by frenemies. If you adopt this view, treat everything like a cut-throat market interaction and try to make the most of it personally without getting your heart broken. I don't recommend this approach but it's the basis for at least one suggestion below.

  • Whatever you decide to do, try to run it confidentially by other people who know what's going on, or who know your Professor, etc. Of course, these people may then run to your Professor, or A's Professor, and mention your plans to them; this might be undesirable, but might also be desirable - getting a kind-of-a-response from one of them before actually acting in a way you can't go back on.

  • From your description it seems that A made a significant contribution to the paper; and that he is not involved in trying to get his name as a first co-author. Keep that in mind; avoid antagonizing him and try to avoid courses of action which make him your antagonist on this matter - either because you want to be fair to him; or because you want to work with him in the future; or because you don't want him to try and get back at you.

  • How do you know your Professor told you the exact truth? Maybe there are other reasons for making A co-first-author. Try to obtain more information, maybe from other people, maybe in A's lab.

  • Many of the possible courses of actions are dangerous to you, some to your Professor, some to others.

  • You're suggesting there's some sort of a quid-pro-quo between the Professors. Try to ascertain what your Professor is getting in exchange, specifically for this decision or in general. That is likely to help you decide how to handle the situation.

So, what might you do?

These are mostly mutually exclusive alternatives, and each of them makes some assumptions regarding the above.

  1. Insist. Tell your Professor that you're sorry for possibly putting a strain on his relationship with A's Professor, but you do not accept making A a co-first-author. Talk like he needs your permission to do this.

  2. Conspire with your Professor. Suggest to your Professor that he should oblige you, and have you talk to A's Professor to explain your case, or arrange with your Professor for it to appear like you threw a fit, or would have none of it (suggestion 1) - while actually this was not the case.

  3. Appeal to A: It is not inconceivable you could get A to support your position, in a group meeting or via email. If he's a person with some integrity, he should, and then the co-first-authorship becomes an untenable position, for both Professors.

  4. Peer pressure on A: Tell your common acquaintances and friends about what they're trying to do to you, and how A is going along with it. Have some of them inadvertently or advertently talk to him about it.

  5. Collective action. Get your Graduate Researchers Union (I do hope you're unionized!) involved. Then you can play the good cop, while your union rep comes see your Professor and tells him "Look, we cannot allow this to happen. If you promote certain graduate researchers at the expense of others, we may have to resort to denouncing your action publicly, with multiple people bringing it up in departmental or all-university fora." Your Professor will likely rethink his position then.

  6. Haggle. Tell your Professor, or your Professor and relevant other people involved, that this they're hurting your feelings and your career, that they're demanding quite the sacrifice, and without being compensated somehow you're not willing to accept it (perhaps without naming the exact sanction you are thinking of). Maybe you could get a Post-Doc promise (in writing of course, otherwise it's useless)? Maybe A's lab can do some work for you which they usually don't have time for? Maybe they could promise reciprocation in a forthcoming paper?

  7. Accept your fate. Maybe, like @camelcc's answer suggests, A sort-of deserves it anyway. Maybe where you intend to go after the Ph.D. you can establish your merit without people counting positions in author lists. Maybe the price of antagonizing people / making a scene are too high, and you're about to finish and need some peace and quiet to write up your Ph.D. research thesis.

  8. Cry bloody murder. If your Professor insists, and you can't influence any of him, A's Professor or A, publish an open letter to both Professors of them, with copies to the Dean/Provost/Rector/whatever it is you got, and send it also the faculty Ph.D. candidate mailing list, put it up on the bulletin board etc. Be super-polite, super-reverential, as non-accusative as possible, say things like "I believe it is inappropriate to misrepresent" rather than "You are lying in claiming" etc. This is a weaker and more dangerous variant of options 5. and 9.

  9. File a disciplinary/ethical complaint. Of course, it may be difficult to make anything stick, plus, it very much depends on the regulations and the norms in your university and in your more immediate surroundings. I'm guessing this is considered a highly unusual course of action and is at least frowned up if not worse... also, note you need to make an official demand of all authors to correct the listing, since if you don't have that rejected you can't really complain about anything.

