33

Alice and Bob have co-authored a paper together. The contribution (data collection, analysis, writing) was 100% Alice and 0% Bob, except that the original idea was initiated during a conversation between Alice and Bob. Bob acknowledged several times in private that he did not contribute to the project, but he claimed co-authorship for the idea and Alice did not object to that. Alice spent almost an entire year working on the project. Bob spent less than a couple of hours in total. A manuscript with both names has already been circulated, submitted and rejected from one journal.

Bob is now trying to block the publication of the paper due to a personal conflict with Alice. In the meantime, Bob became envious of Alice's early successes and decided to do everything to slow down her career, even at the expense of his own publication record. Bob is already tenured and has no pressure to publish. Alice, by contrast, needs more publications for her forthcoming tenure review. Of course, Bob never explicitly refused to submit the paper. But instead of sending it to a prestigious outlet (where the paper would have a good shot) he insists that they send the manuscript to a non peer-reviewed and unknown journal, which would not help Alice's tenure case. Of course he makes no effort in trying to find an agreement, as he would be happy not to submit the paper at all. Clearly, his decisions are driven by spite and malevolence only and he takes great care into not writing anything incriminating for him.

Is there anything that Alice can do in that situation? Does she have to resign herself to never publishing the paper? What are the risks for her if she removes Bob's name without his agreement and submits the manuscript on her own?

PS: as a response to Captain Emacs' comment, Bob's only contribution was to say "why don't we study the causal effect of X on Y?" in an informal conversation. Alice did absolutely all the rest (literature review, design of the protocol, data collection, analysis, conference presentations, etc.). But there is no evidence of this, other than the fact that Bob would be unable to answer any question that goes into the detail of the paper.

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    Is there a way to isolate Bob's precise contribution? – Captain Emacs Dec 15 '16 at 18:03
  • Alice should certainly discuss the whole situation with the chair of her department (supposing that's not Bob) or the dean of her school, or both. As troublesome as the publication issue may be, if Bob is indeed trying more broadly to undermine Alice's academic career then that is a much more serious issue that Alice may have trouble tackling any other way. If the administration is unwilling to help, then maybe Alice doesn't want to continue at her present institution anyway. – PellMel Dec 16 '16 at 15:52
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    I'm missing why this is getting so many upvotes. This is an overtly one-sided recounting of a very run-of-the-mill advisor/grad student or advisor/postdoc authorship conflict, of which we have numerous on this site already. I'm guessing this is a Hot Network Question...? – eykanal Dec 16 '16 at 16:31
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    @vania55 Why would the manuscript have a "good shot" in a prestigious outlet if it has already been rejected from a journal? For what reasons was the manuscript rejected? – Charles Dec 16 '16 at 20:44
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    Mandatory XKCD – Gallifreyan Dec 17 '16 at 15:47
49

As with the another answer, I couldn't help but notice the almost literary way in which the Bob character is depicted:

Clearly, his decisions are driven by spite and malevolence only

Unless the OP is Bob (what a twist!), she is really not in a position to make that claim. In my experience, in 99% of all human behavior, after sufficient scrutiny, one finds that "driven by spite and malevolence only" is not the right explanation. Moreover, I'm not sure I've ever seen an academic make a professional decision to spite someone else even though it hurt their own career as well. Regarding this the OP wrote:

Bob is already tenured and has no pressure to publish.

Now I really think the OP cannot be Bob, because tenured people still have pressure to publish. The stakes may be different from that of their long term academic survival, but they are not necessarily lesser or viewed as lesser by the tenured faculty.

Anyway, here's the heart of the matter in my mind:

The contribution (data collection, analysis, writing) was 100% Alice and 0% Bob, except that the original idea was initiated during a conversation between Alice and Bob. Bob acknowledged several times in private that he did not contribute to the project, but he claimed co-authorship for the idea and Alice did not object to that.

I accept the premise of the story that Bob has done nothing on the paper past one initial conversation and is now (for some reason or reasons) acting against its timely publication in an appropriate venue. Which is terrible behavior on his part, of course. However, I must point out that Alice has also made a terrible mistake at some point in the process. Bob "claimed" coauthorship for a project that someone else worked on for a year and that he had one conversation about. That's egregiously improper behavior. You shouldn't "claim coauthorship" under any circumstances; you should propose coauthorship and that proposal should be accompanied by specific proposed contributions. If Alice went away after one conversation and worked for an entire year without telling Bob what she was doing, that's a mistake (and by the way, it could much more plausibly be part of what made Bob upset). If she did tell Bob what she was working on, she should have clarified that if he wanted to be involved in the project he needed to do....something. And no matter how they get to the endpoint, where Alice has a paper and Bob asks her to put his name on the paper, she needed to object to this. In fact (although this is not the point), Alice's lack of objection could be construed as academic dishonesty: it misleads the reader as to the level of Bob's contribution.

