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I am experiencing a very difficult time in the lab where I'm doing my postdoc (biomedical sciences).

This is a lab with lots of funding and a good scientific reputation. I joined 3 years ago and have been working on a technically challenging project. Finally, after 3 years of solving technical sides of things, I started getting some interesting data and was planning to expand my findings to publish a full story out of it. Meanwhile, another postdoc in the lab was preparing a ms on an interrelated topic that could significantly benefit from this data.

My PI told me that I have the option of a) going ahead with my own experiments and story, but bearing in mind that I can be partially scooped by that other paper from our own lab(!), or b) contributing my work to this other manuscript, which could then be sent to a top journal and could be good for the lab. He also explicitly said that he doesn't care if I will be scooped because he has to think about the lab and not individuals who sometimes will have to suffer for the collective good. I argued that this meant I will lose major part of my project and will have to start from scratch, to which he responded that I will still have time to do something else.

My contract ends in less than 2 years. It's possible it'll be extended but there's no official guarantee. I also don't want to be postdoc for ever and prefer to at least get my own fellowship. After I insisted that this could only make sense (and yet reluctantly and as a compromise) if I will be a co-first author on that paper, he said that it's only him who will decide on authorship and that he hasn't made up his mind yet. He also questioned me, in a condescending tone, whether I think this paper will give me a job and said that he knows the answer is "No".

A week after this unpleasant conversation he called me on my phone to say that he has decided my data should go in that paper and that I can be co-first author. This was far from ideal but not the worst scenario, so I prepared the results and the figure. When I asked to see the manuscript, he responded that he'll send it to me only after I finish my part of the method section and the figure legend, because he doesn't want people getting "distracted" correcting other bits yet. I finally received the ms 3 days ago to write my part of results section, only to find out for the first time that there will be 4 co-first authors on the paper and that I'm number 3. His argument was that the first-listed has put more work, so he has alphabetically listed the other 3 of us!

I find this the most illogical explanation and utterly disrespectful. I voiced my disappointment, particularly at the fact that he hadn't been open about this decision.

I face a difficult situation now, where i don't know:

  1. If I should just let this go for now and wait to see what happens with the review process (I fear I may have to do more work).

  2. If I should already look for other labs given what my PI has said to my face and the way he has treated the authorship issue. There is another lab I'd be very much interested in but I don't have my own publication yet and the lab head is also in the same institute. I don't know if I can trust him disclosing the issue without being seen as unprofessional.

  3. If, assuming the paper is accepted, I will still be credited as a first author for funding/hiring bodies given that we are 4 listed as "first" and I'm number 3 without any clear random listing.

thanks for your comments/suggestions in advance

  • Wow, I hate this kind of PI, and what's even more annoying is that they end up being successful because the lab publishes well - even though individual lab members get screwed. BTW this question is somewhat relevant: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/29572/… – Bitwise Jun 19 '17 at 8:24
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    I've seen two "first authors" (although that is an exception), but four "first authors" seems rather pointless. How many authors are there in total? – Roland Jun 19 '17 at 8:37
  • We are 8 authors on the paper. Although another name is also missing from the middle author list, so we may be 9 at the end. Some journals accept more than 2 co-first authors and we are submitting to one of those. My major problem is that I wouldn't have agreed to contribute if I knew we will be 4 listed as first. This was kept a secret. This secrecy is a common practice by my PI and has also created an environment of mistrust and competition between postdocs. – Martha Jun 19 '17 at 8:47
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    I wouldn't want to work in a lab where postdocs are encouraged to compete. I generally prefer environments where colleagues collaborate for their mutual benefit. So, I would do what you suggest in 2). However, I would not stay at the same institute. A change of labs at the same institute is more difficult to justify than a more fundamental change. – Roland Jun 19 '17 at 10:36
  • I agree Roland, but I've invested quite some time on this topic of research and one of the best experts in this field is in the same institute. There are also a few others in the same university (other departments). I can't move city or country though. – Martha Jun 19 '17 at 17:57
2

Your Situation

The restrictions placed by your lab are part of the working conditions under which you operate. This includes the personality and working culture of your colleagues and superiors. This is difficult and slow to change, and will impact you regardless of your own actions. Trying to avoid conflict with this culture will let you get on with your own work, until such a time that you see a better option to follow. If you can't tolerate this, then consider one of the following options:

Your Options

  1. Call another meeting with your PI. State the matter of record, that he already called you to offer you first authorship. Request that your PI honour this offer. He then has the opportunity to agree with you and give you recognition, or to contradict both your wishes and his agreement. If his actions result in a negative outcome for you, then you can record this for possible further use such as a complaint. Ensure that your actions at all times reflect your professional integrity. This option may help to establish the boundaries around which you are prepared to operate within the lab.
  2. Conduct an appeal for help with an agency outside of your lab. Is there an ethical or professional support group that you can contact? Provide the details of your case, and request assistance in investigation and documentation of the issue. This is an avenue which could lead to cultural change within your lab, but potentially at a personal and professional cost to you. It could possibly lead to you needing to leave the university.
  3. Begin discussions with other experts at your university to identify opportunities for your career within the same university. Ensure that there is no further escalation of conflict with your PI. Try to smooth over the differences within your lab. its important that this issue does not have a negative impact on your transition to a new group.

General Advice

I suggest that you consider taking professional advice from a senior researcher who is prepared to act as a mentor for you. This would allow you to discuss issues, and to increase awareness of your career opportunities and research strategies that you will need throughout your career.

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