Authorship is weird. As an instrument to attribute of credit, it’s far too coarse whenever the number of authors is greater than one.
Authorship is a slippery concept, because you can’t really define what constitutes a substantial contribution, in a way that can apply generally.
What merits authorship? That’s a big question, with a necessarily complicated and messy answer. Lots of folks have come up with their own answers trying to make this as clear cut as possible, coming up with definitions and matrices and essays to argue for a particular set of criteria. Regardless, it appears that people don’t follow these criteria even when specified by a particular professional society. The more people study how authorship gets decided, the more they realize that it’s a nebulous process.
Defining who gets authorship is a serious and emotional issue for scientists, because this is the currency of success that makes or breaks job applications and tenure files. Depriving a scientist of an earned authorship isn’t just about ego — to junior scientists, it’s an actual harm. Likewise, when authorship is unearned, it’s because power has been levied to take advantage of other individuals.
The way universities evaluate scientists for tenure, a lot of folks feel that they need to rack up their names on as many publications as they can in their tenure-track years. And “senior authorship” (even though it’s not a convention that everybody understands the same way) is often critical, depending on your field and where you work.
This has led to a culture where some people expect that a the advisor of a graduate student should, by default, be an author of every paper published by a student in their lab. I said a thing the other day which provoked some strong reactions:
“I just saw a sole-authored manuscript written by a grad student. I can’t remember the last time I saw one of those. It’s so nice when advisors don’t add their name to papers when they didn’t earn authorship.”
In response, some guys were telling me that it wasn’t possible for a grad student to do a science independently enough of their dissertation advisor to be a sole author. Which as a simple matter of fact is wrong. Of course a student can do work independently enough so that they should be entitled to sole authorship. (If you wanted to fish through the replies, you’ll see plenty of examples.) So, why are these reply guys getting it wrong? They assumed their own limited experiences were universal. They projected their own expectations, and priorities onto others, who are working in different environments, in a community with different norms. Sure, I can imagine that in some specialities, and in some labs, all of the science might be so heavily collaborative that even a single paper would require a joint effort and large resources. But there are a lot of fields where this isn’t the case. And, of course, in any field, a student could write a meta analysis or a review without requiring enough contributions from their advisor that would amount to authorship.
I know far too many grad students who have been expected or require to include their PIs as senior authors on their papers even though these people made the slightest of contributions. In my field, if you look through journals from a few decades ago, it’s clear that authorship by the advisor was not the default at all, and that dissertation papers were often sole-authored by the person who did the work. Things are different nowadays.
Many have said that this is because science is more collaborative than it used to be. I do think that dissertations involve more collaboration than they used to, but I don’t think that’s entirely responsible for the cultural shift in the expectation of senior authorship by dissertation advisors. Senior authorship used to not be a thing in my field, and now it is. It’s still not a fair assumption that the last author on a multi-author paper is the “senior author,” though I regularly see folks jumping to this conclusion. Collaborations have many manifestations, and when you see a paper with a lot of authors, you can’t really know who did what unless you see a statement about this in the paper or you talk to the authors.
So, how can a grad student’s advisor could earn authorship? Let’s consider the different ways this might happen.
1. Just being the head of the lab? Should someone be the senior author just because the person who did the work is a member of their lab? Without doing anything else? That sounds more like a divine right of PIship, rather authorship. Which means that you had an actual hand in creating something. If you’re one of those people who think that PIs are entitled to authorship simply because it happened by someone who is under their authority, then I imagine you must love feudalism. I’ve known labs where the PI didn’t even know about a manuscript until it was ready to be submitted. Because they weren’t involved in it at all. And they expected to be an author? That’s absurd.
2. Paying for it? Should the advisor be a senior author because they paid for it? Well, that depends on what you mean by “paying for it.” Did the PI write a grant that directly paid for expenses associated with the work, and the work is conceptually tied to the work described in the grant, then yeah, that sounds like senior authorship might make sense. If the student conducted the research using the time funded by a research assistantship that was provided by their PI, then perhaps. If the student is being funded by a fellowship, or a TAship, and “paying for it” doesn’t make sense in terms of salary. If the PI simply is the one is simply who brings in the dough for a lab, and the only way the project was connected to the lab was that the student who did the work is a member of the lab, then that’s not paying for the work. That’s feudalism.