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    I am also a theoretical computer scientists, and I understand your puzzlement with the non-alphabetical name order. However, it is the norm everywhere except in math and closely related fields like ours, and there are reasons for that. In an experimental science like biology, research projects can involve many people who do make very different contributions. The custom there is to list the person who drove the research project first, and the PI of the lab last. Everyone's role in the project is sometimes described in the paper. A first-author paper in Nature/Science/Cell can be very important! – Sasho Nikolov Oct 9 '14 at 1:44
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    First of all, in TCS it is also pretty common for people to make significantly different contributions. I was listed as an author on a(n eventually unpublished) paper in which my only contribution was to erase 1/4th of the original paper by finding a hole in some of the proofs. Anyway, so what if the contributions are different? Why does the author list need to measure penis length like that? – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 9 '14 at 5:02
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    General note for math/TCS people: This is mostly not a matter of pride or vanity. People will evaluate your work and make decisions about your career based on these orderings. For example, funding agencies can ask you to list on your CV only papers in which you are the first author (or co-first). So authorship order is a big deal. – Bitwise Oct 9 '14 at 14:23
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    @einpoklum: Not really, as it's a neat and boiled down representation of your academic work. You should not have to read through all of his work to understand how much your potential hire has contributed to each of his papers. In most fields it's possible to just take the impact of each paper and their relative position on the author list and get quite a good representation of their skill and standing. – David Mulder Oct 9 '14 at 21:05
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    @DavidMulder: You're talking from the position of an employer, and moreover, one that's beholden to mechanized evaluation of employee qualities. So I feel you're buttressing my claim above rather than refuting it. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 9 '14 at 21:28
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Unfortunately I have seen this sort of thing actually happen - and have seen 1 paper withdrawn, and resubmitted, and another that was never published because of it.

Your professor is looking to get tenure - you are in a strong position. Get your thesis defended 1st, then worry about this.

Id actually refuse to let the paper be published at all rather than this. If you are looking to stay in academia, the 1st coauthor will be a massive deal, unless you have multiple other papers. We are talking the difference between a sucessful academic and the eternal post doc. If you are looking outside academia, whether or not the paper is published will matter little.

If you have to write to the journal to request withdrawl, it will end your advisors chances of tenure, though get the thesis defended 1st, or he'll likely refuse to let you graduate.

If you can't get your thesis done first, go to the department chair now - do not wait. It's academic misconduct, though in my experience you will only make things worse by discussing with your advisor.

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    would the 3 down voters like to explain what they dislike about this? If faculty were prevented from treating students how they like, academia would be a more plesant place – camelccc Oct 8 '14 at 17:33
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    There is nothing in the question to suggest the Prof is looking to get tenure. Further, the Prof is not one of the co-first authors. The paper does not appear to be submitted yet, so I am not sure what withdrawal has to do with anything at this point. Finally, I think some insight into why co-first authorship is a "massive deal" would be helpful. – StrongBad Oct 8 '14 at 21:29
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    The point of having papers at all is for your future academic career if you plan one. Like it or not, thos is a hyper competitive field to get into, and count of 1st author papers is a massive deal. Withdrawl comes in if the advisor submits it like this without telling the stident - Ive known that happen. If you dont plan on an academic career, no one is going to care what papers you have published. If you have 6 other 1st author papers, I might let it slide for keeping peace. If you dont have 1st author papers, then trying to persue an academic career is idiotic. – camelccc Oct 8 '14 at 21:52
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    @camelccc: Excuse me if this sounds condescending, but I would claim your induction into the scientific community has been corrupted. The points of having papers at all are: 1. Effective sharing of information with with the community of scientists, or the general interested public; 2. Stabilization and conservation of a quantum of new information and insight, as a methodical step in the cycle of research work and knowledge development. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 9 '14 at 20:39
  • @StrongBad see the comment on the below downvoted answer... – Johannes Pille Oct 9 '14 at 20:40
2

This is a "political" situation, and must be treated as one. You have two alternatives, "go along," or fight.

Your professor clearly wants to go along. Clearly, the other professor has "called" a favor and put your professor in a tight spot. On the other and, the other professor now owes your professor (and you) a favor. Speak candidly to your professor, without being too blunt, and ask what will be in it for you in the future. Hopefully. someone will return the "favor," eventually. And, of course, be more careful in the future. (I made a similar mistake myself.)

Your second alternative is to fight. Start by going to the dean, and if necessary, go to court. Hire a lawyer to advise you of your rights. Make sure that you have logs, diaries, etc. establishing the fact that you did research on this topic before anyone else.

Be aware that if you choose to fight a powerful professor, "no one" in your department and probably not in your university will have anything to do with you again, and they may even "blackball" you to the rest of the academic community, meaning that you may have to change fields. If you are really that talented, it may be worth it. Otherwise, consider the "go along" alternative.

