Author Credit Check

Sep 12 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school, publishing, students

A graduate student wrote and asked for advice; the e-mail is excerpted here:

I was hoping for some advice on dealing with another student in my research group, particularly in regard to author credit on a paper we submitted (where I was first author). We typically put the names from members of our group on our papers, because every member of the group helps out in some way.. This PhD student (who is senior to me) was supposed to help me with the paper, but came to meetings and did little else, avoiding meeting with me separately. Towards the deadline, this student sent out emails saying he was going to work on particular sections, and do an entire review of the paper, but he never completed either and silently let the deadline pass without any contact (without even an apology).

How would you deal with such a situation?  In particular, this bothers me because I helped this student with his [recent] submission .. by contributing ideas, writing and editing, and he did not reciprocate. I'm a new graduate student, and this is my first paper where I'm first author. I'm not really even sure of my role here. Who really has control over author lists on papers? Should I bring it up with our supervisor, and in what way? Does it really matter if he's credited as 5th (or so) author if he didn't contribute anything? I don't want to rat out a fellow student (who may be having problems), but I also don't like the idea of this student capitalizing on the rest of the group's work without contributing to it.
I don't know the dynamics of this research group, but it would be good if there were a way to have a general discussion about this topic with the advisor. Maybe, without ratting out the delinquent student, there is a way to ask questions about how authorship is decided.
If everyone-is-included-no-matter-what is just the way it is, it's not in this student's interests to single out a fellow student as a malingerer. If the slacker student has a systematic problem, the advisor likely knows and will have to deal with it in other contexts.
But other readers may disagree, perhaps reasoning that authorship is not an automatic right but one that should be earned in some way. I agree with this, but I am thinking about what is reasonable for a new graduate student to do in this situation.
The question of who gets to decide authorship order is an interesting one. Of course, different fields have different norms for authorship order, but in cases (such as the one in question here) in which inclusion and ordering relate to contribution (first = primary), some decisions have to be made.
In theory, the primary author should decide, and should be fair about this decision. Also in theory, the resulting decision shouldn't matter if the primary author is a student or a much-published professor, although in the case of a student who doesn't know the "authorship culture" of their fields -- e.g., who is a co-author, who gets a nice acknowledgment, and who is not included -- it's good to have a discussion about this with more senior people, perhaps getting more than one opinion. In some cases, authorship decisions about inclusion/exclusion and order may not be straightforward.
Different research groups, however, may have different philosophies about this, including possibly the one in question, in which all publications are group publications. In that case, it seems prudent to explore how hard-and-fast the everyone-as-coauthor custom is. Are there ever exceptions?
Does anyone have additional/different advice for this student?

26 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Why without "Ratting out" the slacking lab partner? Dude didn't get it done, dude gets no credit.

  • Bob says:

    If we make the charitable assumption that the other student meant well but was overwhelmed and couldn't participate to their fullest and that there will be future papers which they will be able to contribute to, it seems reasonable to omit the student from this particular paper. As the new student one may plead ignorance of the prevailing authorship culture if there are problems later, using the "better to ask forgiveness than permission" tactic.

    An important question to ask is what kind of environment do you want to support or work within. To a certain extent, I might not ask what the prevailing authorship culture is and just omit the slacker & let the chips fall where they may. My personal feeling is that the prestige of authorship is devalued by giving it to those who made no material contribution & it hurts the morale of productive team members seeing credit given where it isn't due. It's a defensible position, though it helps to think through ways of helping others save face in the matter (i.e. the charitable assumption made above.) You should be able to maintain team & authorship integrity in a tactful & politic manner. In theory, at least...

  • Confounding says:

    A frustrating position, made worse when its faculty and not a graduate student who's doing the slacking. But for a first-year student, it might not be worth the political hassle. I'd say take it to their advisor, but I'd probably name names when it came down to it.

  • HFM says:

    Probably not worth the fight, especially if it's truly everyone-on-everything - and the senior student knows it. Lesson learned. Next time they need help, you can be "too busy" as well, and you'll still be on the paper.

