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After submitting a paper to a conference, my advisor told me that he was going to change the authorship order (putting him as first author, me as last) because he contributed more to the final manuscript, even though I conducted all the experiments. He proceeded to change the order without my consent.

Is this common in academia? I'm a new master's student and I'm not sure if I should just get used to it or change advisors.

  • Did you agree upon the initial order together or did you just submit it? Normally it's NOT okay to change the order afterwards, especially not without approval of all contributing authors. At least in journal papers, though some fields treat conference contributions in a similar way as other fields (mine) treat journal papers. – Mark Aug 21 '17 at 21:15
  • We agreed on the initial order together. He did all of the theoretical work and I did performed all experiments. How should I proceed in this situation? – rebecca_cs Aug 21 '17 at 21:56
  • What is the position of your advisor, is he PhD student, postdoc, faculty, professor? Is he independent or are you both working in some other professors group? How much of a role do conference papers play in your field? – Mark Aug 21 '17 at 22:13
  • He is a tenure-track professor, and we are working on a project that is not part of any group or lab. Conference papers are crucial in my field (Machine Learning). – rebecca_cs Aug 21 '17 at 22:37
  • Can you clarify how you can change the list of authors after submission and did the conference/journal agree to let this change through? Is this for the event itself or the proceedings? It is quite possible for the proceedings paper to have a different author list than the oral presentation but in my field it happens when the acceptance of the presentation is separate from acceptance of the proceedings, Anyways AFAIK consent of all authors is required for publication. – user67075 Aug 22 '17 at 3:49
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You agreed on something, worked together and he then changed the conditions without your consent. That is not ok in all, neither in academia nor in any business.
However, both in academia and everywhere else, it happens. The question now is: What can you do? Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself. To help you with that, here are some ideas:

  • He might actually be right that you contributed less than anticipated. Still, changing the order in the last second without giving you the chance to earn first author is not a nice move.
  • You can simply accept it and be happy to have a (maybe even the first?) publication, even if not at first author. On the other hand, this might mean that he will try the same thing next time.
  • You can confront your advisor about it. Depending on how he answers, you might decide how to proceed.
  • You can contact and notify the conference about it. This might mean that you loose the publication and get on your advisors bad side, though.
  • You can ask others at the institute what they think about it. Maybe they already know the tricks your advisor plays? This might also backfire if you badmouth him to much.

As you see, all options also have drawbacks. Personally, I would try to get a detailed explanation out of him. Don't blame him, rather try to make clear that you want to know your mistakes, want to know how you could have contributed more, to work better on your next paper. If you are lucky, he will point out your weak points, you will agree that you could have done better and everything gets resolved.

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Changing authorship order without consent is not common in academia, and this should not have happened. However, rather than asking yourself “what can you do”, as @Dirk Liebhold pointed out, I would ask “what do I want”. Are you going to keep on working with your advisor for a long time or are you leaving immediately after? Is he/she reasonable? If you do not plan on publishing with him, do you really care about pointing out his misconduct?

Keep in mind that last author is not so bad: first author carried out the experiment, but last author is the one who designed or had the idea for it, and possibly the one who found the money to fund it.

In my opinion it is not very important if you are first or last, given that this is only a conference paper , but you should make it clear who is actually going to the conference! Also, if a paper is going to follow on this work, decide the author list in advance with him.


Edit: In some fields (such as computer science), conference papers are peer-reviewed and are at least as important as journal articles, and last authorship carries no prestige.

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    "given that this is only a conference paper" Nope. In some areas of computer science, a paper at a top conference can make or break an academic career. – lighthouse keeper Aug 22 '17 at 11:54
  • Do you mean that being first or last author of a conference paper can make or break a career? And do you mean that conference papers and full peer-review articles have the same weight in computer science? I do not work in this field so I am genuinely curious. – Zep Aug 22 '17 at 11:59
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    Not sure about that. My point is that the situation is not less bad because it's "only a conference paper". In some fields, conference papers are equally or more important than journal papers. – lighthouse keeper Aug 22 '17 at 12:02
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    @user4050 The importance of author order varies by subfield. Authors of theoretical CS papers always appear in alphabetical order, so there is no prestige attached to first authorship. In other parts of CS (like machine learning, the topic of OP's paper), it's definitely better to be first author. – JeffE Aug 23 '17 at 18:55
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    @Zep Fixed your edit. CS conference papers are peer-reviewed, sometimes more stringently than journal papers, especially in machine learning. – JeffE Aug 23 '17 at 18:59

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