Undergraduate first authorship?


When undergraduates are conducting their own research projects in your lab, should first authorship be one of the main goals of mentorship?

This isn’t common, but it happens. (I’ve met several such undergrads at conferences.) If you work in a research institution, the event would be fun thing to lightly celebrate.

At teaching schools, this would be ultimate evidence of a top-notch operation. It probably would look better for your undergrad to be first author than to be sole author yourself, or better than having several undergrads as coauthors. It could potentially seal the deal on the scholarship expectations for tenure or promotion, especially in an institution that only expects one or a few papers before tenure. Off campus it wouldn’t look like much, but on campus it would be a big frickin’ deal.

Here is the rub: It takes much more of the mentor’s time for the student to be first author than if the mentor just wrote the paper on one’s own. It requires frequent individual meetings, revision of draft after draft, lots of advising about literature review, reading and placing the work in context. Even if the mentor does the final analyses and results and makes the figures (which wouldn’t preclude first authorship in my view), the rest of it is probably a long slog, even if the student is talented and motivated. Some manuscripts are long slogs even without undergrads doing the writing. It could be a joyful process, but simultaneously time-intensive.

I’ve never known an undergraduate to expect first authorship unless the mentor is the one who generates, and reiterates, the expectation. I regularly express this expectation among my students who clearly own their projects. I create a specific set of tiered expectations, first with lots of reading, then generating a set of specific questions for the manuscript and an introduction leading towards it.  Then, well, then… umm…. I’ve never gotten any further than that.

I admittedly set the initial bar high. It takes persistence for anybody to write their first manuscript, especially as an undergrad. I don’t want to have the process drag on for months and years only for a student to drop the ball. So, if the student is up to the first task with gusto, then we proceed. This limits an unnecessary investment.

I would love it if one of my students wrote their own paper and became first author. I’d be over the moon. (I think it might actually be happening this semester for the first time, though I’ve said this before.) Some students are too busy and consistently fail to meet deadlines, and various deadline extensions. Others change their priorities. Others have moved on to grad school and their PIs think they should leave the manuscript behind. Some students might decide that it’s ready, even though it’s not, then get frustrated and give up.

Most of my students don’t even get past the first filter. They stall at the first stack of reprints and come unprepared to discuss them. Clearly, if student authorship is my main goal, I could provide even more care and feeding to students, with more and smaller tiers of expectations. I could be doing the job better.

My first priority when supervising research is to make sure that the work gets finished and published. Because my lab relies on students to generate most of the data, we can’t afford to have students spinning their wheels on projects that result in half-completed projects or data that can’t be used. I’m the only one in the operation who is equipped to ship a manuscript out the door on schedule. I’m also equipped to mentor students through the process of doing it themselves, but this would take more resources and limit productivity.

I want my students to benefit the most they possibly can from being in my lab. In my view, that benefit isn’t the the opportunity to write their own paper. It’s being an actual co-author on an actual paper that comes to press. I could carefully mentor, cajole, coddle and push, and get students to write papers once in a long while. Or I could write a bunch more myself. Without much conscious thought into the process, I’ve fallen into the latter approach.

Perhaps it’s crass to say that I favor creating a productive lab over careful individual mentorship of students leading their own projects to publication. At some liberal arts schools, that’s heresy. However, what I really want to offer students is the opportunity of being in a successful lab, and the fact that I’m writing most of the manuscripts lets this happen. If I didn’t write up student projects, then productivity would take a bit hit. Nobody has suggested that this approach is exploitative of students, and given standard criteria that people apply to authorship, I’m relatively generous with students.

Ultimately, I think my approach offers a much greater benefit to students, and to a greater number of students as well. If my success is measured by the professional trajectories of my students, then I’ve been doing just fine.

Research labs, even in teaching institutions, need outside validation. Outside the microcosm of my campus, nobody gives a hoot about student outcomes. Even NSF cares much more about pubs than the quality of student training (but that’s another post of its own).

Have you had an undergrad write their own paper? Have you been tempted to slap their name as first author even if they haven’t? How do you measure your success as a mentor? Does tenure change the approach? How does departmental climate matter?

10 thoughts on “Undergraduate first authorship?

  1. Interesting issue and something I have been struggling with. I feel as if it is wrapped up in the “impact factor” you are looking for with your paper. I am currently having a student author a regional technique paper based on part of her senior thesis project. This paper might not be widely read, but it is a great experience for my student. And, as you pointed out, it is a really big deal at a small liberal arts school. Papers I am aiming for broader audience and/or higher impact, I believe you are correct in that undergraduates are not usually ready for first author positioning on it.

  2. That’s a good point, if it’s a minor-ish paper, the stakes are smaller, and it’s probably easier for the student to write, too. If the paper would otherwise not be written because it’s minor enough, it seems practical to leave it to the student. Come to think of it, the stumbling blocks of my students have been couching the papers in a high impact fashion, and learning the depth required to be able to put it together. A regional journal or highly specialized one wouldn’t necessarily cause these problems as much.

  3. Exactly, I also see this as a way to get out some decent natural history information or in this case, the regional success of using winklers vs. pitfall traps to design a study in a savannah system in the temperate. Many ant people probably already know the answer, but it is not well documented. We can put it in a low impact journal, the information will be out there if anyone wants a citation. But, more importantly, the student learned some of what goes into writing a paper.

  4. Nice post. You articulate very well the trade-offs involved in running different sorts of undergrad-centered labs. It sounds to me like you manage the trade-off well, I like the setting of tiered expectations. It’s not like you’re just refusing to let undergrads author anything, on the grounds that it would be quicker for you to write everything up yourself.

    My first publication, on which I’m first author, is from work I did as an undergrad. But I wrote it up in first year grad school, and I was also unusually keen and an unusually good writer for an undergrad. So I don’t recall my undergrad mentor having to spend an inordinate amount of time walking me through the writing process. But I was probably an outlier.

    It’s great that you’re giving students real research projects, not just “makework” so they can get research experience. Your way is very much the way things were where I was an undergrad. I’ve heard that at some other places, undergrads are assigned research projects that aren’t really intended to be interesting enough to be published. For instance, repeating in some local system an experiment that’s been conducted many times previously in many other systems. Which seems like a missed opportunity to me.

  5. I know your talking about small, teaching-oriented schools, but publishing as first author as an undergraduate at research-oriented schools is difficult also. Last summer, my mentor (I’m a graduate student) had an undergraduate student express interest in doing summer researcher. He put her under my command, and I’m happy to say we got a paper out together as co-authors. It did take a lot of my time, as you said, with one-on-one meetings and checking her work and such, but it was very rewarding.

    I think that focusing in on one student and providing more in-depth learning is more meaningful than teaching hundreds of students science out of a textbook.

  6. Well, if I didn’t give my undergraduates publishable projects, my lab would fizzle into nothingness. I suppose I have more incentive to give students genuine projects because they all take place in Costa Rica. It’d be really wasteful to spend all that time, money and planning to not get real science done. I suppose if we just worked nextdoor, then it’d be more tempting to give a student a makework project.

  7. Interesting article. Yes there are certainly trade-offs with undergraduate research in terms of quality control etc. However, if you have students that are interested enough, it can work out well. Obviously this is especially important to consider if you are based in a teaching oriented institute. I recently came from one such institute and managed to get a few good projects underway with undergrads. None of them were interested in taking the research to the next level themselves – i.e. leading the manuscript writing process through to publication. However, we were able to produce some good research which is on the way towards publication with the students as co-authors. I think it would take an exceptional student that is highly motivated to lead the process to publication. But I certainly can see it would be highly rewarding to get them through to publication as chief author.

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