    If it's not quite everyone-on-everything, you could probably level with the PI - "Look, I know X sent out emails saying they would do this and that, but that's all they did - send emails. They didn't follow through. Now, it's your decision, but I don't think that sort of thing should be encouraged by giving it an authorship."

  • Anon says:

    I'd say if they didn't contribute - then they shouldn't be an author. I'm struggling with the same question myself about a more senior person who turns up to meetings but didn't contribute (I feel) to any ideas ect. and will not be writing any of the paper.

    Maybe it is different for an experimentalist, who is a more senior person, and has spent some of their phd setting up / getting the experiment working that the more junior person who has just started the phd didn't know about. In that case, I would say the more senior phd does deserve authorship regardless of if they wrote / reviewed the paper themselves. This is the sort of thing it would be worthwhile for the junior phd to check with her / his advisor.

  • Anonymous says:

    It's possible that the advisor really is ignorant of the delinquent student's delinquency. However, it is also possible that the letter-writer doesn't have a full grasp of everyone's contribution. Maybe the senior so-called delinquent student was the one who came up with the idea in the first place. Maybe the senior student did preliminary work that led up to the project. Maybe s/he coughed up some funding early on.

    In my experience, students rarely understand or acknowledge all the work that goes into a project before it gets written up, and especially before the data are even collected. (Though most often they grumble about their advisors supposed lack of contribution, to which I say pfft). In any case, a general discussion on authorship is a good idea.

  • First-year grad students should have a course in which at least half an hour is dedicated to the authorship culture of their field, with explicit discussion of issues such as this one. They should not be encountering the ethical dilemma for the first time when it is personal.

    New faculty should also participate in this discussion (though I just realized that authorship questions are not covered much in faculty mentoring in our department), to make sure that faculty and students are working from the same set of assumptions.

    The field I am in, where students and faculty come from different disciplines with very different authorship cultures, needs this sort of training more than most, since two co-authors can have learned the authorship culture of their fields very well and still have widely different views.

  • zb says:

    I'm with Anonymous at 10:25. This is not a battle worth fighting as a new student. You've learned something about this Ph.D. student, that you probably shouldn't rely on them for help. That may alter your behavior in return (or it might not -- it probably wouldn't have altered mine, 'cause I'd want to contribute to anything that I was going to be an author on).

    In a way, you're talking about whether you want to "rat someone out" in order to enforce the overall ethics you see in publication and authorship. It's not worth it. What I would consider doing, is to cc generally to the group of authors saying that you hadn't gotten comments back from them and you wanted to make sure that you hadn't missed the comments and that they had nothing to add. That makes it clear to your supervisor that the errant student hasn't reviewed the paper. It has to be done in innocence though, with the implication that you might have just missed it. Even this step I would be wary of taking until a second incident of not being a team player (I'd give the person a by on the first, under the assumption that they were too busy, rather than a someone who just isn't a team player ).

  • Ria says:

    What's particularly disappointing about this scenario (assuming that the first year grad student's take on the situation is correct, and the senior grad student did not, in fact, contribute to the paper) is that the senior grad student isn't removing themself from authorship. That would be the ethical thing to do. Why is everyone presupposing that this should automatically be an externally imposed behavior? If the student did not deliver, the student should be ashamed of appearing to claim undue credit.

  • anonymous says:

    Depending on how many authors there are, how about preparing the manuscript without the slacker student, and then reviewing it privately with advisor first? And specifically asking if the author list looks good and complete? If there are only
    a few authors, then the advisor should notice the omission and can ask about it.

  • anon says:

    Many universities, funding agencies, and journals have set authorship policies that the first-author grad student needs to check out. Some journal articles now have a separate section where authorship contribution is detailed for each author. If this student is correct in that sr. student contributed nothing, then that person should be left off. Let the sr. student try to justify their contribution to the manuscript and not the other way around.

    I don't think it's appropriate to just "let it go". Fuck that. I once let something like that go, and I've regretted it ever since. In my case, my first authorship was forfeited to another person who did little or no work for the manuscript, only so that it would "help his career". I let that go, thinking I'd get many more papers (which I did). However, another person in the same lab was screwed over again in the same way. She fought it by filing a formal complaint with the University. They favored her, but in return, she lost her job and the paper was never published. She managed to move on, but I feel that if I had not let them get away with it before, it would have spared her all the trouble.

