Due to unforeseen circumstances, I am not able to present my paper at a Computer Science conference. Without the presentation the paper will not be published. My instructor has said that she will present the paper instead, but wants to move me from the primary author to the second author. I did all the work as a graduate student while she reviewed and gave general feedback. What is the proper etiquette here? Is it okay to move her to primary because I cannot present?


In the interest of fairness to the professor, I want to provide some more background. This started off as a end-of-semester project. Each student needed to come up with an idea, then propose, implement, present and write a paper on it. I initially proposed a vague concept of using PSO to train neural nets. My instructor said her lab is working on something similar and if I wanted, I could tackle an extension to their algorithm, which depending on the outcome could lead to a published paper. During the course of the semester, my instructor offered little to no help for the project, presumably because that would give me an unfair advantage. All the work, code, paper, the specifics of the algorithm extension are all mine, and all I had was the published paper of the previous algorithm to work on.

After the semester was over, I decided to see if I could get it published. I noticed a lot of mistakes I made with my implementation during the tight semester time-frame and spent several months iterating and refining my process and results. I was put in touch with the previous researchers who offered little help with the exception of getting a portion of their source code, which was also of little help to me. I would venture to say that my professor's role in this was mostly advisory, although at the end of it, I would send my paper to her to proofread it.

Fast-forward to now, my instructor is claiming that because I am not presenting, I am not taking ownership of my work. She is also claiming that the work was her idea and based on her lab's previous work. She gave me a choice of swapping authors or withdrawing the paper. Note that a camera-ready version of the paper has already been submitted. I offered to withdraw from the conference. She then tells me that she has already registered the paper so I shouldn't withdraw, but she wants the source files for my work (I assume latex files?).

She has now invoked university policy and copyright law, saying that since both our names are on the paper, I cannot withdraw without her consent, which she has not given. Since she shares ownership of the paper, she claims she is also entitled to the source materials of the paper. She has offered not to change the author order.

That is the majority of the story. The actual email conversation was not as civil. I have graduated and moved on... we never actually met face to face since this was an online class. So... given the above story, have I done anything wrong? Is the instructor entitled to the source material for the paper? This is for the IEEE WCCI conference this summer. We are the only two authors on this paper. This is my first paper, this is not her first paper.

  • 51
    Sounds 100% wrong. If your adviser's doing this either he's inexperienced or abusive. If you think it's the former, you could politely let him know that you weren't aware this is standard practice; is it? If you think it's the latter then go up to your department chair or ombudsperson and complain. It's part of their job to handle stuff like this. (To me it sounds like the latter.)
    – user541686
    Apr 14, 2016 at 18:23
  • 7
    yep, sounds like abusive behavior. as others already said, presentation of a paper and authorship have nothing to do with eachother. all conferences that I have seen require one of the authors (regardless of the position) to present the paper and that's it. you should ask your instrcutor, why she would want to change the order of the authors, but stay polite and professional when doing that. maybe ask coworkers, if they had similar experiences with this very instructor. good luck.
    – beta
    Apr 14, 2016 at 19:20
  • 8
    @Sandra I would be interested in hearing what happens next regarding your instructor
    – d0nut
    Apr 14, 2016 at 21:00
  • 16
    @Sandra The update changes A LOT about the question. It's no longer about the presentation. You should really create another question to address it. This sounds like clearly unethical behavior and you ought to contact both the University and the conference about it.
    – Ric
    Apr 15, 2016 at 16:15
  • 8
    "She has now invoked university policy and copyright law, saying that since both our names are on the paper, I cannot withdraw without her consent, which she has not given." -- I'm unsure about your university's policy but is the reverse not more true for most publications? i.e. the consent of all authors is required in order to publish (therefore a single author is always able to contest/veto the publishing of a paper, as opposed to the opposite of a single author being able to publish without the consent of all the remaining authors as suggested in the quote)?
    – kwah
    Apr 16, 2016 at 3:11

6 Answers 6


Who presents a work should not affect its authorship.

Authorship is determined by the contribution to the publication. That work is complete at the time when the publication is accepted and the camera-ready is submitted. Now, it is entirely reasonable (and in fact common) for a paper to be presented by somebody other than the first author, and it's quite normal for the presenter to highlight their name in the presentation. In no way, however, should that change the authorship of the paper.

  • 24
    +1 This a 1000 times. It is mainly the OP's paper and that should not change. The OP might also prepare the presentation for the advisor. But the author order must remain the same.
    – Alexandros
    Apr 14, 2016 at 16:40
  • 3
    Can you confirm that your answer is speaking from a computer science perspective? Authorship order issues are discipline specific, and you make statements that can be interpreted as universal generalizations. Does the answer change if the the paper is not an independent publication, but rather a write-up of the talk in a "conference proceedings" journal? (Which it sounds like it may be, given "without the presentation the paper will not be published".)
    – R.M.
    Apr 14, 2016 at 18:03
  • 11
    @R.M. I am speaking as a computer scientist. "Without the presentations, the paper will not be published" is actually a standard clause in many computer science conferences, used to prevent people from submitting a publication and then not turning up to present (see, for example, my recent answer about IEEE publications chair responsibilities)
    – jakebeal
    Apr 14, 2016 at 19:17
  • 2
    This is for an IEEE conference in Computer Science.
    – Sandra
    Apr 14, 2016 at 20:47

No, certainly it is not okay to change order of authorship reflecting levels of contribution to a paper, because of not contributing to its presentation.

You should ask very politely your advisor about this sensitive issue. (Try smiling.)


Contrary to the other answers, in theoretical Computer Science, it is customary to list authors in alphabetical order, not by contribution (so what applies to you depends on what exact field you're in). That said, it is possible to deviate from this (for instance, placing the student as first author when they did an overwhelming majority of the work) but who presents the work shouldn't have any bearing on the author order.

Since the order was already agreed upon, whether alphabetical, by contribution or not, I see no reason to change it.

  • 3
    This is true in theoretical CS but not in applied CS (it is of course the main way to measure how theoretical a conference is). Apr 15, 2016 at 9:32
  • 6
    I would say that this is not contrary to the other answer to the OP's question: all answers, including yours, state that it is very common for someone other than the first author to present the paper.
    – DCTLib
    Apr 15, 2016 at 13:27
  • 1
    Clearly, the premise of the question is that authors are listed in order of contribution. Otherwise the whole think would make no sense.
    – user24098
    Apr 18, 2016 at 14:55

The paper was accepted with this order, no matter who was about to present it. Unethical behavior in line from the supervisor. In some cases, conferences and journals won't accept a change in order after accepted.

The question is: how important is it for you, is it possible for you to resist?

The first thing to check is whether the conference forbids paper or name order change. If it does, you are saved.

If not, that is another question.

  • 11
    I'm not following "The question is:" part...
    – Xen2050
    Apr 14, 2016 at 23:47

While other answers have given what I also consider the morally/ethically correct answer, that does not help you much. You can bask in the warm glow of being in the right, it won't get you forward in life. Question is: What will?

  1. You mentioned "circumstances" prevent you from presenting the paper. Try changing them. I mean seriously try. If it costs you some money, pay it. If you have to break a promise to someone, let them be the one hearing "due to unforeseen circumstances". Go out of your way (not too crazy, but out of your way) to make it there.

  2. If you really can't make it there, get someone else to go in your stead. Again, that may mean paying - even if only for their plane ticket / conference attendence. You might get this money back, but probably not. Yet, that's not an unreasonable sacrifice given the amount of time and effort you've spent. Who can do it in your stead? Another graduate student, or even someone you know who's going to the conference and not presenting himself that day. Or if you have a grad student acquaintance or collaborator at that university, try to get them to do it. Make super-professional slides for them to use. Tell them they're saving your ass and that you'd be eternally grateful. I actually wouldn't officially tell the organizers I'm not coming - let your replacement show up and tell the session chair that due to grave personal circumstances you could not make it and asked him/her to present in your stead. This is not unheard of, and is relatively well accepted - in my limited experience. (Of course, I might be overestimating the importance of the acceptance.)

  3. Get the head of the lab or other researchers there (or your advisor like others suggested) to lean on that instructor. It's extremely poor form (although not uncommon) to try to hijack credit for something which grew out of a student's course project, and your instructor should know better. If you have a graduate researcher / all-levels academic staff union, consult them about it and maybe they can bring some discreet pressure to bear.

  4. She's acting in a very underhanded way. So, if worse comes to worst, consider replying in kind. For example, you could promise her you'll ask for the switch, but fail to send the email; or email the wrong person; or misspell the address slightly. Or you could even write the same person earlier, describing (some of) the situation, telling him you might be forced to relinquish credit against your will and asking him/her to politely refuse when they get the request. Alternatively, if you get her on record essentially blackmailing you - either by email, but better perhaps by voice recording - you could, right after she makes the presentation, demand that she undo any request you have made for the switch, and threaten to publicly denounce her and/or file a disciplinary complaint against her. These last suggestions are more risky, so think about the pros and cons and don't follow them without careful consideration. Another, safer, offensive measure is getting your union to do something like the above on your behalf - but unfortunately many/most universities aren't unionized that way.

  • 1) I considered it over a weekend before letting my professor know. I did not make this decision lightly. 2) I don't really know anyone who can do this for me. 3) I plan on consulting with my school, although, she was an adjunct (I think) from another school. 4) I don't want to do this. I would rather go through my dean.
    – Sandra
    Apr 15, 2016 at 21:48
  • @Sandra: 1) I didn't think you had. But other people in your situation may want to rethink the decision given the circumstances and give put more weights on one side of the scale. 2) Try asking someone you don't know well enough, or asking people you do know for people you don't know. While this is a big favor, you could be paying for someone's conference trip, which a lot of people would appreciate. 3) I feel sorry for the adjuncts, being driven to such underhanded behavior. 4) Fair enough. But.. perhaps think about what you would rather not-regret rather than what you would rather not-do.
    – einpoklum
    Apr 15, 2016 at 22:07
  • 1
    Er... if you promise her to switch the order, she can tell the conference that you've mutually agreed to the change....
    – cfr
    Apr 15, 2016 at 22:33
  • @cfr: They won't accept such a communication from a non-corresponding author who wants to become the first listed.
    – einpoklum
    Apr 16, 2016 at 7:08
  • Do we know who the corresponding author is? Maybe I missed that in the question.
    – cfr
    Apr 16, 2016 at 15:27

I plan on contacting my university about it, but I just wanted to know beforehand if this behavior really isn't normal.

Is it "normal?" Well professors can be egotistical and pull all sorts of shenanigans (just like any other group of people). So perhaps normal in the sense that situations like this are not uncommon. But the professors actions, as described, are inappropriate and potentially violating of academic standards of publication.

From the way you describe the situation, such as this being an end of term project, it does not sound like you are a graduate student. If have any relationships with faculty who you trust, especially ones involved in research, I would consider talking to them, perhaps even before "the university."

However, if you plan on continuing in academia as a grad student, preventing bad relations is something to think about, as @einpoklum says. So try to find as win-win a solution as possible.

I am confused about one thing. You said "my instructor said her lab" (emphasis mine) but also said that you think she is an adjunct. Those two don't jibe. If she has a lab, then she has an appointment at a university, and would not be an adjunct.

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