3. Providing guidance and advice? If the advisor helped steer the student’s project by giving them ideas, guidance, feedback, and support, shouldn’t they be senior author? Well, it depends. If the actual idea for the project came from the PI, then yeah, they should be an author. If the PI wrote sections of the manuscript, did some non-trivial analyses, provided huge insights that altered the paper, designed the figures, or stuff like that? Then yeah, they should be author. But what if the PI simply gave some helpful tips at the outset, and then provided remarks on the draft like any other friendly reviewer would do? That’s not enough to earn coauthorship? What if they provided some good ideas when the project was in development? What if they let the student use equipment or supplies? Well, this is the subjective grey area. There are a lot of projects where the PI is there for helpful advice, but really doesn’t have a hand in directing the project or doing any of the real work. If the student developed the idea, and the student did the work, and the student wrote the manuscript, and the cost of the project was principally managed by the student, and all the student got from their advisor was some helpful feedback? I don’t think that the student’s advisor should be a coauthor.
4. Being an actual collaborator? Did the student’s advisor actually collaborate on the project by making clearly substantial contributions in conceptualization, design, implementation, analysis, and/or writing? Well, then, yeah, coauthorship for the advisor makes sense.
Do you think it’s really not possible for a grad student to develop their own project, get it done, and then write it up, all without substantial contributions from their advisor? Then you need to expand your worldview.
I thought doing a PhD was supposed to be about developing scholars who are capable of independent work. PhD students are supposed to be capable of writing papers on their own, right? There are many circumstances where contributions of a PI are on par with what you would expect from a peer reviewer. Yet it’s very rare for peer reviewers to be added to the manuscript as authors!
When I raised this issue, I was very surprised to discover some downright unethical conduct by journal editors with respect to PI authorship. Apparently, when some editors receive a manuscript, the editor will google the first author to discover that they are graduate students and then find the identity of their PI. And then they will contact the author of the paper and ask them to add their advisor as an author — as if the editor would know who deserves authorship! And then, the journal editors will directly contact the advisors of the author of the paper, and require them to affirm with a signature that the students worked independently before sending the paper out for review! I think this is outrageous gatekeeping. Sure, I suppose it will rarely happen that a rogue student will submit a paper from a collaboration to steal credit away from those who legitimately earned authorship. But for every time that happens, I imagine there are many more times where PIs rob junior scientists of credit. Nevertheless, I don’t see journal editors writing all the postdocs and students and collaborators of every PI to makes sure that they were unfairly excluded from a manuscript! It’s wrong to assume that a graduate student would be depriving their advisor of credit, while giving PIs the benefit of the doubt, even though we know that it’s power that corrupts. With editors attempting to force authors to gift authorship to senior faculty, how is this not racketeering?
Let me raise a hypothetical scenario: A grad student has a side project, and they work on it on occasional evenings and weekends. It’s not related to their dissertation. The work for it is not done in the laboratory at the university, and no university supplies are used. The laptop they used was purchased with their own money. They never told their advisor about this project. Right before they are about to submit it, they hand a copy of the complete manuscript to their advisor just to keep them informed. Should the advisor ask or insist to be the author? I see absolutely no valid grounds for them to do so.
From this hypothetical base scenario, what kinds of contributions from the advisor you would need to add, for them to earn authorship? I think everybody draws a different line. Some of those lines are downright exploitative, and some are irrational. Please be sure to think consciously about how you draw those lines — with respect to funding, intellectual contribution, and work contributed — and communicate this with people who work with you.
Having a clear conversation about criteria for authorship before the start of any project should be standard practice. If you’re about to join a lab, it’s a good idea to talk to the PI about their authorship practices. If you’re a PI, you should have your expectations about authorship expressed in writing for all lab members. And you need to make sure that these practices conform to the code of ethics for your professional society.
If you’re counting on publications by members of your laboratory to carry you over the line for tenure, the onus is on you to make sure that you contribute enough to these papers to makes sure that you earn your role. Are you actually collaborating? Or are you just providing a roof for people who are doing their own work?