  • SLAC prof says:

    I would be very careful about saying anything. While this policy may not be benefiting this graduate student on this paper, I think it likely that this student will be on the other side of this policy at some point in the future . But I am one of those people that thinks that more papers is better even if it means an extra author or two on your first author paper. As a young grad student, I would be careful about making waves at this point.

  • Marc says:

    This is not the hill you want to die on. Some authorship battles are worth fighting. Not this one. You're still first author on the paper, that's all that matters. Do keep this in mind for the future, maybe have a discussion about authorship with the PI or the group.

  • Peanut says:

    A lesson I've learned the hard way: authorship conversations should happen early and often.

  • qaz says:

    You say "primary author" (which you have previously defined as first author, meaning the student who led the project) should decide. That has not been true in any lab I have ever seen. (Nor is it how I run my lab.) The person who decides is the senior author, the corresponding author, the one with the big picture, who (hopefully, if they are running the lab correctly) knows who has done what on the paper.

    Hopefully, the senior (corresponding) author is keeping everyone appraised of appropriate authorship and no one is surprised and everyone is satisfied with the authorship. I definitely think that the student should have a discussion with the lab head, but perhaps it might be better to phrase the discussion in terms of "Is it correct that so-and-so is an author on this paper?" rather than "I want to kick so-and-so off this paper."

  • A says:

    the issue of authorship annoyed me more than anything during my time as a grad student. never encountered this specific issue, but had the following in our lab:
    1. people in the lab sleeping with each other putting each other ahead of people who did more work (or any work at all) on the project/paper (this one happened more than once)
    2. adviser used to recruit undergrads for projects by promising them authorship, but even when they contributed significantly to the project would take their names off
    3. senior grad students giving one sentence advice (that in no way enhanced the paper) demanding to be put on as authors

    i think all of these can be solved by a PI who establishes rules in the beginning and sticks to them. such was not the case, unfortunately

  • Ara says:

    If this is the difference between a two- and three-author paper, then it might be worth raising the issue. If it's the difference between a six- and seven-author paper, then leave it alone.

    This does make me wonder even more about being in the opposite situation. Junior grad student in my lab has written a terrible manuscript full of errors, and included me on the author list, presumably because I (a senior student) trained him on the experimental tools he used to collect the data. I trust our advisor's judgment but can't figure out a diplomatic way to say 'if you submit this as written, take my name off'. Feels like admitting I failed as a mentor to the new student.

  • GradStudentAbroad says:

    One nice resource on ethics in science that addresses issues of authorship among others is Sigma Xi's classic and concise "Honor in Science": as well as the longer follow-up, "The Responsible Researcher":

  • Anon says:

    I think the student should have a sit-down with the PI (assuming the PI is the senior author on the paper and, therefore, in charge of authorship). As an early grad student, one lab tech in the lab, who actively did NOT complete experiments due to general incompetence (not a knock on lab techs, just this particular person) tried to argue for authorship on my paper. Since I had to re-do the experiments myself (costing the lab money and time), this person did not actually contribute anything to the paper. I had a sit-down with my adviser, with our university and our professional society's ethics guidelines on authorship in front of us, and discussed whether or not this person should be an author. My PI is of the "it's better to have too many people on the paper than piss anyone off" camp, but he listened to me and we did not include this person on the paper.

    Just make sure to approach it in an "I just want to understand how these things work in the lab" perspective.

    Also, it is unethical for people who didn't do the work to be authors on the paper. It is this pervasive culture of adding people who shouldn't be there b/c everyone needs PAPERS PAPERS PAPERS that is diluting the actual contributions of the people who worked hard. How can you take credit for the work if there are 13 authors on the paper? That many people on a paper just makes it look like you have an honorary authorship (unless you are first author, at least in biomedical fields), even if you legitimately did work. If you didn't contribute significantly, that's what acknowledgements sections are for. If no one is willing to stand up to the culture, this will only get worse.

