Q: Can my ex-coworkers publish data I obtained for my PhD thesis without my assent?

Detailed Question -

Hi! I defended my PhD thesis in 2016. I ran out of time and did not publish the paper that would have presented most of my obtained data (DNA sequences). I do not work there anymore. Since then, they have published more than 10 papers in respectful journals and used my data, but never acknowledged me. They always use only a part of my dataset, up to 50 DNA sequences out of 1000. Altogether, they have published around 400 sequences as their own. Do I have the right to authorship? Is their practice somehow legally disputable?

1 Answer to this question

You have two queries. Let’s discuss them in (pardon the irony) sequence.

Do you have the right to authorship?

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), an international body guiding the reporting, editing, and publishing of scholarly work, has established certain criteria for authorship. You may read about them here. Based on these criteria, and assuming your work was focused only on obtaining the data, you do not qualify to be an author on these papers. However, as your data does seem to be a key part of the published work, you do qualify to be a (non-author) contributor. You may learn more about this on the same page here.

Is their (your ex-coworkers’) practice somehow legally disputable?

Your former coworkers’ actions are undoubtedly unethical. However, they are not really legally disputable as there is no institution providing recourse to legal action over authorship/contribution disputes. There are industry bodies, such as ICMJE (mentioned earlier) and Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), but their focus is more on providing recommendations and guidance rather than directly resolving disputes.

So, what can you do?

While authorship/contribution disputes are quite common, the two standard courses of action are a discussion and settlement among the authors and a notification/referral to the journal. However, in case of a dispute, the journal mainly stalls the paper (if not published) and waits for the resolution by the authors to progress on the paper. This may not sound ideal, but that’s the way things stand presently. (You may learn more about various kinds of authorship conflicts here.)

Your best path of action would be to discuss the matter with your former coworkers. If they are amenable, they may ask the journal(s) in which the papers have been published to include your name as a contributor. This may not be easy on the journal(s) side, especially in the case of a print(-only) publication. Making changes in online articles is understandably easier. Additionally, your former coworkers would take care to mention your contribution for future publications. If however they are not amenable, things could turn sore. It would then be entirely to your discretion how much to pursue the dialog with them. As you can understand, there are times when you can push and there are times when you need to yield. (We had suggested the latter path to another researcher with an authorship conflict, given that he was just starting off in his career. You may read about this here.)

Another matter to consider

In your case, there may be another matter that may prove a bit cumbersome, especially for your former coworkers if they agree to acknowledge your contribution – that of affiliation. As you are now possibly in a different institution, they may need to provide two sets of contact information for you (the earlier and the current), based on when the papers were published. As you can gauge, this will prove to be even greater effort on the journal’s side, if everyone does agree to make the change. You may learn more about affiliation through this collection of resources.

End note

As you can see, all this involves a lot of work, which is why it’s best to take note of and resolve authorship issues before submission. In case things don’t work out, you could of course keep all this in mind for future contributions, submissions, and affiliations. All the best in either case!

Learn more

To know more about various aspects of authorship, you may refer to the following resources: