A formal model for undergraduate authorship


The standard guidelines for authorship rarely address undergraduate-specific issues. Earlier, there was some interesting discussion about what it takes to make an undergraduate a first author, and the costs and benefits of working to make this happen. Since then, I’ve been made aware of a detailed and thoughtful article specifically addressing this topic, by Burks and Chumchal at Southwestern University and Texas Christian University.

If you’re thinking about investing the time into mentoring an undergrad through the long slog of the writing process, this fuel for thought is worth your own time to read. There is a great list of recommended strategies, which we only touched on in the comments before. Here’s a copy. The paper includes this decision tree:

a decision tree to figure out how an undergrad is an author

From: Burks, R.L. and M.M. Chumchal. 2009. To Co-Author or not to co-Author: How to write, publish, and negotiate issues of authorship with undergraduate research students. Science Signaling 2: tr3.

This article was sent to me by a reader who didn’t want himself to be identified. Thanks, anonymous correspondent!

This paper is spot on and provides a very useful way to structure a project even before you start. There are a few tacit assumptions in here, though, of which I’m not wholly convinced.

  • Publication with undergraduates makes it harder to get into a higher tier journal (potentially because of time constraints)
  • Lack of institutional support may alter the costs and benefits of involving students in research
  • The motivation for supporting student authorship will vary with tenure/promotion status

The paper also addresses whether or not students earn any authorship at all, and if so, what position. This part made me feel better, because it looks like my current practice mostly follows the recommendations. However, the authors suggest that if a project couldn’t have been completed without a student, then that students merits authorship, at least somewhere in the paper. Almost nothing in my lab gets done without students. What is the role of an undergraduate student who performs the role of a thoughtful technician? This student didn’t conceive the project, but they spent 200 person-hours working on it. They aren’t in a position to analyze or write (or, at least, I’m not in a position to mentor them on it). They collected nearly all the data but didn’t do much else. Are they coauthors? This is murky. The student has a good deal of ownership and the project would not exist without the student, but you did everything but collect data. I prefer to involve students more deeply, but sometimes this doesn’t happen.

This is still a dilemma for me. One of the pragmatic aspects that enter the equation is the professional trajectory of the student. Would the paper matter for them? This shouldn’t be a part of authorship criteria, but it’s hard to ignore.

9 thoughts on “A formal model for undergraduate authorship

  1. Similarly, what about undergraduate field assistants? They spend hours collecting data (often in remote places, or for long periods of time [i.e., months]). But at the same time, they are paid for their services as one would pay a contract lab (which wouldn’t merit authorship, in my view).

  2. I agree, if a technician is paid and is just following orders, and don’t intellectually contribute, or analyze or write, then no authorship. When I mentioned techs, I actually had in mind my field assistants, or rather, field students. Some students in the field become far more than techs – they step up to the plate and improve experimental design and take ownership. Some don’t. (I leave the latitude for both, because if I imposed ownership on everyone, life would be very difficult.) That’s where it gets murky. These field students are working 24/7 at a field station in the jungle for a few weeks to a few months. They may get a stipend, or might not, depending on the duration of the trip, but their involvement transcends payment in a way. They’re not just employees, they’re mentees. That’s why I like this paper, it helps sort these ideas out.

  3. I agree that career goals should factor into the decision process, especially in those murky technician/co-author cases. But ultimately, it seems to me — from my limited experience — that, just like pornography, you know a co-author when you see it. Am I wrong?

    Another potentially murky place is “awarding” co-authorship. We’re told all the time to clearly define roles before entering into a collaboration. But this doesn’t really happen with undergraduate students. Should it?

  4. I’m glad this discussion is here, as it is something I’ve spent some time thinking about. While I’m early in my career and have had very few technicians, I have mentored students and have tried to define my co-authorship rules up front. If I a student works with me in the design phase, even if they don’t offer much input, and collect the data, they merit co-authorship. I only allow first authorship if they will work to write a decent draft of the paper. I don’t mind helping them rewrite sections or making substantial edits to make it publishable, but if I have to entirely rewrite more than one section of the paper (given that I did almost all of the experimental design and analyzed all the data), I will take first authorship. I’ve recently had to do just that. However, I’ve been exposed to different labs that have very different authorship rules, so clearly, there are many different perspectives.

  5. It sounds like I do just what Julia does. I do think setting out expectations and specific plans at the start, specifying the roles of students, is key. Not just what you set out, but also *how* you go about the process. I have a lot to say about it, way more than a comment. That’s true about so many topics here. I guess that goes in the queue…

  6. Terry – thanks again for starting this blog and the nod to our paper. I love the discussion of the paper and glad that you found it somewhat helpful. Perhaps not speaking directly for Matt Chumchal, I think our intent about including authorship for a “technician” – focused on asking the question – could the work have been done by “ANY” student or was there something particularly value added about the contribution of a particular student. A lot of it comes in the follow-through after the work has been done. Setting up specific contracts help as well – I have a template if anyone is interested.

  7. Romi, thanks as well for you contributions. I think when working with undergraduates, we (as in, everyone involved) have different ideas about what constitutes technician or making an independently valuable contribution. In some labs, students are assigned a role that could have been completed by any student, but that is a substantial role. I’ve had projects where I’ve told the student how to do pretty much everything, and after they do it, they drop it. I don’t know if it’s unfair to exclude them from authorship, or misrepresentative to include them as authors. The border between just-taking-orders and making an intellectual contribution is murky. If you define it one way, you could have a ton of authors on every paper, or if you do it another way, then they’d all be sole authored by the PI. Your paper definitely helps sort this out really well, insofar as it is possible. I think the rest really depends on the specifics. (As is true about so much in ecology.)

  8. Thanks for the interesting discussion & the pointer to the Burks & Chumchal paper. I forwarded a link to your blog and a PDF of the paper to others at my institution.

    • Thank *you*! By the way, today over at Dynamic ecology is a robust discussion of authorship, and lots of great links in the comments there. (Not addressing undergrad issues, though.)

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