This act of misleading seems to have come back to bite Alice in the behind. It is much more awkward for her to take back sole control of her work after having submitted the jointly authored paper. However, it may still be the right thing to do if the publication of the paper is important enough to her. I do not see an ethical problem with Alice deciding to pull away with her work, given that it actually is solely her work. That she may not be able to prove that to the satisfaction of all interested parties makes the action more risky, not less ethical. If Alice and Bob really cannot agree on where to submit the paper, Alice has the right to say "I'm sorry it didn't work out. I am taking my work with me...which as you know is everything except the original idea, which I will credit you for so that you can write a paper on your alternate development/implementation of the idea if you choose." She should not allow the hypothetical threat of Bob's academic dishonesty (i.e., the possibility that he might tell other people that he did the work) to hold sway.

In fact, if Alice convinces Bob that she is serious about pulling away, then with any luck he will see that he has nothing to gain by pressing a fraudulent claim that the work was his that he wouldn't gain better and more easily just by allowing a joint submission to the journal Alice wants.

  • 9
    Good, even if a bit long response. I think the core idea is very good: Alice writes a mail to Bob making clear that she is excising Bob's contribution and acknowledges it in the Acknowledgements, plus @PeteL.Clark's comments. This way, she has a record and if Bob responds, she can make statements about their respective contribution in mail (factual, not aggressive), so that if it comes to a dispute, there is a paper trail establishing the ground positions. – Captain Emacs Dec 15 '16 at 23:33
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    If a dispute pops up Alice can ask Bob to provide evidence that he worked on the paper, perhaps some emails. In one year of work I would find it hard to believe none would have been exchanged. Since Alice claims Bob did nothing during that year for this work, I'd expect Bob to be unable to come up with such trivial proof of involvement. (I think Captain's approach is a good one.) – Daniel Dec 16 '16 at 2:35
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    @Daniel: I agree, and I took such considerations into account in my answer. Assuming the situation is as reported, Bob is going to have a hard time justifying his involvement on a paper when he had no involvement whatsoever. – Pete L. Clark Dec 16 '16 at 4:47
  • Thank you, this is a very thoughtful answer. I entirely agree that Alice made a serious mistake and is partly responsible for her situation. She actually kept informing Bob about what she was doing during the year and he was enthusiastic ; he never made any suggestion though and he seemed to consider that the initial conversation made him a co-author automatically. Obviously Alice was naive not to clarify the situation earlier. I will let her know about your advice :) – vania55 Dec 16 '16 at 22:56
10

The fact that it was submitted once with Bob's name on it makes it very difficult (and awkward) to remove Bob's name.

Instead, I'd recommend hot chocolate and cookies. Then Alice should tell Bob that she has addressed the reviewers comments from the previous rejection and will be submitting to Journal of Awesomeness. Ask Bob if he sees any more ways to improve it before submitting to Journal of Awesomeness.

Then, thank Bob for his time, tell him you will do your best to address his comments before submitting.

No matter what, Alice must make it clear that Journal of Awesomeness is where this paper is headed next.

9

It was an easy read until

Clearly, his decisions are driven by spite and malevolence only and he takes great care into not writing anything incriminating for him.

This part seemed to have a serious amount of judgment on your part ("clearly", "only"). I'm not saying you're mistaken, I'm only pointing out that this part seemed (to me) to be at odds with the rest of the story.

I like to believe that people generally are reasonable, and hence can be reasoned with. Has Alice tried to apologize for what caused the personal conflict or "misunderstanding"? Has she explained why she wants to publish? Is she really open for a discussion, or is her mind already set on the route to take and Bob objects to "signing off" on Alice's already made-up mind?

Of course, Alice's interpretation may be right and Bob is really a comic book villain. Sometimes you just come across people that are unreasonable. For the rest of this answer, this shall be my assumption.

Since Alice is in a lower position than Bob, she should avoid engaging in a fight about authorship, especially since there are preprints in circulation with both names as authors, which is evidence for Bob's co-authorship.

However, I think it should be possible for Alice to create a spin-off of the current paper, which she rewrites completely, citing the (unpublished) preprint. This way, Alice can claim that she wrote the paper alone, and she doesn't challenge Bob's authorship for the preprint. Since Bob blocks the publication of the preprint, and since the preprint might not be available publicly, this new paper would probably need to repeat arguments for the reader's convenience. I think Alice's own contributions to the preprint could be repeated without falling under (self-)plagiarism, since the previous preprint was not published and proper attribution to the preprint is given.

