Background: In my area, people extend their conference paper to a journal version by adding only 30% contribution. This means that you get a second paper, with the same content (introduction, related works, motivation, etc). Secondly, the order of authors matter in my area.

Story: I published a conference paper, which is one of major contributions to my PhD, and I planned to prepare an extension of that paper to be submitted to a journal. However, I postpone the extension, as I was busy with my other projects (also related to my PhD). Recently, my supervisor has secretly given the (almost) extended paper to another person to do the extension and has submitted it with a different order of names.

My supervisor and the person who extended the paper did not tell me anything about it and kept everything secret, until the last minute of submission. Although my supervisor knew that I had planned to do the extension, he ignored all my previous efforts. He even sent my already extended version to this person. However, I should acknowledge that both of them had minor contributions to the initial paper, but I am not sure if that gives them the right to extend it.

The question is whether my supervisor had the right to do so? He knew that I have planned to do the extension (as I had already extended some parts of it --I added 4-5 pages of a proof of a theorem and extended experiments).

  • I have two questions. (1) What's your field? Theoretical Computer Science? (2) What was the reason you did not have the 4-5 pages of a proof of a theorem in your conference paper? Thanks. – scaaahu Aug 12 '16 at 5:56
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    To be clear, are you saying that the supervisor submitted a paper, on which you were an author, without getting your approval of the final version (including author ordering)? That is the major ethical breach here, in my view. He has no right to submit a paper until all the authors agree it is ready, and that includes all of them agreeing on author order. Up to that point, it might be discourtesy or bad management practice, but not unethical publication. – Nate Eldredge Aug 12 '16 at 8:28
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    Some minor comments. A) Everybody needs to publish papers. You, your advisor, the other co-author B) Everybody needs to publish papers fast C) Journals may require 12+ months to accept a paper D) Many people need to publish co-authored papers fast and then they focus on their core work, i.e, leaving other co-authors wait for you is not nice. In this sense, although I agree that changing author order was not very nice, you also made a mistake for postponing a work that others also depend on it. – Alexandros Aug 12 '16 at 8:52
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    One possible model is "the project belongs to the lab". Just because you started the project does not mean you own it - the priority is to get it done, and the PI might assign different parts to different people to achieve that most efficiently, so long as the final authorship reflects who actually did what. I don't see that as unethical. – Nate Eldredge Aug 12 '16 at 9:01
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    So, basically, you did not bother to finish the journal article, and are surprised that your advisor found another way to get it done? And was it really 'secret', or did you ignore the hints that it should get done? At some point, advisors stop telling you what to do, and you are expected to get things done. – Jon Custer Aug 13 '16 at 0:31
up vote 9 down vote accepted

If the paper was submitted without your knowledge and agreement, this is a serious problem. All co-authors are supposed to know about and approve a paper that they are listed on before it is submitted. This would be an ethical breach by your supervisor. I would at least raise it as a concern with them. This is something that you could potentially raise with others, as well, such as someone else at your instutation, or even the journal. Consider the consequences before you do anything, though: it's likely to have a major impact on your relationship with your supervisor, and therefore your PhD studies.

Beyond that, the situation is much more of a gray area. Clearly the way things were handled, particularly the lack of communication with you, was not optimal. But it's not so clear that it was "wrong" beyond that.

  • The PI directs the research of the group and has the authority to decide that someone else will now take the lead on a collaborative project.
  • It is a judgment call who should be first author. If the other researcher made a significant contribution and put together the draft of this paper, they may have a legitimate case to be first author. At least, it may be ambiguous enough that it would be hard to challenge. Also, someone might feel that the first author on this paper should be the one who did the most on the revision/extension rather than the one who did the most overall. After all, you already got first author recognition for the primary piece of work on the conference paper. In a series of related papers that build on each other, who did the most recent work may be considered most relevant to authorship position.

Don't be too quick to assume intent. Your talk of the supervisor keeping things "secret" implies intent to sneakily do this behind your back. I wouldn't necessarily assume that.

Perhaps your advisor is just poor at communication/management, and this was an oversight. This is quite common; many professors are not good at managing a group of people. Even submitting the paper without your knowledge may be an oversight (it shouldn't happen, but it does happen).

The advisor might even think they are doing you a favor by taking some work off your shoulders and getting something done that has been delayed.

Talk to them and make them aware of your concerns and see if you can arrive at a constructive solution. It may be too late to undo what is happening here, but hopefully you can agree on a better way of working in the future.

If, after attempting to discuss this, you feel that your supervisor is acting in bad faith, you may want to escalate the situation. But only do this as a last resort.

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