Authorship disputes are not uncommon. Even when there are no actual disputes over who did what on a project, there may be lots of authorship resentments. That’s because a lot of folks — by no mere coincidence, junior scientists more often — end up not getting as much credit as they think they deserve when a paper comes out.
Authorship conventions are based around assumptions that research was done under the umbrella of a research institution.
It’s often just fine to assume that the first author did the most work, and the last author is the senior author who is the PI of the lab that enabled the project.
That’s a fair assumption, so long as the senior author and the first author are different people. In my circumstance, when a paper comes out of my lab, I’m typically the first author and the senior author.
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:
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.
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?