HELP! I can no longer trust my PI after his handling of authorship. What are my options?

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HELP! I can no longer trust my PI after his handling of authorship. What are my options?

Postby Martha » Sun Jun 18, 2017 6:28 pm

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.

I would also like to know what is your general take on this story.

thanks for your comments/suggestions in advance!
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Re: HELP! I can no longer trust my PI after his handling of authorship. What are my option

Postby Nate W. » Mon Jun 19, 2017 1:52 pm

Dear Martha,

Sorry to hear about your problem. A good PI knows how to navigate the peer review system and its politics. The system is not objective nor fair; it has a tendency to reward those who are well connected not necessarily those who do the best science. The question is does your PI know what he is doing. A mentor and skilled PI will know where to send it for a quick and successful review; they will not risk a paper getting scooped. Sometimes bad PIs place lab members in competition for a particular project to see who will get the publication first. Also, a bad PI will also send all his papers to the high impact journal first w/o realistically assessing the quality of the paper. The problem here is that you can't submit the paper on your own and it appears you don't have much say in this decision. A wise PI will incorporate the input of the primary scientist because he knows that he needs their cooperation to get this published. Otherwise, the scientist will walk and they have nothing. Keeping a project close to your chest w/o letting in others is a way of gaining a say in your project when a PI is being a jerk about authorship. A good PI sets the right tone of cooperation and fairness on day one.

Frankly, if the PI doesn't have track record of publishing in Nature, Cell, Science, JCB, NCB, EMBO, JBC, Development, or NEJM after this you your lab is a very specialized in a given biological field and/or the impact factor differences don't make much difference. If he has a track record of publishing in these journals or a specific high impact medical journal (e.g. Hepatology), then I would listen to him and combine the two articles. If not, you are working for the wrong PI and you should leave.

Your article is probably going to change dramatically with editors comments and you will have to do additional experiments. Personally, I would go ask a PI who serves as an editor on a well recognized journal at your school and who you can trust......look at their track record of publications and where they published as well as whether they serve an editor or reviewer.

Make sure it is clearly marked co-authors and all authors made an equal contribution.

Personally, if you did the most figures with the required experiments and wrote significant portions of the paper, you should be the first author and the PI should be the last. If this was the case and I worked 4-5 years on a project, I would vehemently argue my case and let him know that I am not a happy camper if you do anything else.
Nate W.
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Re: HELP! I can no longer trust my PI after his handling of authorship. What are my option

Postby Martha » Mon Jun 19, 2017 5:33 pm

Thank you very much for your reply Nate,

My PI has a good track record of publishing in those journals. He also has a high-up managerial positions which makes him a powerful figure too risky to get in bad terms with.I also believe we have a good chance for a top tier publication.

But honestly, I enjoyed my previous publications in well-respected but not top-of-the-list journals much more. I didn't felt estranged from my own work as I do feel now, and also grew intellectually in the process, which is not the case now at all.

In this lab I constantly feel that we (maybe except one golden child) are treated like data machines and technicians. My PI has been intellectually focused mainly on one project during the past 3 years and provided all the resources and promotions to one story and the person who was in charge of it (now the first-listed). His very obvious different treatment of this one colleague has also created an atmosphere of demoralisation and bitterness among the rest. During the whole process of writing the ms my PI and this postdoc were the only ones among all the authors (including the 3 of us other co-first authors), who were closely discussing results etc. on a daily basis. The combination of 3 different works into one paper was not planned and discussed in advance. For instance, just now after my PI has made the decision to combine these data I've realised that we haven't been using the same experimental conditions, analysis, etc. It's very frustrating but all of this is nicely painted out.

Also, to answer your last suggestion, an important part of my findings is squeezed into one figure in a 4-5 figure paper. Another co-first author has provided half of one figure and a supplementary (now listed second). One has done all the analysis for the first-listed postdoc, and the first-listed has done experiments for 2 figures. So it's all vague, particularly because the first-listed has been the only one who had all his analysis done by someone else and all his surgeries by a technician. The rest of us do these ourselves. My PI has written most of the paper. We have written the results, methods and figure legends.
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Re: HELP! I can no longer trust my PI after his handling of authorship. What are my option

Postby PACN » Tue Jun 20, 2017 1:08 pm

It seems to me there are two issues here that need to be separated out. The first is the environment of the lab-- how the PI treats you in an interpersonal context and how you feel working in the lab. You use words like "condescending", "unpleasant", "demoralisation" and "bitterness". You also mention a lack of planning and potentially overlapping projects that were not discussed in advance. All of these things are serious problems, and if you are unhappy, you should consider leaving. It might be tough to do without a paper and particularly if you want to stay in the same institute, but you have to do what is best for you and being miserable is never good.

What to do about this paper is a separate issue. If you can set aside how he handled it on a personal level, it actually seems fair (perhaps even generous). You refer to the first listed author as preparing the manuscript and being in charge of the project. I would interpret this as being a major intellectual contribution, as well as having done experiments for two figures vs your one. Co-first authorship with the other postdoc listed first to me seems more than fair. In terms of the other co-first authors, did they contribute approximately the same amount of work as you? If that is the case, I don't see a better way to order the co-first authors. If they did not, then make the argument about your order in relation to them. But once you start ordering co-first authors by order of contribution, you start to wonder why you are all co-first authors in the first place.

Your PI is also correct that it is his job to do what is best for the lab. One larger, more impactful paper is better for him, his career, his ability to recruit good people, etc. It's also better for the other postdoc and possibly the other two co-first authors. And the bigger a player he is the field, the better people coming out of him lab generally look. It may not be the most fair arrangement for you, but, given the situation, it makes sense to do what is best for the most people. You may want to ask about revisiting authorship if major revisions with new experiments are required-- that is not unreasonable. Of course, best would be to avoid this situation by not giving postdocs projects that could overlap, but you can't fix that for this paper.

It is also generally considered the job of the senior author (usually with the help of the first author or person leading the project) to decide on the final author order. You would hope that these decisions would be made transparently and after considering the input of all concerned-- it certainly doesn't sound like this was the case for you. But that is more of the first issue with lab environment than with the ultimate outcome of this particular paper.
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