  • Thank you very much. Just to clarify, Alice and Bob come from a small country and Bob was considered as the leading young researcher in this field until Alice started publishing well and received a prestigious scientific prize Bob felt entitled to. After this event Bob said to Alice in a private conversation that he felt that Alice's success was undeserved, that he should have received the prize first, and that he would use his power to slow down her progress. This was while the paper was under review, before being rejected. – vania55 Dec 16 '16 at 23:05
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    @vania55 That suggests that Bob's problem should be with the members of the prize-giving committee, not with Alice. – Andrew Morton Dec 17 '16 at 16:37
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    @AndrewMorton absolutely, but unfortunately there is little that Alice can do about it. – vania55 Dec 17 '16 at 17:41
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    Having a colleague in the same field who won a prestigious prize should be seen as a good thing for Bob, since it gives the field (and thus also Bob) visibility. Working against a colleague in the same field is self-destructive. Of course, it is in Alice's best interest to be on good terms with Bob, to avoid (this corner of) the field being dominated by personal conflicts rather than quality research. But of course one can't resolve a conflict between two people alone... – Earthliŋ Dec 17 '16 at 17:42
3

As you need to get on with doing research and writing new papers, you can consider writing up follow up papers that cite the current paper as a paper in preparation or as a preprint.

2

There are many sides to a story, so I won't comment on the merits or facts of the narrative. However, I will advise that it is my experience that authorship issues that are unresolved post-publication often prove detrimental to both parties making the claim. Thus, every effort must be made to reach a resolution.

The technical term for the situation described in the question is disputed authorship. At the journal level, the standard advice is that authorship disputes be resolved at the level of the institution(s). Journals will generally NOT proceed with publication until clear resolution is reached.

Let me provide two examples.

Case 1. An manuscript is submitted listing two authors (M and N). The manuscript is sent for peer review. While under review, the editor receives a letter from Author M stating that the manuscript was submitted without his knowledge or permission. The editor immediately does two things -- (1) he halts the peer review process and (2) he contacts Author N to request an explanation. Author N admits that he had attempted to contact Author M for the past two months but with no luck. Deciding that sufficient time and effort has passed, Author N decided to submit the manuscript. The editor seeks further details and discovers that Author M has been discharged from his institution and has instituted legal proceedings about a different matter. This situation seems to have been used by Author M as part of his legal strategy. The editor asks the institution to resolve the matter at their level. Over time, Authors N and M reach an agreement that is suitable to both of them and the institution. They write to the editor that the authorship dispute has been resolved. A new manuscript is submitted containing comments and revisions from Author M. The peer review process is restarted. The article has been published.

In some cases, it is out of the hands of the author.

Case 2. A group of authors submit a manuscript for publication. After peer review, the article is published. An individual writes to the editor after having seen the publication claiming that she deserves authorship on the grounds that the the publication could not have been possible without her contribution (she provided the data in the form of a database she has set up). The editor responds by stating that they abide by the authorship criteria of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors and that she should provide evidence to support her claim. The third party submits the evidence. On assessment of the evidence, the editor makes the assessment that the third party DOES NOT fulfill the criteria for authorship and authorship is denied.

At the same time, the third party contacts the authors and informs them that she had lodged a claim of disputed authorship with the journal. The authors consider this information and write to the journal, stating that they would like to include the third party on the list of authors. The editor declines the request because the assessment had made and the third party does not fulfill the ICMJE conditions for authorship. The publication is not changed.

The main issue here is the difference between contribution and authorship. The former can exist without the latter, but not the other way around.

Good luck to you.

  • 1
    How does this answer the question? – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Dec 17 '16 at 16:18
  • Question 1: "Is there anything that Alice can do in that situation?" My response: "Every effort must be made to reach a resolution". – user65587 Dec 17 '16 at 20:59
  • Question 3: "What are the risks for her if she removes Bob's name without his agreement and submits the manuscript on her own?" My response: Here are two cases from my journal demonstrating what could potentially happen. – user65587 Dec 17 '16 at 21:02
1

Reputable scientists normally reject co-authorship suggestions of the type "I contribute the work, you contribute the reputation". Not too ethical, and the risk to publish questionable material on the own name also matters. They should also not be invited into co-authors on the basis "this is because you have told me two valuable sentences in cafeteria". Shame for both.

To save the situation for both, Bob and Alice should agree now on the rewritten paper that (they both declare) does not contain Bob's contribution. As this was just a discussion, no experiments, no analysis, rewriting a few sentences in introduction may be sufficient.