  • MamaRox says:

    Before going any further with this, take a moment to consider (ask) if he didn't contribute to the project in some earlier stages. I hear the junior grad student saying that the senior student didn't do any writing, but what new students often fail to realize is that much important preliminary work gets done before they arrive. Senior students and PIs write grants that develop many of the important ideas that go into a paper, even collect preliminary data, and so on.

    While I agree that every author should contribute to the writing/editing of a publication, sometimes authors contribute foundational ideas and proposal text that gets reused/rewritten in a paper. Anyways, you want to be SURE senior student really did nothing before going out on that limb.

  • DrDoyenne says:

    I agree that in this case the student should tread carefully.

    However, this type of situation would not occur if there were clear rules for determining authorship. In the government agency I work for, there are specific criteria for determining authorship on any publication. These rules are spelled out in official policy (meaning that there are consequences for those failing to follow them).

    A person is listed as an author if they:

    1. made a MAJOR intellectual contribution to the work (co-wrote proposal, designed one or more experiments, conducted the statistical analyses/participated in data interpretation, contributed a key method, etc.).


    2. made a MAJOR contribution to the writing of the manuscript.

    All others involved in the work go into the acknowledgments.

  • Charon says:

    @qaz: your description sounds like the standard for publishing in medical research. I don't know what other disciplines do this (biology, chemistry?), but this isn't the case in any physics or astronomy research group I've been involved in. The first author is the primary author and corresponding author, and person in charge of this piece of work. They are the final arbiters of everything in the paper. They are not necessarily the PI, senior author, person controlling the lab, etc., but rather the person who did most of the work on the paper.

    Still, when a student, it's generally a good idea to defer to the standards of one's advisor. My PhD advisor was of the "include everyone" philosophy. I'm still doing a lot of work with that group now, despite being a postdoc, and I still include the whole gang, because that's how they've always done it (dating from long before I was involved). Everyone but me is an established full professor, several of them giants in our field (the kind of people who have their fingers in every pie, and are co-authors on ~1000 papers). It's true that I feel a bit weird about including people who have done absolutely none of the research (and it is technically against journal policy, though they never enforce that in practice), but... the group members do all offer me helpful comments on the papers, and I don't see what real difference there is between 3 or 8 authors, as long as I'm first. And pissing people off, especially very senior people, is not the best way to advance one's career.

  • editor_gal says:

    This is why we've made the author contributions section mandatory at my journal. Even if people are still getting a free ride for some reason, it's out there for everyone to see.

  • David Gaba says:

    I'm surprised that there hasn't been more discussion of the propriety of a "everyone all the time" philosophy. As an Editor in Chief of a journal (not in physical sciences though) we are sensitive to the issues of authorship. It's one thing to "err on the side of inclusion" for people whose contributions were on the border. It's another thing to say that everyone in the group will be an author regardless of their contribution. Now it is quite possible that either the grad student first author is unaware of other contributions the delinquent student made and/or that the lab PI is unaware that the senior grad student didn't actually come through on the contributions he/she was supposed to have made. Those things happen. But a blanket policy of everyone all the time is just plain wrong.

    The new student first author is in a tough position. The ideal answer is to bring it up with the advisor/lab PI and tell the truth. One could start by talking generally about authorship issues. One could also extend that into asking or musing about other contributions Student X might have made, but ultimately, if the PI isn't getting it, one would have to tell the truth about what did/didn't actually occur and ask for guidance on how to sort it out. I think it's fair to say something like: "From what I now understand I feel a bit uncomfortable adding Student X as an author because the contributions that were supposed to occur never actually did, and apparently there were no other contributions justifying authorship by the standards of our field (or of Journal Z). Student X is a great colleague and meant well but must have been overwhelmed in this case and just didn't make the promised contribution. If on another paper I don't hold up my end of the bargain I sure won't be expecting to be added as an author!"

    Yes, it's easier to just duck the issue, but that's just perpetuating a culture of dishonesty. It's important to try to approach this sensitively, but being honest about this stuff is something that the PI should really expect. It is then the PI's job to look at the bigger picture after this authorship is put to rest. She/he will KNOW Student X's track record & capabilities and will then have to figure out how to mentor Student X about coming through on promised work.

  • eli rabett says:

    Another version of author's dilemma, and the solution is the same, tit for tat

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