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Your professor is being bullied, and he's telling you to go along with it because he doesn't have the guts to defend his student.

Treat it as a bullying situation. Why should you, your work & your career be victimised because your professor is being bullied?

And further, why do they all think you can be the ultimate pawn? You've to stand up and fight back but in a way that you can win. No point rocking the boat and losing. Do it quietly and hit hard in unseen places that hurt but they can't cry out. They have to smile and grin in public and back away from you.

My advise to you is to become a b*stard that they did not see coming:

  1. Gather some facts, know the weaknesses and pasts of the other professor and Mr A.
  2. Do not talk directly with the other professor. Be very nice to him if you meet him.
  3. Go and talk to A, face to face. Demonstrate that you have his weak spot in your hand, and you are going to squeeze if he doesn't back out. Give a deadline. Send him messages at odd hours that make him lose sleep. Keep the pressure up. When you have someone's weak spot in your control, they will find it extremely hard to think rationally.
  4. He might react according to stages of trauma/grief: Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. Be cold, know what he's going through and it's according to your plan. Be merciless, be relentless, force him to get to acceptance. Do not accept bargains. He's got to be sure you're serious.
  5. Once your deadline is up, squeeze hard but not all at once. Act more than your threat. Don't show your ultimate cards though, promise further pain. Give another deadline, shorter this time. Keep the pressure on.

Be absolutely cold and logical. This is your 4 years of work. They want to play you out and profit from it? Well find their pressure points, weak spot. How can you hurt them without hurting yourself? Let Mr. A run to his professor and cry. If the other professor wants to meet you etc, avoid as much as possible, say all the right non-commital things and make him feel at ease, but behind his back, squeeze Mr A with righteous vengence.

Second, don't trust or turn to the system to help you. The professors are the system and they will burn you.

Third, don't expect the story to end here. Stories like this will be whispered behind your back and impact your reputation and career further on. Make a stand, win quietly or spend your career walking with your tail between your back, wondering "what if..".

Source: I've been successful when I was bullied at workplace by a boss, by doing something similar.

Good luck, I hope you win and report back. Cheers!

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    This is rather horrible advice. – Arno Oct 11 '14 at 16:54
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    @Arno why? In a horrible situation, you need to stop being a nice guy, or you won't win. If you don't agree, why? Just because you become an "academic", doesn't mean you have to be a nambie-pambie softie. – a20 Oct 12 '14 at 12:43
  • Ethical issues aside, as you say, stories get around. If you have a reputation as being a bully to collaborators, it stands to reason that people will no longer wish to collaborate with you, and this includes to hire you as postdoc. – Arno Oct 12 '14 at 13:11
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    Ethical issues aside, what you propose is illegal in most countries: you basically suggest harassment. – Benoît Kloeckner Oct 12 '14 at 14:08
  • @Arno reputation as being a bully to collaborators, or reputation as not putting up with being bullied? Mr A is definitely not his collaborator, Mr A and his professor pressured OP into accepting their terms. Are you sure you're not a professor yourself? – a20 Oct 12 '14 at 20:45
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The question is: who wrote the results down? Writing down the results in an appropriate form is taking much more time, and maybe even more knowledge, than doing the research and coming up with some figures.

Did you write your intermediate results down; and if so, why didn't you publish them? Did you really do four years of research without leaving the nuthouse called "university" once, heading for a conference?

If three years of intermediate results are all written down and published, A will have to take all the conference papers into the list of sources, so everyone can see who the researcher behind the paper really is.

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    The OP is apparently working in experimental science. In this field, it is (a) uncommon to publish conference papers at all, and (b) not so uncommon that 3 to 4 years of experimental work actually result in a single (maybe coauthored) paper. – silvado Oct 8 '14 at 8:54
  • My professor did not allow me to use my intermediate results to be known to anyone till the end. He was afraid that people might steal his idea. My prof is working to get his tenure and is very cautious right now. So, I could not attend any conference. This is A's first paper. So, he has not cited any other paper. However, his prof has cited couple of his papers which was written in collaboration with my prof. – user146290 Oct 8 '14 at 8:56
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    @user146290: So, your prof, while working to get his tenure, is actually damaging you, who are in a much weaker position, by not allowing you to publish. A very nice move on his part... – Massimo Ortolano Oct 8 '14 at 9:14
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    @MassimoOrtolano: Not to mention damaging his own tenure case. . . . – aeismail Oct 9 '14 at 11:26

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