  • I'd +1 you had you not assumed Bob would agree to do something that is clearly beneficial to Alice and requires some fairness or magnanimity. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Dec 17 '16 at 0:42
0

Wow, what a difficult position to be in. If Bob contributed 0%, Alice has every right to exclude him from the author list and simply acknowledge his contribution in a footnote. She is then free to submit to whichever journal she feels has the best chance of accepting the paper. For the sake of maintaining some level of collegiality, she should advise Bob of her intentions.

The professional jealousy is an entirely different matter, but her record will stand on its own when she goes up for review. She has an obligation to herself, and not to Bob.

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    her record will stand on its own, while you would hope this is true, there is even room for politics in academia. – mikeazo Dec 15 '16 at 21:22
0

Here is a possible course of action which Alice might consider, but only if she doesn't care about antagonizing Bob even further, and if other courses of action have failed.

It depends on what comes first: (1) The acceptance announcement date at the Journal of Awesomeness, or (2) the submission date at the Journal of Lameness.

If the Journal of Awesomeness deadline comes first, Alice submits without telling Bob she did it. She should try to avoid actually stating whether or not she's going to submit, and sort of let Bob understand She's sulking/angry and that he's gotten away with his little plot. If the submission is rejected - none will be the wiser. If it's accepted, still Alice mustn't tell him, for as long as she can until the Journal of Lameness deadline. Bob won't prepare a draft for that one, and will be expecting Alice to do the work, right? Well, Alice act discouraged and sort of "give up on it". Unless Bob pushes Alice really hard, in which case Alice might have to tell him.

If the Journal of Lameness deadline comes first, Alice should get the draft ready for the Journal of Awesomeness submission, unbeknownst to Bob. She must continue acting frustrated and mopey, and appear to have lost motivation for getting that thing published. Now the Journal of Lameness submission deadline will be approaching. As Alice is the one who does all the work, it's likely Bob won't prepare the draft for this submission, and will be expecting Alice to do that? Well, Alice will sort-of-kind-of be working on it, but not really; she'll try to not show up and not be very responsive as the deadline is coming up. Or she might promise him she'll have it ready on time, but fail to update him on the progress. Alice has to make it so that they miss the deadline.

But when the Journal of Awesomeness deadline comes up - Alice submits the paper; and does not mention that fact to Bob at all.

Finally, in both cases

When Bob finds out (which will be no later than when the next issue of Journal of Awesomeness comes out I suppose) - what is Bob going to do? The paper was already accepted. It's not like he could spoil the publication by claiming uncredited authorship. At most Bob can demand that his name be removed. Bob could theoretically contact the editors and claim Alice published against his wishes - but how would Bob make that argument? It's a perfectly appropriate journal, and the paper was not submitted anywhere else. And Bob has no evidence. And Alice can always rebutt such a claim by arguing it was always clear they were going to submit to the JoA anyway. Win.

  • Thank you, but are you sure that "at most Bob can demand that his name be removed"? It seems to me that Retraction Watch is full of stories of papers that have been retracted - at various stages - after one of the authors informed the editor that he/she did not gave his/her agreement to submit the paper to that journal. – vania55 Dec 16 '16 at 23:38
  • @vania55: 1. A reason to postpone telling him for as long as possible. 2. How can that be a reason for retraction? Authors can't theoretically veto each other from publishing the work. Unless Bob argues why it's inappropriate for the publication to go forward objectively (e.g. inappropriate venue, legal issues) - I don't see how he would have a leg to stand on. 3. Can you link to examples? I've never notice Retraction Watch before. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Dec 17 '16 at 0:38
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    My impression is that many journals explicitly require that all co-authors agree on the submission, and that even a suspicion of a conflict would lead editors to retract the paper. See for instance this story : retractionwatch.com/2016/07/28/… – vania55 Dec 17 '16 at 7:25
  • @vania55: In that example it seems that the publicatyion without the consulting other authors was just a exacerbating aspect of other issues with the paper. And there was the use of a commercial company to do the work instead of the Ph.D. candidate etc. That's not the same as a perfectly valid paper which only some authors want to publish. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Dec 17 '16 at 8:40
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    Indeed I could not find an example where submitting without co-author's consent was the only issue, since this strategy is obviously associated with other types of misconduct. However, agreement from all co-authors on the submission is explicitly required by some journals. Two examples: Nature ("Before submission, the corresponding author ensures that (...) all authors are aware that the paper was submitted."), the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics ("Submission of an article implies that (...) its publication is approved by all authors"). – vania55 Dec 17 '16 at 8:51

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