When leaving with my PhD I left a sizable amount of unpublished work, most of which was 95% or better complete. After several attempts over the past 2 years to find out his plans for publishing I all but gave up. Then tonight a google notification told me they were adding a pub on google scholar. It was my work (that I had written a manuscript in 2012) with someone else as a first author. I'm on the paper but was never informed or reviewed a manuscript. Im concerned because I still have presumably 3 more papers pending that could turn out the same way.

I would like to see 3 things happen.

  • Reordering of authorship or at least an unbiased remediation/explanation of the current.
  • Access to the submission process (including establishing agreed upon authorship requirements) or at least advanced notice should some other work be published in the future.
  • I would love (but most likely won’t get) acknowledgment/censure by the institution, as this is not the first time the PI has acted dishonestly in this regard, and likely not the last.

I am looking for advice on who to contact, and how to approach the situation such that my claim is heard.

To clarify a few points: In my field it is customary for the author who contributed most both experimentally and conceptually to be listed first, followed by other contributing authors in roughly descending order of involvement. Lastly the PI (the Principle Investigator who oversees the work, funds the lab, the major professor involved, ect) is listed.

This order is largely taken into account when assessing a researchers body of work, as it is not common for papers in the field to have a breakdown of contributions by author in the text like in some other related fields.

Also common in the field is the ownership of the scholarship by the institution. This work was written up and published in my thesis. Additionally I prepared and formatted, and made available to the PI a manuscript for journal publication. Unfortunately, I cannot publish without the PI's approval, and I thought he was unable to publish without my approval.

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    I don't know how it works in Academia (never really stayed to the paper-writing stage) but in the commercial world, most employment contracts say that any work done is the property of the employer. If something similar applies, and given you say you "left a sizable amount of unpublished work" (with an emphasis on left) then it might be within their rights to publish what you left behind. As to who is the primary author, how different is what you left behind to what was published?
    – TripeHound
    Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 11:12
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    The pink elephant in the room: why weren't you trying to publish your results yourself instead of waiting for someone else to do it?
    – Mad Jack
    Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 12:06
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    @TripeHound: While intelectual property may transfer to the employer in academia, Academic authorship is not about this but about intellectual contributions. If you submit a paper to a journal you have to state that (roughly) the authors are exactly those people who intellectually contributed to the paper.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 14:45
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    @TripeHound practices about authorship differ very widely by field. In some fields, the advisor goes last all the time. In some fields, the authors are listed alphabetically, in some fields, the authors are ordered by contribution. / as you note, you aren't in this business anymore...
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 16:38
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    I'm with @MadJack here - what have you been doing over the past two years to publish the work? If you haven't been actively working it, why shouldn't the professor (who probably needs to publish to satisfy the funding agency) get it out the door? And, without your direct help, why should you be first author if you have abandoned any effort? Further, "95% or better complete" is likely, in reality, to be 50% or less (the last 10% takes 90% of the effort far too often).
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 21:16

3 Answers 3


It is a difficult situation, and the course of action may depend on many things we do not know (e.g. the influence of the PI, your current situation and dependency from him – do you need letters of recommendation, or did you leave academia –, how much factual evidence you can provide for your part on the works, etc.).

Here are various approaches which seem possible, but any of them may be impractical or dangerous depending on the unknowns mentioned above.

  • Contact the PI to sort the situation out; it is better not to corner her, but to let her an honorable way out or probably nothing good will happen.

  • Contact the university or department to notify the misconduct. It might be better to only do that after contacting the PI, but it really depend on the history.

  • Contact an ethic committee if one exists in your field (e.g. an ethic committee for publications, including misattribution of authorship, has been set for maths by the EMS).

  • Contact the editor-in-chief of the journal the paper is published in, and notify her that you should be first author (providing evidence) and that you were not asked for permission to publish the work.

Be aware that any of the above move may turn out to be explosive; it is difficult to say more given the limited amount of information. So let me end with probably the most important advice:

Seek guidance by a senior researcher you know and can trust with your case. You will be able to discuss the specifics of your situation, and someone ready to back you up is of utmost importance in this kind of situation.


Why didn't you write it up? So you are not the first author, but which order do you come in, second? I think the best thing to do is just to move on and do some other amazing work. I have witnessed how some nasty people work, they never change and you can't change them. The best you can do is to run away. This is not being a coward, it's just time saving.

Here are some very general authorship rules - most health related journals including very good ones such as the BMJ use these as guidelines. Your PI has obviously broken most, e.g. you weren't asked for approval in the final draft: http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html


Is there a member (or several members) of your thesis committee that you feel you can trust? If so, I would contact them to get their confidential feedback. You need to prepare a document that explicitly demonstrates which portions of the manuscript were your work:

  1. Find the draft that you originally wrote.
  2. Highlight all of the text that is a direct quote from your draft or your thesis.
  3. Highlight all of the figures that you personally made.

You should be able to definitively back up any assertions that you make. Document everything. Then get feedback from unbiased, knowledgeable 3rd parties. Allow them to decide whether you should be listed as first author, co-first author, second author, or middle author. A co-primary authorship--if warranted-- might prove to be an elegant solution that doesn't offend anyone.

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